Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Reality and Fiction in Writing -- Part 1: Changing Names

Back from a bit of a hiatus --

At the Midwest Writers Workshop, I was part of the Buttonhole the Experts session.  The question that came up more than any other -- both in the short "buttonhole" sessions and in hallway discussions -- was about the interplay of real life and writing.

The question came up primarily in three setting, all of which have arisen in my law practice.  First, and seemingly more common, is the "fictionalizing" of real events, usually by slight changing of names or places.  Second, is the use of real life people in works of fiction.  Third is the issue of writing about people without their consent.

The next installments of Law for Writers will address these issues.

So how about fictionalizing real events?

This seems to most commonly arise in the following scenario:  Joan Smith is writing what effectively is a memoir.  But because of family concerns, or because of fear that revelations will subject her to a lawsuit,  she changes the names of the characters, and maybe even the location.

So by changing the names, has Joan protected herself from libel?

The quick answer is "NO."

Just changing a name of a real life person to a made-up name does not protect the author from exposure to liability for defamation or even invasion of privacy.  The general rule is that if a person can be identified, simply changing a name or using the label "fiction" will not provide the author with an impenetrable wall against liability.

Now does that mean that one cannot use real life events as inspiration for fiction, or even as the basis for a work of fiction?  Of course not.  Much, if not most, fiction, is inspired by or drawn from real life.  Often that is what gives fiction its believability.  One of the classic American novels, Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men, clearly was inspired by Louisiana Governor Huey Long.  But it remained a work of pure fiction.  It's characters were fictional, not just some account of real life persons and real life events with a simple name change.

There maybe reasons for "fictionalizing" a memoir or a true account by changing names.  Maybe it gives the author a way of dealing with disgruntled family members.  If so, that is the choice of the author.

But do not count on protecting yourself from liability by the simple expedient of a name change.  It's a thin veil and the law has no difficulty seeing through it.

photo credit: <a href="">J. Paxon Reyes</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">cc</a>

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Steve. Another question: What is the "public person" rule? Could I legally have a fictional character in a fictional setting get drunk and wild with Martha Stewart, or witness some moral turpitude between Obama and Putin? It seems to me that there's an exception in the libel laws that allows that.