Using Real People as Characters

The issue of using real people as characters in your stories or books comes up frequently in writer workshops. The reality is that we frequently use aspects of a person whom we have known or aspects of our own personalities in our stories. We often write about our own personal experiences. After all, especially in a writer’s early work, his own experiences are what he has to draw from. The key to doing this and not getting sued is simply to use some common sense.

A person might have a characteristic that you feel would work well in a story you are writing. There’s a big difference between using an aspect of that person’s personality in a situation you have created, and writing an account of each repulsive characteristic your ex-boyfriend had while providing a detailed description that matches him exactly, including his penis size. Writers do tend to steal from other people’s experiences, but it is not a wise idea to mirror those experiences or the people involved too closely.

I recently finished read Dominick Dunne’s novel The Two Mrs. Grenvilles. I had never read it before, but since I’m living in Pittsburg, Kansas, the book was of special interest to me. Dunne’s novel mentioned Pittsburg and Crowell Pharmacy (still in business) as well as a few other identifying details of the town, although he set it in southwest Kansas and Pittsburg is located in southeast Kansas. The Two Mrs. Grenvilles was published in 1985, based loosely on the Woodward murder case that happened in 1955, when Ann Woodward shot and killed her husband, Willian Woodward, Jr. Ann Woodward had been born as Angeline Lucille Crowell. She was from Pittsburg, Kansas, allegedly related to the people who owned Crowell’s Pharmacy. Ann insisted that the shooting had been an accident and a grand jury declared that no crime had been committed.

However, the event haunted the entire Woodward family. Ann Woodward committed suicide in 1975 by consuming a cyanide pill. The Woodwards’ youngest son, James, became addicted to heroin with he was serving in the United States Army and stationed in Vietnam. He committed suicide by jumping out of a window in the Mayfair House Hotel in 1978. Their oldest son, William, committed suicide in 1999 by jumping out of the window of his New York apartment.

Susan Braudy’s nonfiction book This Crazy Thing Called Love, published in 1992, was about the Woodward case. As a journalist, her book had to describe the people involved as they were, without inventing any events or details that she had not confirmed as having actually happened. She found no evidence for the claim of bigamy that was in the fictionalized version of the case in Dunne’s book The Two Mrs. Grenvilles. In Dunne’s novel the claim that Ann Woodward had previously been married and had never gotten divorced was her motivation to shoot William Woodward, Jr. before he could annul their marriage and leave her penniless.

Since Dunne’s book was fiction, he was able to change the characters, add events, and invent sensational details that were not part of the factual account of the Woodward case, thus avoiding a nasty libel suit. For example, in his book, the Grenvilles have a son and daughter and only the son commits suicide. Dunne was known for using real people as minor characters in his novels, such as in his novel Another City, Not My Own, where a journalist covers the O.J. Simpson trial and mingles with various named real-life celebrities. He was always careful to not disparage them.

There’s another peculiar side to creating characters, and that’s when people insist you wrote about them, and you might not even known them. I tend to use last names that are from either counties, dead ancestors, or foreign words that related to an aspect of the character I am creating. I select first names from a couple of baby name books I have on my desk, usually selected because I either really like or dislike the name, or the meaning relates to the character in some way. I try not to use names of people I know, but by now I know so many people there is some overlap, although none of the people are anything like my characters. Famous writers have occasions when someone will insist he was a character in one of their books, but the writer usually never knew that person, much less intended to replicate any aspect of that person. Those claims can be easily dismissed.

A weirder situation is when you have written a story or novel, and a friend thinks you wrote about him or her, but you didn’t. These alleged characters are often flattered to believe you thought so much of them that you put them in your novel. Kill that fantasy in a hurry, preferably in writing or with witnesses. Just because he is flattered today doesn’t mean you will always be friends. Someone who is a devoted lover today can be a vengeful ex-boyfriend tomorrow, or worse, has a jealous new girlfriend/new wife who insists that he sue you. Your best friend since middle school can be someone you are no longer talking to by the time you reach thirty.

If you combine characteristics from two people to make your character, you have created someone who is new and will end up being completely different than either one of the original people, especially if your plot places your character in a situation that neither one of the people have ever been in. Imagine what a person with certain characteristics would be like if he or she had a different background, a different type of family, grew up in a different setting than he or she really did. If you follow this pattern, your character will end up being so different from the person you knew, there will be little similarity between them.

