The ethics of writing

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Albedo

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There was a short story, a few years ago, entitled Cat Person. I haven't read it. It appeared in the New Yorker, and is apparently the story of a relationship gone sour from the POV of a young woman dating a substantially older man.

It was apparently pretty well received at the time. The author got a million dollar advance on their book and the story has been optioned for a movie. No-one much thought anything more about it until yesterday, when another writer published an article in Slate detailing her discovery that Cat Person's 'fictional' story was a thinly disguised portrayal of her real-life relationship with a former partner. She did not know the author of Cat Person: its author had previously dated (or knew someone who had dated) her ex, and for whatever reason had gleaned minute details of her life from social media, and unfathomably, not disguised those details at all in fictionalising her, so that she was identifiable as the 'subject' of the story by everyone who knew her.

It turns out, as well, that the deeply negative portrayal of her ex in the published story did not at all reflect his character, and worse than that, he's subsequently died (by what is not explicitly stated as, but might be inferred to be, suicide). So the writer of Cat Person has made millions of dollars at least by borrowing the identity and life details of a woman she never met, the villain of the story can no longer defend himself, and the 'subject' is left with entire audience of the New Yorker's fiction section, at least, believing an untrue version of her life.

I thought the ethical problems were apparent in this case, but maybe not so to the legion of blue-checked (verified) authors on Twitter who were out today vigorously defending the appropriation of a person's entire life as story fodder, saying it's something that ALL authors do. And I thought, well maybe it is. Maybe my uneasiness at this is why I'm not a published author. Maybe my sense of ethics is skewed to the point I will never develop my characterisation skills to New Yorker standard.

But maybe it isn't. Maybe this really was a pretty bad thing to do. What if there's a deficit in the ethics teaching in formal writing teaching: MFA programs and the like, the ones supposed to churn out writing professionals? Is there ANY teaching of ethics at the higher levels of writing education? Because there is in every single other profession. Why should writing be different?

Any thoughts?
 

Elenitsa

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As long as it is a fictional story, any ressemblance with living or formerly living persons just happens. I think it is OK as long as the story is well written and the names and tiniest details of persons are not the same. I can recognize myself in somebody else's novel too, but it does not mean that they knew me and took my story. There are many love or life stories which are similar in this world...

Coincidences happened in my writings too - the real facts happened AFTER I wrote that chapter, inspired from twisting a movie scene from the 1950s (but some years before publishing it). So yes, my novel appeared with the disclaimer that any similarity with living or formerly living persons is just circumstantial.
 

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I thought the ethical problems were apparent in this case, but maybe not so to the legion of blue-checked (verified) authors on Twitter who were out today vigorously defending the appropriation of a person's entire life as story fodder, saying it's something that ALL authors do.
Draw inspiration from actual people? Sure, how can one not?

Borrow their life‘s story whole-cloth, in a way that allows readers who know your “inspiration” to easily recognize who your character really is? Hmm. I guess I think it’s okay only if you’re punching up. The inspiration is a political leader, yes, okay. Is your parent, maybe okay? Is some random person you never met who has no notoriety? Seems ethically sus to me.
 

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I am somewhat on the fence with this one. Characters are always composites, a result of our experiences and perceptions of humanity. Having an incident in your life - or someone else's - serve as a jumping-off point for a story is also pretty typical. In my first novel, I killed off my ex - although the character, in the end, was not much like him at all. An experience a friend of mine had in college gave me part of the scenario for two characters meeting, albeit motivation more than anything else.

When a story so closely parallels an incident that your friends wonder if it's about you, though...that seems like an insufficient fig leaf. That said, I can see how it would happen. The story in question (which I read) is about an experience shared by a lot of young women. The details of the experience in the story are in fact fictional, far more about the author than anyone else. And exes are traditionally fair game. I can imagine what some of my formers would say about me, and it would be both true and untrue.

So I go back and forth on this. I can see a sort of sloppy innocence when composing the story; the author certainly had no expectations for its success. (We all know how finicky The New Yorker is.) But obscuring a detail or two would have avoided this entire problem, and maybe that's what we all need to think about.

(Not that it's relevant, but I'd be surprised if the author made "millions" from movie rights, although subsequent book deals might get her there.)
 

