In some – but not all – books, a disclaimer appears in the first few pages proclaiming:
“All the characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author, and have no relation whatsoever to anyone bearing the same name or names. They are not even distantly inspired by any individual known or unknown to the author, and all incidents are pure invention.”
But what if it isn’t true?
It’s understandable that for legal purposes a publisher might require something similar to the above to appear in a book they are publishing. However, most writers will admit to using real people and events as inspiration for their writing. I’m fully prepared to do so right here and right now.
When I use this kind of inspiration, the majority of the time it is to christen characters. I use the names of people I know, not always both names, sometimes just one, sometimes mixed with the first or last name of someone else.
It wasn’t always that way. I have four baby name books and I used to leaf through them for hours coming up with just the right names for the people in my writing, both main, supporting and never-seen characters.
I’m not sure when exactly it happened but I got to a point where I felt like I was naming so many characters that I no longer had the time to be so thorough with it. I didn’t care anymore what the meanings of the names were and whether they were appropriate. If someone appeared for five minutes, then they weren’t worth the investment of time. So I simply started appropriating the names of people in my life at the time.
However, with one exception, I’ve never specifically written a person I know into my fiction. I can’t remember why I chose to do it (it was over ten years ago now) but it was a minor character and I needed that minor character to deliver a piece of information to two of the main characters in order to progress the story. These three characters all work in the same office and the person I wrote into the story is someone I used to work in an office with. Maybe it was as simple as that.
When it came time to publish, though, I had second and third and even fourth thoughts about the character. I hadn’t really tried to disguise him at all. He even had his real name. But my portrayal wasn’t especially flattering. It wasn’t especially unflattering either. It was just an accurate reflection of him and some of his characteristics. But I was worried he would read it, recognise himself and be hurt or upset, despite that being far from my intention.
In the end, I left the character unchanged but gave him an entirely different name. I don’t know if he has read the book but mutual friends have and none of them have ever mentioned the similarities to me, which makes me think I did enough.
But isn’t it strange that even now I remember how much I struggled with the decision over a character who appears on less than two pages of my debut novel and who I never plan to have appear again. Additionally, I haven’t seen the inspiration for the character for more than eight years.
It’s a joke I tell at social events that people should be careful around me lest they end up as characters in my novels. They have a good laugh and continue to enjoy themselves but some people I can see thinking about it. “What would I look like as a character in her books? Would I be the hero? The villain? An insignificant nobody?”
Just last night at a dinner party, in fact, I pointed out to a male guest that another male guest had very dainty, feminine hands. “Why would you even notice something like that?” he asked.
“I’m an observer. That’s what I do. And it all eventually ends up in my books. Show me your hands,” I ordered and when he did, I continued, “Man hands. You’re fine.”
He laughed and the conversation changed direction. Nobody I know has anything to worry about because I don’t use my writing as a form of attack or revenge. But then I also remember Helen Garner, I think it was, saying she had described a character in her book as having big pores and a friend took exception, thinking Helen was using her writing to have a go at her. I can’t recall if she clarified whether she was or wasn’t.
It’s a reminder of the awesome power of the written word and the responsibility we have as writers to exercise it with caution. It’s also a reminder that when using real people and events as inspiration for fiction, we should make sure the disguises are firmly in place. Writing is a selfish enough enterprise. And lonely. We can’t afford to lose friends and alienate people. Not when they’re such good inspiration.