Wednesday, December 2, 2009

DAMage Report - Character Assassination by Characters - The RedHat Lawsuit

"A Georgia jury has awarded $100,000 to a woman who says she was defamed because a character in the book The Red Hat Club had a mix of her own traits and other false characteristics that depicted her as a promiscuous alcoholic."

At first glance, this seems like a ridiculous lawsuit and potentially disastrous precedence in the publishing world. After all, don't disclaimers at the beginning of books count for anything anymore? And don't a large majority of authors base some parts of their characters on people they know or have encountered? It's called creative inspiration. And typically, while the seed of a character may have a real life prototype, the process of writing as well as the process of characters taking over their own stories, usually carries the character development far away from that initial inspiration.

Hell, I've had a number of writers, poets and songwriters use me as their muse in one way or another for their creative endeavors over the years. And no, they weren't all flattering. Not because the writers intended to insult or "defame" my sterling character (heh), but because the creation itself demanded the direction the story, song, poem, painting took. Even if they depicted me as slutty-mcslut, or dumb as a doornail - I wouldn't SUE them. (Bop them upside the head maybe and exact revenge with my OWN story.) Because... I am cognizant that most people would have no clue who the work was inspired by. And couldn't care less if they did know.

Author Karin Gillespie pointed out if the plaintiff, Ms. Vickie Stewart, was so concerned about being perceived as a slut and alcoholic - why didn't she just lay low? Now she doesn't have to contend with just her friends and former-friends viewing her with speculative glances, but a large portion of the world that WOULD HAVE remained ignorant of her affiliation with the book. Plus, fifty something going through her own harem of boytoys? Hello, I'll have some of what she's got please. (Okay - not really, but it sounded good.)

But at the heart of this and one of the reasons the writing industry is concerned is that this may have created a precedent. Given our lawsuit crazed society, it could spell trouble for authors. Both plaintiffs and defense lawyers say they know of no other successful libel cases in Georgia brought against works of fiction. And there are countless books out there with characters based on real people.

"It’s very common for writers to draw on historical, cultural facts from the world they live in and place them in novels to make them seem as real as possible..." Ruppersburg, a paid expert witness for the defense, said "from the first sentence, the first paragraph of (The Red Hat Club), it presented itself to me as a work of fiction." 

As the Romantic Times Book Review remarks "This case sets a bad precedent. Now anyone with a grudge against an author can claim libel if they see even a semblance of themselves in a work of fiction. Authors will have to worry not just about their characters that ARE based on real people, but accidental resemblances, too."

BUT to take the OTHER side of the issue - the author of The Red Hat Club, Haywood Smith, set herself up to fail.

She not only did incredibly idiotic things such as keeping the names of the character's neighbors the same as Ms. Stewarts, she also included over 35 identifiable traits and incidents that could easily be tied to the plaintiff. In her OWN essay "Creating Memorable Characters" she advises writers to "Borrow from life, then embellish it all you want (disguising the people you use sufficiently to avoid problems, of course)."

Writers DO have to take some responsibilities. Especially if they think there is even the slightest chance that one of their characters might be recognizable by the person who inspired it. And for goddess sake, don't do what Smith did and email a writer friend confessing that the "slut" character in your story is suing you. That was a nice piece of key evidence for the plaintiff.

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