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I read Cat Person, but I had to go back into the Short Story reading thread to recall what I thought of it. I remarked I was impressed with its honesty and the look into the mind of the characters, but I wasn't impressed with the ending. However, the ethics are a separate matter from whether or not I thought the story was well executed.

Yes, writers draw from real life in creating fiction. How can we not? Sometimes people think we do this more than we actually do. One reason I stopped sharing my work with people I know if that if any character or situation resembles something in real life, no matter how superficially, I got into too many "Is that what you really think of him/her/them/ME???" situations when the character was not based on anyone.

I think the ethical question for me is when is true to life TOO true to life and I am better off not putting it in my fiction? Certain things have happened to me, or loved ones, that are too personal that I would not write about. I just won't go there. But, that's for each of us as writers to decide. However, I also have to consider a reasonable level of responsibility for what I write. It's not all about me, the precious writer. For example, cultural appropriate is a problem in fiction, as is misrepresenting a sex, a culture, or a population for the sake of a story that reinforces hurtful stereotypes even if not appropriating. At what point do I risk co-opting someone else's experience, personality, misdeeds, etc. in a way that crosses the line?

Never, NEVER, go against your own ethical boundaries for the sake of selling a story. Life's too short to waste time on the easy but empty wins, and life is too long to live under a cloud of regrets.

Counter question to the OP's question, for the sake of exploring the topic: If Cat Person had been published as creative non-fiction or a confessional instead of as short fiction, would that have changed anything ethics-wise? Memoir writers literally make their salary from relating real-life experiences. If the writer avoids slander and libel, how would this be different than presenting it as fiction?
 

Albedo

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I read Cat Person, but I had to go back into the Short Story reading thread to recall what I thought of it. I remarked I was impressed with its honesty and the look into the mind of the characters, but I wasn't impressed with the ending. However, the ethics are a separate matter from whether or not I thought the story was well executed.

Yes, writers draw from real life in creating fiction. How can we not? Sometimes people think we do this more than we actually do. One reason I stopped sharing my work with people I know if that if any character or situation resembles something in real life, no matter how superficially, I got into too many "Is that what you really think of him/her/them/ME???" situations when the character was not based on anyone.

I think the ethical question for me is when is true to life TOO true to life and I am better off not putting it in my fiction? Certain things have happened to me, or loved ones, that are too personal that I would not write about. I just won't go there. But, that's for each of us as writers to decide. However, I also have to consider a reasonable level of responsibility for what I write. It's not all about me, the precious writer. For example, cultural appropriate is a problem in fiction, as is misrepresenting a sex, a culture, or a population for the sake of a story that reinforces hurtful stereotypes even if not appropriating. At what point do I risk co-opting someone else's experience, personality, misdeeds, etc. in a way that crosses the line?

Never, NEVER, go against your own ethical boundaries for the sake of selling a story. Life's too short to waste time on the easy but empty wins, and life is too long to live under a cloud of regrets.

Counter question to the OP's question, for the sake of exploring the topic: If Cat Person had been published as creative non-fiction or a confessional instead of as short fiction, would that have changed anything ethics-wise? Memoir writers literally make their salary from relating real-life experiences. If the writer avoids slander and libel, how would this be different than presenting it as fiction?
I think the difference between the Cat Person author's actions, and how I thought authors should draw from real life, is wide. From the Slate article, they replicated details of the ex's life down to his tattoos. That's not borrowing, that's jacking the car and then not even filing the serial numbers off. It might have come from laziness originally, and I'm sure she never expected her story to be as successful as it was when she wrote it, but there must have been some point between querying it and having it published by the New Yorker where she had to consider that. She admitted in her communication with the Slate writer that it was a huge mistake to not adequately deidentify the people involved.

I'm coming partly from a medical ethics POV here, where de-identification is cardinal to publishing about people. Absolutely vital. If you don't do it you've fucked up enormously. So some of my discomfort probably stems from that. I'm still surprised, really eyebrow-raisingly surprised, at the attitudes from some Twitter authors, though, who claim they can't even see a problem, that the problem's with the normies who just don't understand writing.

