As your Script Professor, I created a Dramatic Writing group on Facebook, and one of our members asked me about the problem of writing about real people that you know. How do you get around their ego that they think you cannot help but write about them? What do you do about their determination to get paid for inspiring you? Here are the thoughts I shared.
The matter of dealing with “real people” in the work you create revolves around several issues. I’m not an attorney, and I’m not providing legal advice, but here are some of the central matters I believe are hovering around the inquiry:
1. If the person is dead, you may write about them as much as you like. You cannot libel or slander a dead person.
2. If the person is a public figure, you are free to write about them as you wish.
3. If the person is a private citizen, and if you use specific and identifiable information that can be linked to them — and they do not want you writing about them — then you could be in some trouble for violating their privacy and a litany of other invented ills and real concerns.
4. I find the key to writing about what you know — and the people that spin in that wonderment — is to change Big Facts about those living, private, people (age, gender, location, temperament, etc.) and then re-imagine them in new ways that keep the spirit of the inspiration alive while blurring the line between documentary and fictional expression.
If people are certain you will use them in your work — unwittingly or not — you are hanging around the wrong people because you are dealing with self-important people that want, and expect, you to place them in the center of your writing. Beware of them. They are hubristic, egomaniacal, and dangerous because they hold dirty secrets they fear will be revealed and they prefer to kill you in person instead of you killing them in print — even if you have no idea what secrets they are withholding.
When I was younger, I did a lot of creative writing and my friends would often say the things said to you to me and I would nonchalantly reply, “You’re giving yourself too much credit.” That entirely shut them up.
It’s always better to make up a fictional person based on the lives and attributes of many people you know. If you are concerned they will come forward and say “Hey, that’s me!” — all you have to do is invent a terrible past for them like a killing or a murder or a molestation and that immediately defends you from any accusation because they would have to own your character in whole and not in part. Sometimes just changing the sex is enough of a misnomer to throw anyone off track.
People can assume whatever they like but that does not make it factual. The proof of the “theft” of their life story is on them, not you. I agree those you least expect are always the first to betray you: It’s a part of the necessary “read in tooth and claw” evolution that eventually consumes each of us.
Getting paid for the “inspiration” of your work is incredibly tacky in the whole and silly in its bits, and you need to run from those hovering types. They do not understand the writing process. They are unable to relate to the world of the writer where everything is true and nothing is sacred.