Writing About People
By Robert Moskowitz

Good fiction tells stories about people. And some of the best stories are real ones, actually lived by actual persons. Not only are many real stories interesting, but audiences want to read about "real" stories even more than they want to read pure fiction. That's why so many stories are sold as "ripped from the headlines" or "based on a true story."

The problem for a writer who wants to write about people is, if you write about a real person, you need their permission before you can sell what you've written. And not everyone who lived a great story wants you to write about it. They may want to sell it to another writer, or they may not want anyone at all to write about them.

So what's a writer to do?

You have to take liberties with the truth. But don't take my word on any of this! Consult a knowledgeable attorney to protect yourself!

The general rule is: If an average person who reads your story or sees it on the screen has a good chance to identify the people you are writing about, then you need those people's written permission to write about them. However, if the people in your story are not recognizable as particular individuals, then there is no one in a position to give you permission, and quite logically you also have no need of anyone's permission to write and sell your story.

Two key things to remember are:

1) Everyone gets married. Everyone has parents. Lots of people wear glasses. Lots of people buy red cars. Those kinds of elements in your story are generic and do not serve to identify particular individuals. You can include them in your story without fear of penalty. What's more, there are certain "required scenes" (called "scenes a faire" in legal terminology) that must happen in any good story. If your hero turns and confronts his attacker, it may echo what happened in another story or what happened in real life to a particular person. But a confrontation is a required scene when writing drama, so the existence of the scene in your story is not considered proof that you stole the idea. On the other hand, if your story contains characters who grew up in a certain town at a certain time, got married at a certain age in a certain location, worked at a certain company, had certain special talents or interests, had a certain number of children in specific years, lived in a certain kind of house in a certain neighborhood, and so forth, these are not "scenes a faire," and in fact they convey enough specific material so a reader can easily identify a real individual on whom you modeled your character, and now you need permission.

2) Every successful novel and screenplay draws lawsuits. If you write a good story, you'll definitely get sued by people claiming you stole their idea, you modeled your story after their life, or both. Since you can't avoid this, don't try. And don't worry about it. A portion of your profits will go to legal defense. That's the nature of our society. Just make sure you document where you get your ideas for your stories (aside from real news events, we're talking about meetings with friends, first drafts you write and then rewrite, etc), so when the suits do come, you can show they are without merit.

Some questions and answers:

1)What is the situation with popular TV shows that seem taken from the head lines. They change the story but its still noticeable.

Popular TV shows hav a lot of money. They may pay something for the rights. Or they may have lawyers on staff to vet the stories so they're not liable, and/or to deflect or defend any lawsuits that may come in. When you have billions, you can do the same.

2) What if the story is from overseas?

Less chance they'll see what you do. But anyone can sue at any time, so why leave yourself exposed? If they sue you over there, you may never be able to travel to that country again without having to pay the financial judgment against you!

3) What if you are writing about a serial killer, do they have rights?

Yes, they have rights. Plus they're not allowed to profit from their crimes, so the families of the victims are probably entitled to the killer's earnings and would probably come after you for the money. You've got to get the killer's permission and then you've also got to deal with the victims' families. Isn't it easier to change your story enough so this is not a problem?

4) What about the films that are biased on a unauthorized biography?

"Famous" people have fewer rights to their own stories. The line is fuzzy. You can write about a specific celebrity all you want and s/he can't stop you, but if you say something too offensive, s/he can sue you. "The truth" is a valid defense, of course, but celebrities have enough lawyers to cause you a real expensive problem, even if s/he doesn't prevail in court. If you want to write about a celebrity, be very sure you don't step over the fuzzy line. Study what other people are writing about other celebrities. Look at some of the lawsuits filed by celebrities to see where the line might begin -- not just the cases celebrities win, but the lawsuits they file: you don't want them filing against you. If there is any doubt at all, have an experienced attorney look over your story and make changes until s/he feels strongly that you're not going to get sued for it.

Good luck.