And f it'd been published as non-fiction, and the ex was still alive, in its current state it'd be libel at least where I live, because by Slate's accounts it was a misrepresentation of his character bordering on malicious. (Note, it's by all means possible the the Slate author's experience of a relationship with the ex was very different than the Cat Person author's. The Slate article is fairly insistent he was a thoroughly decent person.) And yes, I think a memoirist can still act unethically by telling untruths about the dead, even if libelling them is a legal impossibility.
 

lizmonster

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Counter question to the OP's question, for the sake of exploring the topic: If Cat Person had been published as creative non-fiction or a confessional instead of as short fiction, would that have changed anything ethics-wise? Memoir writers literally make their salary from relating real-life experiences. If the writer avoids slander and libel, how would this be different than presenting it as fiction?

If I were to write a memoir about my ex, I'd have no problem being absolutely truthful about my experiences.

I would also change his name, not include identifying details about where he grew up/where he worked/where we lived when we were together. And I would not say a word about his family, unless I'd spoken to them specifically and was comfortable they understood how I was going to be using the material.

Anyone who knew me would know who I was talking about. It's possible that people who knew him but not me would guess, especially if he'd name-dropped me to them.

That's not really a parallel question, though. The events of the story in question were fictionalized; the author is clear about that. The problem isn't so much what was said about the characters, it was the inclusion of details that associated the story with a real person. Best case, that was careless. I don't believe I'd have done it. But I do rob from real life all the time.
 

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I'm still surprised, really eyebrow-raisingly surprised, at the attitudes from some Twitter authors, though, who claim they can't even see a problem, that the problem's with the normies who just don't understand writing.
One wonders how many of their friends are 100% recognizably in their “fiction”. 🤔
 

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Draw inspiration from actual people? Sure, how can one not?

Borrow their life‘s story whole-cloth, in a way that allows readers who know your “inspiration” to easily recognize who your character really is? Hmm. I guess I think it’s okay only if you’re punching up. The inspiration is a political leader, yes, okay. Is your parent, maybe okay? Is some random person you never met who has no notoriety? Seems ethically sus to me.
I have a hard time with the bolded given the woman doesn't know the author and given I don't think a reader is going to make that same connection. How is this woman so sure it was her life?

On the other hand I can see the issue when someone writes about a public person with out permission; say if someone wrote the unauthorized biography of Britney Spears or turned the story into a fiction novel despite some obviously recognizable things in the story.

The question, is it okay to write a novel that exposes something recognizable, I just can't buy it that a reader would make the connection unless the person written about was famous or at a minimum well known.
 
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MaeZe

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I think the difference between the Cat Person author's actions, and how I thought authors should draw from real life, is wide. From the Slate article, they replicated details of the ex's life down to his tattoos. That's not borrowing, that's jacking the car and then not even filing the serial numbers off. It might have come from laziness originally, and I'm sure she never expected her story to be as successful as it was when she wrote it, but there must have been some point between querying it and having it published by the New Yorker where she had to consider that. She admitted in her communication with the Slate writer that it was a huge mistake to not adequately deidentify the people involved.
Guess I'll have to read the Slate article to make relevant comments here. Tattoos can be unique identifiers or not depending on what they are of.
 

ElaineA

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As long as it is a fictional story, any ressemblance with living or formerly living persons just happens. I think it is OK as long as the story is well written and the names and tiniest details of persons are not the same.
<snip>
Coincidences happened in my writings too

But that's not what happened in this case. It wasn't "inspiration." It was wholesale repetition of the details of someone else's life presented as fiction, and turning the other "inspirational" character's actual personality the polar opposite of reality, even though he was left recognizable. Basically, this would be like my college boyfriend's subsequent girlfriend writing a story about my and his relationship, making him a big jerkface, leaving me recognizable by my job and specific events of my life, and calling it fiction. I mean... technically it may be, but it's miles past resemblance or happenstance or coincidence.

Counter question to the OP's question, for the sake of exploring the topic: If Cat Person had been published as creative non-fiction or a confessional instead of as short fiction, would that have changed anything ethics-wise? Memoir writers literally make their salary from relating real-life experiences. If the writer avoids slander and libel, how would this be different than presenting it as fiction?
Full disclosure, that's how.

And, Liz, Cat Person author DID get a 7-figure advance for her book. It's not a maybe, someday. It's in the bank.

As AWer UsuallyCountingBats said in a different space where I encounter her, "How hard would it have been to change the location, the decor etc. It strikes me a bit lazy to not do stuff like that."

