On Thursday night I read at Rattle Tales again. The audience was a particularly vocal one who asked lots of questions (if you don’t know how Rattle Tales works check out our website). I read a story which featured Stephen Hawking a couple of the questions I was asked were about using the Professor in a fictional capacity. Our host asked me if I was nervous about using a real public figure in a fictional setting. I had to think about this, when I wrote the story I wasn’t bothered by it at all, it was based on an anecdote I was told about Stephen Hawking visiting a country pub, it struck me as an interesting story with great creative possibilities. I just sat down and wrote the whole thing in a couple of days without thinking about how I was portraying the real person. Then I took the story along to the two writing groups I belong to and, though everyone was very positive about the story, one or two people had reservations about me using a known public figure.
When I submitted it to Rattle Tales I had to be sure I wanted to run with it. I decided that it would be okay as it was based on an actual incident (though greatly elaborated and imagined) and I could see nothing libelous in it. Their concerns did make me realise that as a writer you have to be careful what you say and about whom.
The dictionary definition of libel is as follows
Defamation—also called calumny, vilification, traducement, slander (for transitory statements), and libel (for written, broadcast, or otherwise published words)—is the communication of a statement that makes a claim, expressly stated or implied to be factual, that may give an individual, business, product, group, government, religion, or nation a negative or inferior image. This can be also any disparaging statement made by one person about another, which is communicated or published, whether true or false, depending on legal state. In Common Law it is usually a requirement that this claim be false and that the publication is communicated to someone other than the person defamed (theclaimant).
I cannot imagine anyone thinking that my story was in anyway factual, nor does it portray anybody in a negative or inferior light, quite the opposite in fact. I was very careful to research my subject so as to get any reference I made right. I watched Youtube videos, read articles and books, and probably invested far more time than was necessary for a little short story, but I think it paid off for both peace of mind and characterisation.
A friend in the audience, who has been to many of our shows, pointed out that I have form on this appropriation of the famous for fictional purposes, having performed stories in the past about the royal family and John Lennon. I had never thought of this, but he is right, I do it all the time! In STARLINGS I have chapters that feature Kenneth Moore and Princess Diana. I have also written about Jim Morrison (sort of). My friend wanted to know why, and who next? I suppose my answer is that the famous are now so much a part of our lives, on TV, in the papers and trashy magazines, that I instinctively put them into my fiction in the same way as I would the weather or a location. I don’t mean to do it but I think it helps me to create situations by using a well known reference point. For example, we all knew about the Royal Wedding months in advance and were bombarded with images, blanket TV coverage and souvenir pull-outs for weeks afterwards, right down to that stupid party book (which thankfully has somewhat undersold!) and so, when I read my story about a family watching the event, everyone was immediately there with them, and those of us you were sick to death of the sudden royal adulation could identify with the anti-royalist leading character. Similarly, when I wrote a story about a tramp in New York on the day John Lennon was shot, everyone could identify with the event.
When discussing this aspect of my writing later with my friend, I realised that I usually only give my famous characters walk on parts. I think this is because to me they are not the important ones, sure they have all the wealth and adulation but the people who matter most are the little people, the tramp no one cares about, the heartbroken bride on royal wedding day, the AIDS patient briefly visited by a princess he doesn’t recognise. These are the people who make up most of the population and I don’t mind using our common knowledge of famous folk to tell people about them.
I sometimes put words into the mouths of my famous characters and I suppose if I’m playing by the rules I really shouldn’t, they didn’t say it so it’s not factually accurate to say they did. But I write fiction, and fiction gives you a certain amount of creative license. If you are going to put words into the mouth of a real person you have to make sure that they sound right. I was extremely pleased when people in the audience for my John Lennon story thought the line I had given him was a direct quote. The words I gave Prince William didn’t bother me so much, though he could easily have said them, but that was satire so who cares?! Stephen Hawking only says one word ‘Stephen’ and he probably says that a lot.
Who’s next? Now you’ve got me thinking…