Fact into Fiction: Using Real Life and Real People in Creative Works
by Linda Heacox

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More than 60 attendees heard author and Columbia College faculty member Sam Weller and Chicago attorney and literary agent Amy Cook discuss the rewards and dangers of using real people in fiction writing April 22 at a panel presented by the Illinois Woman's Press Association at Columbia College.

"The vast majority of writers root everything in experiences they've seen, heard, smelled, filtered down into fiction," said Weller, who wrote the authorized biography of legendary American author Ray Bradbury. Weller thinly veils his characters, often by changing their settings, depending on how interesting they are.

"If you see a fascinating person in real life, why would you want to change them? It goes back to the old cliché, 'real life is better than fiction,' " he said.

As the author of The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury, Weller said he had been granted such complete access to the author that he felt an obligation to be fair to him. His research for the biography was impressive and included interviews with filmmaker Steven Spielberg, Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner and the second man on the moon, Buzz Aldrin. Letters between legendary director John Huston and Bradbury interestingly had to be excluded on demand of the lawyers vetting the book, Weller said.

"They were very positive letters, not negative at all," he explained. But in the end Weller couldn't use them because Huston and Bradbury had a falling out that resulted in Huston being cast in a less than favorable light by Bradbury in some of the book's sections. "The lawyers thought it would be safer if I paraphrased them instead."

Bradbury, the author of 600 published short stories and 30 books and screenplays, was never sued, although Weller said he can pinpoint most of the real people - Bradbury's father, brother, best friend-- on whom the characters were based. Weller said he has no idea why no one ever sued, since many of these characters based on real people were presented negatively. He suggests that perhaps it was the era when the books and stories were published. "It was a less litigious time," he said.

Weller advised the authors present to not worry overmuch about the legal aspects of using reality in fictional works. "Don't let worry over these things keep you from writing the work," he advised. "Finish it first, then take the advice of the lawyers."

The major dangers for writers who use real people in their work are potential lawsuits for defamation, invasion of privacy and rights to publicity, said Cook, who writes frequently on all these topics for Writer's Digest, where she is a contributing editor.

"Whether you're writing nonfiction or fiction, you do need to be concerned about defamation," she said. "Sometimes fiction writers think they don't have to be concerned about it, but that's not true."

Defamation is making a false statement of fact about someone; it is the umbrella term for both libel and slander. "Even if you try to hide their identity, if you don't do a good job and people can pick out who that person really is, that person may bring a lawsuit if they feel they've been defamed."

Invasion of privacy could also cause an individual to sue a writer who has disclosed something embarrassing that is not of legitimate public concern, Cook said. That is the legal standard, she said-whether or not the disclosure could be seen by a court as being of public interest.

"Most of the time writers can get away with it because the subject is in the public arena," she added. "The trickiest ground is when writing about someone not in the public eye."

Celebrities and politicians are considered to have inserted themselves into the public sector and so might have a more difficult time bringing suit. They could still have a legal case, however, if the writer disclosed something that occurred years before the person became famous, Cook said. A memoir, for example, might say an uncle is a pedophile, or an alcoholic, or that a boyfriend was an abuser. But even in fiction, others may be able
to discern the person's real identity, she added. The question would be whether the public deserves to know.

Cook points out that only living people can sue for defamation and invasion of privacy. Rights to publicity are another matter.

This is the right of a person to control his name and likeness for commercial purposes. In other words, only the celebrity can profit from his name unless he grants another that right. This right is considered property and passes to heirs when the famous person dies.

About the Panelists

Sam Weller is the former Midwest correspondent for Publishers Weekly. A regular contributor to the Chicago Tribune magazine, he is a frequent literary critic for the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times. He has contributed to the National Public Radio program, "All Things Considered" and worked as a staff writer for the alternative Chicago weekly, New City, where he won a Peter Lisagor Award for arts criticism. He received his master's of fine arts in fiction from Columbia College and is the author of Secret Chicago: The Unique Guidebook to Chicago's Hidden Sites, Sounds & Tastes (ECW Press).

Amy Cook has been an attorney since 1993 and began agenting in 1999. She is editor-in-chief of The CBA Record, the magazine of the Chicago Bar Association and a board member of Lawyers for the Creative Arts. Cook holds a law degree and a master's degree in journalism from Drake University and a bachelor's degree in mass communications from the University of California at Los Angeles.

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