PDA

View Full Version : is it ever okay to write someone else's story



shaldna
09-05-2011, 04:44 PM
There was another article in the DM today about 'The Help'

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2033369/Her-family-hired-maid-12-years-stole-life-Disney-movie.html

And one particular line stood out, it was



Abilene says she first learned of the book when she arrived at work to find her employer in tears. ‘Carroll was crying and she says, “Miss Abilene, I’ve got something to tell you.”
She says, “Kathryn’s wrote a book and you are the main character. Rob told her not to use your name.” ’ Then a copy of the book arrived for Abilene from the author with a note saying that while a main character is an ‘African-American child carer named Aibileen’, she bore no resemblance to the real Abilene.




and it got me thinking about writing about other people and telling their stories.

Now, this isn't a question about whether The Help was indeed based on the maid in question, but instead about generally writing other people's story.,

I write about real people all the time, but I ask them first and I talk it through with them. I'm not sure how I would feel about writing a novel about someone else's story, I guess non-fiction is different in a way.

Anyone have any thoughts?

What about legalities?

heyjude
09-05-2011, 04:53 PM
IDK if it's okay, per se, but it makes me uncomfortable, especially if it's done without the person's permission.

fireluxlou
09-05-2011, 05:12 PM
I would never do that. It's disrespectful to the person and it's quite rude. It's their story to tell if they want to tell it. I have no business profiting from their life. I would - as you said - only do it if I had consent from the person or had been asked by that person.

It can be very distressing and upsetting for the person to know that someone has written their life and told the whole world about it without consulting them first. I'd be very angry myself.

scarletpeaches
09-05-2011, 05:14 PM
It might be legal, but it's immoral.

ChaosTitan
09-05-2011, 05:17 PM
I imagine that if I ever decided I wanted to write someone's story, I'd ask them for permission first. But I'm also not a biographer; I'm a novelist. I've borrowed minor traits or anecdotes of events from people I've known, but I've never borrowed so heavily that anyone can point to a book and say "I know who that is!"

I write fiction. My characters are made up. The things that happen to them are made up. So I make it up.

scarletpeaches
09-05-2011, 05:20 PM
I imagine that if I ever decided I wanted to write someone's story, I'd ask them for permission first. But I'm also not a biographer; I'm a novelist. I've borrowed minor traits or anecdotes of events from people I've known, but I've never borrowed so heavily that anyone can point to a book and say "I know who that is!"

I write fiction. My characters are made up. The things that happen to them are made up. So I make it up.This.

I mean, this author didn't even have the sense to change the names. Or ask first. Or apologise.

Jamesaritchie
09-05-2011, 09:22 PM
We have three choices. We can write only about ourselves, we can write only about other people, or we can write about both. Most of us choose both.

Is there really a difference between telling someone else's story and doing what I've heard writers claim they do all the time, which is overhearing a conversation, or reading an article about a person's life, or a traumatic event in that life, or watching a trial, etc., about some event in a person's life and thinking, "Wow, that would make a great story."

We may change the names/locations to protect the guilty, which is just a way of not being called out, but I suspect nearly all of use use other people's stories. Certainly a God-awful lot of famous novels out there did exactly this.

For me, writing is about life. Real life. I can say I make things up, but ninety-nine percent of what I write about happened to someone, at some time. Real life, real events, real people matter. They make good fiction, and I doubt anyone really makes it all up.

This, I think, is the telling line. ". . .saying that while a main character is an ‘African-American child carer named Aibileen’, she bore no resemblance to the real Abilene.

So if I know an African-American mechanic named Sam, I can't have an African-American mechanic name Sam in a story? Even if there is no resemblance to the real Sam?


Had the writer change the name, no one would have thought for a second the writing was about her. But apologize for using a real name, or for basing a character on a real person? That would be not only silly, but a sin.

scarletpeaches
09-05-2011, 09:27 PM
Riiiiight. Try reading the entire article then tell me the name is the only 'similar detail'. :rolleyes:

Using snippets from everyday life? Sure. Stealing someone else's life? Pfft. I like to think I have more imagination than that.

Susan Littlefield
09-05-2011, 10:06 PM
I see both sides.

