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How close should writers get to real life?


Watching an interview with journalist Quentin Letts about his new novel ‘The Speaker’s Wife’, I was interested to hear him quite comfortably discuss how the current speaker, John Bercow, and his wife were the inspiration for the characters in the book although he stressed that the piece was purely fiction.

This statement fascinated me. Recently, I had looked into all the legal aspects of novel writing and publishing having now released 12 novels of my own plus several short stories. Quentin Letts made the issue of libel and defamation sound entirely clear cut. If it’s fiction, you can write what you wish. I suppose that as a regular columnist, often highly critical and ascerbic about certain individuals, he should know what he’s talking about.

My understanding of the issue was that it wasn’t so black and white. If you are basing a character in your published work on a particular individual, you need to take care not to mirror their life and experiences too closely.  You certainly must be careful about names. If you give a character in your book the name of someone you know, they might reasonably assume you’ve based it on them. A court of law  may also agree.

This doesnt mean you can’t use real life to inform your writing, but I would make each protagonist a blend of many characteristics, then they will shine out as believable and real to a reader. If you lift their personality directly from a living person then you’ve produced a satire or a pastiche, which is quite different from fiction.

Writing about true crime, sport or current affairs is another matter entirely and legal advice should be sought before embarking upon these projects.

Social media has led to a trend towards openness of expression in digital print, but libel laws still apply here too. So writers take note. We may seek inspiration from real life, but it is important to remain firmly in the world of the imagination with the stories we create.

No element of this piece should be interpreted as legal advice.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. If I was John Bercow I would be talking to my lawyer. How thoughtless and tactless to admit that he was the inspiration.

    Liked by 1 person

    December 3, 2015
    • I think there is a sense that politicians are fair game for comment and satire. I don’t entirely agree. It’s fine to criticise their policies but personal attacks are unwarranted. I wonder if Letts’ style of writing in his column really translates into decent literature. I suspect it won’t be particularly subtle!


      December 3, 2015

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