Or as Emily Hauser, who writes for DAME magazine opined: "Yes art is art & artists are magpies & that's as it is & has always been & also if someone can recognize the precise details of their actual lived-life in your art (which is art & not biography, no argument from me) you have been both a little bit of a jerk & also lazy."

This Cat Person essay comes on the heels of a different brilliant, heartbreaking Substack essay by Lincoln Michel about Isabel Fall, whose SF short story, "I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter," appeared in Clarkesworld. What happened to Fall after publication amounted to a tidal wave of harm to them. I highly recommend reading the Michel essay, as well as the Vox article that details the background and fallout.

The reason I bring the Isabel Fall story into this conversation is that I think there's a lot to consider about what the age of social media has done to boundaries in fiction. In the Cat Person case, SM made more details accessible, and I suspect, at least partly, led the author to think, "well, the details are on Facebook/Insta/Twitter, so they're in the public domain now." I don't think that's an uncommon sentiment, and I imagine the younger the writer, the more immersed they've been in a world dominated by everyone being "public." It's certainly fuzzed up ethical boundaries.

In Isabel Fall's case, their absence of social media presence caused curiosity that morphed to entitlement, and from there to suspicion when, in the vacuum of information, people began speculating and assigning bad intent. That speculation took on the veneer of fact, which led to accusation, vitriol, and the annihilation of a trans person's tenuous desire to venture a baby-step into their identity.

Social media has made people feel entitled to the details other people's lives in ways that I never could have imagined. Because so many people share those details, the boundaries of public/private are thinning precariously. To me, that makes the discussion of ethics in fictional storytelling even more important. Most especially when it's not one's story to tell.

There should be some shared understanding of where the line sits, between "inspired by" or happenstance (as a made-up example, say, me seeing two strangers turn over in their 2-person kayak and come up laughing, then using a similar event in my own story) and what happened in Cat People.
 

CathleenT

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If you're looking for a broad ethical standard, a good one, I think, is: First, do no harm. Side note here: I looked the quote up, wanting to make certain it was Hippocrates, and although it's been attributed to the famous physician of antiquity, those words first appeared in published form by the 17th century physician, Thomas Sydenham. (https://www.thoughtco.com/first-do-no-harm-hippocratic-oath-118780). Hey, we're writers. I thought publishing credits might be relevant. : )

But regardless of the ultimate attribution, life would be better if the sentiment were more universally applied, IMO. I don't want to get into anything overtly political here, but it seems that expecting Twitter, where mobs attack en masse and they're notoriously uncaring of whose lives they might ruin, is the wrong place to look for any kind of moral guidance in this area.

Perhaps it comes down to why you write. If the ultimate goal is to see your name in print, to hear others talk about you, to simply not be a nobody in your own eyes--it's easy to see how that attitude could lead to something like this. And it's also easy to see how wanting to be heard, to not be someone who didn't matter (again, in your own eyes) could lead to a genuine, sustained burn that could lead to success as an artist.

I don't think that attitude, per se, is a Bad Thing. And even if it is somehow, I don't see it going away. I joined a church group, pre-Covid, and I can't even remember what the real topic was because the greatest takeaway for me was the behavior in the little discussion circles afterward. People were incredibly eager to talk about their personal experiences in a place where they thought they'd receive respectful listening. In the end I decided the best thing I could do was to pass on my turn--time was limited, and I didn't need it. I'm a writer. I put all this stuff in stories or blog posts. I didn't need the time, not the way a lot of these other people did. They desperately needed to be heard.

It's a way more common need than most people realize, I believe. Most people talk--they don't listen. They just wait patiently (or not) for their turn to speak.

I think that just being heard isn't enough, or at least it shouldn't be. For me it's all wrapped up in the Golden Rule, and the decline of the universality of that principle is perhaps worth examining, although that's a side issue.

But if you're going to write, it's worth asking yourself why. And perhaps wanting to be heard isn't enough.

I write (mostly) to light my little candle. And okay, I like clever plot twists and catchy dialogue, etc., but in the end, every story really needs to pass the "so what" test. And the reason needs to be positive.

I understand needing to portray negative things. Every classically organized story needs some kind of villain, whether it's Lord Voldemort or the enemy within. Even Man vs. Nature stories dig deep into character, and not everything discovered is uplifting--the Donner party comes to mind. Should that tale not have been told? Or did Californians deserve to be warned about the monster who was now residing in their state? The presence of Megan's Law makes a compelling argument for that line of thinking. Changing the names there would be self-defeating.