First of all, if you are going to write about someone's actual life to the point where they would be recognizable, you need to ask permission first. With The Help, it sounds like the author either bragged about the main character being the real person, or the main character was described in such a way that the main character was recognizable, which got people to talking about it. Then, the author sent the real person a note explaining herself with a reference to the woman's skin color? Come on, that's rude.

On the other hand, I agree that we write about real people all the time. Where do our ideas come from if not from what we experience around us? This does not mean that you take another person's life and write it verbatim, it just means their experience has spurned an idea in us. We will never know another person's experience unless we walk in their shoes, but using an idea, or even something we've heard about, is what creating stories is all about.

scarletpeaches
09-05-2011, 11:01 PM
Susan, speaking for myself, I'm inspired by real happenings, real people. However, I don't lift them, whole and entire and non-fictional, from real life. If one did that, where's the fiction? The creation? The making shit up?

All of my books are inspired by events, peoples or conversations. Possibly all three. Inspired, mind. Not copied from.

Karen Junker
09-05-2011, 11:14 PM
I've written stories where people reading them thought they recognized themselves or other people they knew as characters in the story -- even when I had someone entirely different in mind as I wrote that character.

AlwaysJuly
09-05-2011, 11:35 PM
I think there's a big difference between borrowing traits from someone or an anecdote from their life, and using them and their life experiences wholesale. The first is just peachy as far as I'm concerned, the second is not.

Though, I have a character heavily inspired by an old boyfriend is a novel of mine - and the subplot of the novel is similar to our past relationship's progression - though I took care to make him unidentifiable to anyone reading the book. He knows it, and he's okay with it. I'm using aspects of my best friend's personality and background in the main character of a novel I have in the works, and I've already broached the subject with her. To me it seems like there's a line, where you've borrowing enough from someone you know in your work, that they could identify themselves -- and it just seems polite to me to raise the issue with them. But, I also care about those relationships.

Susan Littlefield
09-06-2011, 12:24 AM
Susan, speaking for myself, I'm inspired by real happenings, real people. However, I don't lift them, whole and entire and non-fictional, from real life. If one did that, where's the fiction? The creation? The making shit up?

All of my books are inspired by events, peoples or conversations. Possibly all three. Inspired, mind. Not copied from.

Exactly my point, Scarlett. Inspired by real events is one thing, especially when it's just an event and the rest is fictional.

Margarita Skies
09-06-2011, 12:26 AM
I am afraid to write my own biography, let alone write about another real person I know and knows me. :gone:

shaldna
09-06-2011, 01:02 PM
I think I agree with some of the thoughts here in that, while we all use snippets of things - overheard conversations, things we've seen or read about, news stories etc, I do feel that's different from taking someone's entire life and using that as a basis for a story.

I don't think I would feel comfortable with someone doing that to me - fictionalising my life. It makes me feel a little uncomfortable. Hell, I wouldn't be happy with someone writing a non-fic about me either - there are things in my past that should stay there, you know?

I rememeber back in the day Andrew Morton was writing his Madonna book and she was most displeased - she threatened to cut off any of her friends or family who spoke to him, and she was trying to get the book stopped.

fireluxlou
09-06-2011, 02:13 PM
Well from what I read the author of Help took actual things that happened in Abilene's life, her experiences and her up bringing and put in the book. It's a pity the case got thrown out due to statute of limitations but she could sue the film makers.

scarletpeaches
09-06-2011, 02:21 PM
The author even took the death of a child and put that in the book. Considering she claims to write fiction, she's not so good at making things up, is she?

Susan Lanigan
09-06-2011, 04:12 PM
Haven't read The Help, but from reading the article I thought what Ms Stockett did was awful. Especially in the historical context she was doing it in, too.

Then again I kinda lost my patience with the woman when I recently read that she would pretend to her husband she was off on a girlie weekend with her friends, then sneak off somewhere to work some more on the book.

shelleyo
09-06-2011, 04:15 PM
Yeah, that's not writing fiction, it's writing biography and making up the little parts you're not too clear on.

Shelley

scarletpeaches
09-06-2011, 04:24 PM
I saw this book in the library yesterday but didn't borrow it. I don't even want to give Stockett the PLR she'd have received, minimal though it is.

fireluxlou
09-06-2011, 05:11 PM
The author even took the death of a child and put that in the book. Considering she claims to write fiction, she's not so good at making things up, is she?

