An interesting issue arose out of a workshop piece this week that I wanted to open up for discussion. Fiction writers aren’t tied down with the strings of factual truth (story truth, yes, but that’s another issue), and so we are able to pull pieces from our lives without telling things as they happened. For instance, I could pull a description of a friend or a family member, combine it with a mannerism of a classmate and a dialogue quirk of a coworker to create a new character, one who is not representative of any of the people from whom I pulled.
The issue, though, can arise when someone recognizes his or herself, especially if the composite character is of the less-than-flattering variety. So my question is this:
As a writer, do I have a moral or ethical obligation to my friends and family to not create characters based too heavily on them? Where does one draw the line? What’s the difference between flattery and offense? How would you feel if you recognized pieces of yourself in one of my characters? Does the type of character matter?
No, a fiction writer does not have an ethical obligation to people she uses as sources for characters. The only ethical obligations that a fiction writer has are to the reader (and that one is problematic) and to the story itself.
The label “fiction” dispenses with most ethical obligations as it, in effect, states “these are not real people,” even when they are, and “this is not what happened,” even when it is. The path of ethical obligation leads to paralysis as a writer. I should know.
I have always said that friends and family of the writer are so at their own risk. I would be a better writer (although perhaps not as good of a friend) if I lived up to that dictum more often.
Does the writer have an obligation to inform someone if they are going to be so present in a story that other people will recognize him or her?