But that principle doesn't seem to apply to fiction. As a for-instance, your whole burn on your story may be to show people how insidious narcissists are and how they can ruin your life if you don't recognize early warning signs. And that's a laudable reason. But using that as a fig leaf to then ruin a real person's life is morally dodgy. Any good you might have accomplished is now tainted.

Absolutely, go ahead and use real-life monsters (or at least monstrous acts) in your story. But I like the principle of Do No Harm, or at least do no obvious direct harm that anyone with half a brain could see coming. How hard is it to change hair and eye color, for pity's sake? I've done it just for line-edit reasons. Describing someone down to their tattoos? Please. That kind of research takes work. Don't dance around it. This was destructive, and it's ugly.

We shouldn't indulge ourselves in that kind of ugliness, IMO. Life can be hard enough without that sort if thing.
 
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Introversion

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I have a hard time with the bolded given the woman doesn't know the author and given I don't think a reader is going to make that same connection. How is this woman so sure it was her life?
Sure, with billions of people and only so many ways to live your life, there’s always going to be people who wonder whether a character is based on them. Young girl meets older man, consensual sex happens, yadda yadda, circle of life.

But in this case, what’s particularly repugnant to me is that Cat Person’s author lifted enough actual, factual details about two real people, and grafted an abusive relation onto them. That strikes me as incredibly lazy, at minimum. Very morally questionable, too.

I mean, if you talk to someone who knows my history well, and later write a story about an Iowa farm-boy named Steve who gets a software degree, loves mushrooms, hates okra, likes to cook, gets married too young, moves to New England, has two children, gets divorced, marries a co-worker, and winds up slogging unhappily for a time at IBM, and get it published, that’s one thing. It is based on me, and some people close to me will suspect. Fine.

But if you make your Steve be a pedophile and wife-beater, we’ve got a problem, because now you’re mixing my real-life details with made-up shit. And because the former was true, who’s to say besides me whether it might all be real? That maybe isn’t slander or libel, but it’s wading into the same waters in my book.
 

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Okay I read it. The author knew the man in the story so right there it relies more on his accounts rather than on the 'copied' woman's life. The author used real names of towns and the college and admits that was a mistake. I agree with that.

But a lot of the 'copied' life' I still have issues with. Is it ethical to write a story based on one person's account that you subsequently supplement with research on the woman the man described? Do authors need the permission of everyone an interviewed person talks about and which the author includes in a story?

People write about other people all the time. It's especially common with famous people whose stories are easily uncovered. And one sees "unauthorized biography" in bookstores regularly.

Taking the 'copied' woman's word for the Slate story the biggest issue I see was the author not doing enough to disguise the 'copied' woman's identity. Beyond that I'm not so sure ethics were breached here.
 
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ElaineA

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People write about other people all the time. It's especially common with famous people whose stories are easily uncovered. And one sees "unauthorized biography" in bookstores regularly.

Taking the 'copied' woman's word for the Slate story the biggest issue I see was the author not doing enough to disguise the 'copied' woman's identity. Beyond that I'm not so sure ethics were breached here.
Sure, but this isn't a "biography," authorized or unauthorized, and the source person wasn't a public figure, unless you count posting of Twitter as making yourself a public figure, which is part of the moral and/or ethical dilemma here. (And what makes it a good vehicle for discussion.)

Still, there are plenty of examples of fictionalized real-life(ish) stories. The True History of the Kelly Gang springs to mind, as does Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But again, those were notorious people. Now, you could make an argument that it's no different. They were notorious because newspaper reporters wrote about them, often sensationally, blurring truth and fiction. While they were alive, they may have objected to having their lives fictionalized, or they might have loved it. I think the issue isn't, "CAN a writer do it?" as much as should they. At least, if you're going to have your debut in one of the most prominent places in the US to publish short fiction, you might want to think twice about filing off those specific, personal details. Which just gets back to, at the very least, the general impressions of "lazy" and "kind of a jerk."
 
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lizmonster

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Sure, but this isn't a "biography," authorized or unauthorized, and the source person wasn't a public figure, unless you count posting of Twitter as making yourself a public figure, which is part of the moral and/or ethical dilemma here. (And what makes it a good vehicle for discussion.)