Yep she did, no decency, she basically took this poor lady's life and fictionalised it. Plus there's a whole problem with the story anyway which I would not read, similar problem to Blindside if I remember.

Toothpaste
09-06-2011, 05:51 PM
Wait . . . so all the people up in arms in this thread about what has happened, are so after reading one side of the story (a story published in the Daily Mail I might add) and haven't actually read the book?

If what this woman says is absolutely true, then I think it's bad. But I'm not so sure it's 100% true. Even some of the details she says that are copied aren't, they are similar but not exact. The fact that the author only met the woman three times too and the woman isn't exactly sure how the author knew what she did about her, speaks volumes too.

If indeed the author just ripped off someone's life without asking, without warning, then I think that's not nice. Is it legally wrong. I don't think so. But I don't know for sure.

But I do know that I'm going to wait till I hear some more information on the subject.


ETA: I should add this poses a very interesting philosophical question. Kind of like the boat one: if I need to replace one plank of wood in my boat, it's still the same boat. If I replace two. Three. Four. If I replace all the planks one by one . . . when does the boat become a new boat?

The same thing with this kind of appropriating of people's life story. If I take one event, is that okay? Two? When does it cross the line from being inspired by something one's heard, to stealing one's life story? The article mentions four things: that her son died at the same age (of different causes than in the book), that she had a similar emotional reaction to the murder in Jackson (though she was just a child as opposed to an adult like in the story), that she had taken care of around the same number of children, and that the names were the same (albeit spelled differently). Is that enough to suggest that the entire character is based on her?

It's a sincere question. What is crossing the line?

jjdebenedictis
09-07-2011, 10:12 AM
Hopefully this doesn't count as derailment, but what about a roman a clef like The Devil Wears Prada?

I do think lifting a person's life story and turning it into a book for your personal profit is icky, but in the above, the person featured is rather dreadful and the book is essentially an expose of what a dreadful person they are...and that makes it seem less black-and-white to me.

The writer becomes a whistle-blower, essentially. And is being a whistle-blower really so bad? The world needs more people willing to stand up and hold jerks accountable for their actions.

I actually know a writer who is doing something just like this--writing about his experience working for one of the most morally-bankrupt people he's ever met. Perhaps the reason why I think a roman a clef might be okay is that it's usually the author's own story too. They lived it; they have a right to talk about it, even if it shows off another person's life in the process.

JenniferShepherd
09-09-2011, 06:28 PM
I once had a fan boy write an entire screenplay about me, with me as the main character, using my exact name for the character. I only found out about this years later when he casually mentioned it in an email as an "aside." It came as a bit of a shock because it was so -- stalkerish.

That was. . . pretty weird. Especially since he hardly knew me. Thank the gods that the screenplay has remain unproduced.

There was a point at which a former producer at NBC was pitching execs at various studios for a sitcom version of my life story -- she already licensed rights to an unpublished memoir of mine. At the time, I was very excited, but even so, I was warned from top to bottom that the end product (if it was produced) would bear little to no resemblance to my actual life story or the memoir I was writing.

In retrospect, I'm pretty glad that only one place expressed real interest and, in the end, the project fizzled.

If I'm going to look like a fool or reveal embarrassing information about myself, I'd rather be the person doing it!

So yes, this is my long-winded way of adding my voice to the list of "people who don't think writing somebody else's life story is cool."

kaitie
09-09-2011, 07:27 PM
I think it really depends on the extent of which you're basing something on someone. I agree with Toothpaste. I write thriller/suspense, and I can certainly think of books that were essentially based on a real crime with other events around them fictionalized. I'm not comfortable with that if someone uses the same names and keeps all of the details the same, but if someone uses the crime as a basis and builds around it and changes things, I don't mind that.

Even having a dead child in the book may not be overly problematic. I mean, it could seriously be a case of meeting someone who told her about having a child who died and then thinking, "wow, that's so awful. That would make a really interesting story about (whatever)." The rest could be fictionalized, but the inspiration could be that instance.

I think we've often been inspired by the news or actual events or people we know or family histories.

What makes me nervous is when people talk about inserting characters for negative reasons, or writing out elements of their lives that paint people in negative light--essentially autobiographical fiction. This might be something like that, but without reading the book and hearing more from the woman in question, it would be hard to know.