Real people are complex. They aren’t just one of two identifying characteristics. Each of us has more than one side to our personality. When we are around our mothers we tend to follow the rules of behavior she taught us in childhood. If we are around strangers we are often reserved. At work people behave in a professional manner, showing little in the way of extreme emotion. The company of close friends will bring out the more relaxed side of our personality, allowing us to express those emotions we hide at work, in the company of strangers, and sometimes even from our families. It’s not that we are being phony, but different situations will bring aspects of our personality to the surface that might have been dormant. The same guy who says, “Yes, ma’am” and holds the door open for me when I enter a store is also the same guy who might be at a strip club that night, screaming at the dancer, “Take it off, wild woman!”

Writing can be a great form of revenge, but if everyone you know and the other person knows can identify the person and situation immediately, you need to do some heavy revising. Sticking too close to a real person’s personality and events that happened to him is a recipe for disaster, especially if what you write is insulting or embarrassing in any way. Tread carefully, especially with accusations or insinuations of sexual misconduct, sexual proclivities, child abuse, or racist accusations.

Nora Ephron wrote her only novel Heartburn about how her husband, Carl Bernstein, had cheated on her while she was pregnant. Carl Bernstein and his co-worker Bob Woodward were famous as the Washington Post reporters who broke the Watergate scandal and wrote All the President’s Men. Bernstein’s affair with Margaret Jay, the wife of the British ambassador, wasn’t exactly a secret in Washington circles. However, he was furious over her airing of his indiscretion and threatened to sue her for writing Heartburn.

Ephron’s Heartburn is a great book, filled with humor and biting wit. She changed several things about the real people involved when she transformed them into characters in Heartburn. The narrator writes cookbooks and has a cooking show on PBS instead of being a journalist. His husband’s mistress was the wife of an American diplomat, not a British ambassador. However, the husband in the book, Mark Feldman, is a political columnist, and his mistress is described as “fairly tall with a neck as long as an arm and a nose as long as a thumb.” Photos of Margaret Jay point to how cruelly accurate this description is, albeit exaggerated. Apparently Bernstein was not flattered or soothed by his ex-wife’s description of him in the novel as “a piece of work in the sack,” or her professing that she thought of him as “the handsomest man I’ve ever known” and that she still loved him.

Ephron was unapologetic about using her heartache and broken marriage in literature. In the article “Nora Ephron: The heroine of her life, not the victim,” which appeared in The Telegraph, Jane Shilling wrote about Ephron’s life. When asked about her ex-husband’s feelings about her novel Heartburn, Ephron states:

Everyone always asks, ‘Was he mad at you for writing the book?’ And I have to say, ‘Yes. Yes he was. He still is.’ It is one of the most fascinating things to me about the whole episode: he cheated on me, and then got to behave as if he was the one who had been wronged because I wrote about it!

Bernstein had a different take on Ephron’s screenplay of Heartburn than she did. He described the screenplay as “continues the tasteless exploitation and public circus Nora has made out of our lives and what should have been our family’s private sadness. Nevertheless, I hope we can resolve this situation quietly and without further court actions.”

The couple landed in court when Heartburn was scheduled to be made into a movie. Their lengthy separation agreement gave him the right to read the screenplay and any changes in it. Part of the separation agreement specified that a portion of the funds Ephron received for writing the screenplay for Heartburn was placed in a trust for the couple’s children. One of the central points of the agreement was that the cheating husband in the movie Heartburn was made into a more sympathetic character, with an emphasis on portraying him as a caring father. Ephron has acknowledged that her ex-husband was a great father to their two sons.

Think long and hard before mirroring a situation you have lived through. Just because a person really did do the abhorrent act that you are accusing him or her of doesn’t mean he or she is willing to see it replicated in print so accurately that everyone knows who you are talking about. If you use a real person, be sure to make considerable changes in personality, career, appearance, or life circumstances when you write about him. Do not recreate events that person was involved in. Either place your character into situations that never happened to the real person, or make radical changes in the events you are writing about so that neither the events nor the person are identifiable. If you use common sense, you can avoid lawsuits and write about characters that truly come from your own imagination.

Photo of the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. is by Daniel Mennerich.