To be fair, if not for the Slate article, I never in a million years would have thought the story's details pointed to a real person.

At least, if you're going to have your debut in one of the most prominent places in the US to publish short fiction, you might want to think twice about filing off those specific, personal details. Which just gets back to, at the very least, the general impressions of "lazy" and "kind of a jerk."

Yeah, somewhere in there. :) The specifics were the least relevant part of the story, and all this could have been avoided with a few changes.
 

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Counter question to the OP's question, for the sake of exploring the topic: If Cat Person had been published as creative non-fiction or a confessional instead of as short fiction, would that have changed anything ethics-wise? Memoir writers literally make their salary from relating real-life experiences. If the writer avoids slander and libel, how would this be different than presenting it as fiction?
This is a good question. I've always assumed that memoirs tend to be fairly removed in time from the actual events in the narrative, but of course this wouldn't always have to be true. The bar for defamation is pretty high in the US, and it can be especially hard for ordinary people (whose life details aren't out there in public for all to see and confirm) to prove their case if they do sue. Plus (of course) some people will insist they inspired a given character in a fictional narrative when they really didn't. So are fictional portrayals held to a higher standard than memoirs? I am not an expert in the law, but my understanding is that, in the US at least, libel/slander/defamation cases must prove intentional falsehood.

Legalities aside, I agree that the ethics of borrowing from real life people and experiences, something most authors almost certainly do, is something that should be discussed in writing programs, even if clear answers and lines won't be forthcoming. I've no idea if they are or not.

But what percentage of published writers actually have a MFA or other degree in writing? I can't cite a percentage, but I seem to remember reading somewhere that most writers of fiction (not to mention memoirs) are not graduates of academic writing programs. In fact, I recall advice aimed at writers here on AW and elsewhere mostly tending to discourage studying writing in college with the expectation that it would make it easier to get published (of course, if one wants to study writing because they enjoy studying it, that's another story).

Perhaps it's a topic that should be aired and paneled at writer's conventions and conferences (attended by more writers and aspiring authors), but I am hazy on where that line can be. I imagine it may be situational.

Also, would it still have ruined the man in question's life and driven him to suicide if the actual person he'd been involved with had decided to write the story herself? I'm guessing that the details would be even more obvious and clear if the actual victim wrote the story.

Which leads me to another question: how is it even possible for someone to write a story, based on hearsay, that is so accurate that it is clearly identifiable as a certain person by everyone who ever knew the couple in question? Couples where the man is a lot older than the woman are a dime a dozen, as are dysfunctional relationships in general. I haven't read the book myself, but are the details so lurid and unusual that it stands out from all the other stories that have been told about couples with unequal power dynamics? How much of this couple's story was the author privy to? That's something that seems odd to me about this case.
 
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lizmonster

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Also, would it still have ruined the man in question's life and driven him to suicide if the actual person he'd been involved with had decided to write the story herself? I'm guessing that the details would be even more obvious and clear if the actual victim wrote the story.

Whoa wait what? Where is it stated that's what happened?

Which leads me to another question: how is it even possible for someone to write a story, based on hearsay, that is so accurate that it is clearly identifiable as a certain person by everyone who ever knew the couple in question? Couples where the man is a lot older than the woman are a dime a dozen, as are dysfunctional relationships in general. I haven't read the book myself, but are the details so lurid and unusual that it stands out from all the other stories that have been told about couples with unequal power dynamics? How much of this couple's story was the author privy to? That's something that seems odd to me about this case.

It's not a book. It's a short story. And I didn't get "certainly identifiable" from the Slate article; the Slate author suspected but wasn't sure until she contacted the author, who admitted the man (a mutual acquaintance) had told her about his earlier relationship.
 

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I have a rule about using people from real life in my fiction. I do use actual things that real people have done, but my rule about this is that if you're going to use something real, make sure it's something embarrassing, something that the person would never want anyone to know they did. That way, if they read the book and they recognize themselves, they won't complain, because they won't want anyone to know that they were the idiot in the book who did this really stupid or awful thing. And if they confront you about it, well..... they probably won't. Because they won't want to remind you about that stupid awful thing they did. They'll be happy to pretend it wasn't even them.
 

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