Sunday, May 31, 2009

Poetic License to Kill

What do you suppose the protocol is for telling someone you based a character on them? Or that one was at least inspired? And what are the legal ramifications, I wonder? Obviously famous people don't count. If you're in the public eye, if you're Paris Hilton or Al Gore, then the boys from South Park can make crude paper cutouts of you and mock you to their hearts' content. But you gotta wonder...

Two characters in The Big Lebowski are based on real people. (I know, it came as a shock to me too). They are Jeff "The Dude" Dowd and "Big Lew" Abernathy. Bridges modeled The cinematic Dude's speaking patterns on those of the real Dude, and the incident with the carpet pissers and the car theft are based loosely on real-life events that happened to Peter Exline, a film professor at USC.

All writers cannibalize their lives for the sake of fiction. But you gotta wonder what the dinner party conversations are like after the fact. I think all my friends secretly believe I'm clandestinely researching their every move, filling quires of notebook paper with quips and quirks and quiet observations. And what if I am? And what if they don't like it? How's this jibe with my natural tendency to try and ameliorate every situation I come in touch with?

It's a conundrum. I think Philip Roth said you gotta burn all your bridges as a novelist, though I strongly suspect he didn't use the word "gotta." We'll see, I guess. Blasted thing probably won't even see the light of day.


  1. Legally? I don't think there's a problem, unless you start a wholesale ripoff of their lives or delve into explicit libel with real names or clearly identifying characteristics.

    Socially? Yeah, some people are going to have a problem, particularly if the character is an obvious reference ("He was 6'4" with a foot long red beard...") and gets involved with embarrassing events ("... and he was never allowed in a petting zoo again.")

    I think most of your friends/family will forgive it in comedy. But in drama, with serous and personal issues? I'd avoid it, or write it under a brand new shiny nom de plume. One your friends and family don't know.
    (And then hope you never end up promoting that book on Oprah or Colbert.)

  2. "I think all my friends secretly believe I'm clandestinely researching their every move ..."

    Well, now I do.

  3. I'll bet you thought it was mere rodents going through your trash.