Posted in ideas, writing

Taking ideas from real life

One of the best things about being an author is you literally get paid to make things up. Jo Rowling? She spent years making up an imaginary world and then writing about it. Now she has hundreds of millions of dollars. Pretty impressive.

But when do you cross the line?

Everyday we we go about our lives, stuff happens to us. We meet a guy with a cool unique name. We hear a funny conversation and remember it later. Someone with an interesting quirk comes across our path. Later when I sit down at the computer and become my author self again, I remember this and toss it into the book.

Short story, in my day job I work on computers. A few months ago I was called to an office because of some silly computer problem. When I got there someone was logged into the computer and I asked him to log off so I could take a look. He looked at me and said you want me to log off meow?

I was tired and a bit distracted, so I stared back at him and asked, did you just say meow?

Needless to say, several people burst out laughing.

This scene stayed in my mind for a while, so later I wrote into my book a flashback scene where the main characters (siblings) are seven and seventeen. The younger one in the scene is meowing and acting like a cat. All because someone meowed at me while I worked. (not because I acted like an animal when I was a kid. Don’t ask my family)

This happens a lot, we write about what we know, or what we experience. Or a lot of the time, we fit bits of our self into our characters. I have a huge sweet tooth, bam, someone in the book has a sweet tooth. My favorite color is purple? That’s character’s X’s favorite color now. Or the opposite. I dislike spicy food, so someone loves it.

But when do we cross a line? When does it go from just taking bits of our lives, or bits of what we see, to suddenly copying down huge chunks of another person.

As an author, as are supposed to just keep it to a minimal, or is it okay to do this?

If I have a friend named Ann (I don’t, example) and designed a character after her with the name Annie, different hair color and few minor changes, is this okay?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.




Hi, I'm Ames! Welcome to my blog. About me Female Favorite foods: Apples, fried chicken and grilled cheese sandwiches. Hobbies: Traveling, reading, learning languages, writing and cooking. Favorite TV show: Big Bang theory. Hopes for this blog: People I don't personally know read my blog.

4 thoughts on “Taking ideas from real life

  1. Taking small, random elements from the personality of a real person is acceptable, because, the anonymity of the person is protected. Saying a character in your book has auburn hair, or rides a Harley Davidson or has a love for Italian food is hardly identifying. Physical traits, taste in food or the ownership of a motorcycle apply to millions of people. No one could honestly infer from such scanty information an author is referring to “Ann” or “John.”

    But, suppose the author decides to expose a large part or even the entirety of a real person’s life or personality? The author may change the name from “Alice” to “Annie” and change the person’s real home of Charlotte NC to a supposed home in Fargo ND. But, is this enough? Perhaps not! Those who know both the author and Alice in real life, may very well make the connection. How will Alice feel if she is exposed for the benefit of an author looking to sell a book to a publisher?

    Suppose Alice disclosed information to the author in confidence? A confidence is a secret. It may be information about Alice, or her family. Perhaps Alice works at a bank, and she tells the author, “We are in debt. I have been fighting the urge to take money from the cash drawer.” What if Alice said to the author, “Yesterday, I came home early. I found my husband in bed with his best, male friend.” Should the author disclose any of this? Information disclosed in confidence carries the moral responsibility to maintain confidence. Would a person tell someone personal information if they knew it may be used later for the benefit of a written work?

    Let’s turn it around. Suppose an author told someone, “I have obsessive/compulsive disorder. I want to do everything or say everything three times before I’m comfortable. I cannot do it in public. Every time I have to do a book signing, it’s very painful. I cry privately because of my disorder. What if my readers found out my fear?”

    Then suppose the other person began telling everyone, “My friend is an author, and has obsessive/compulsive disorder. He / she is scared to death for anyone to know.”

    How would the author feel then? Betrayed? Doing something hurtful, even for the sake of literature, calls much into question. Integrity as a writer is important.

    The courts have upheld a person’s constitutional right to privacy. Authors can, and have been sued. A publisher may not want to touch a book where their legal position may be in jeopardy.

    But, the courts have also acknowledged persons who, by the nature of their job, or their participation in national events, are not as protected. People like the Clinton’s, Donald Trump, sports figures, entertainers, etc. purposely put themselves in the public eye. They do it for power, prestige, or money. The courts have held such people do not have the expectation of privacy the average citizen has.

    Lastly, making disclosures, even dressed up as a fictional story, about another person from confidential or even semi-public information, may expose an author to turnabout action. There was a person several years ago who disclosed personal information about someone. Then he found his own social security number posted on a billboard! His address, personal phone number, and embarrassing, truthful information about him and his family were made public. The author cannot rightly complain. After all, it’s truthful and they did it to the other person first.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ha ha, ask a single question and get a full paper in response. But really, You raise some good points. People can’t just write out their friend’s life story, change a few details and then publish it.

    I wonder how much would have to be used before someone could sue the author. Or how they would prove the material used in the book came from them.

    Thanks for your response =)


  3. It’s not so the amount of material used, but the damage done to the friend by the disclosure. The injury inflicted may be monetary ($$), emotional pain, or disruption of family and livelihood.

    Jo Rowling freely admitted the car owned by the Weasley Family in Harry Potter, was the same model car owned by a friend of hers a long time ago. She even named the friend in an interview. She also quickly stated the real life friend was not a basis for Ron. Only the old-model car was the same. This in no way injures the friend emotionally or monetary. Many millions of people owned such a car in decades past.

    Now, let’s say Rowling’s friend had kleptomania, and he told her about the affliction in confidence. Then she choose to disclose it in a story, and it got back to the friend, well, the point is plain to see.

    In the US, anyone can sue anyone else for a perceived slight. The question of proof is rather simple. If the information was disclosed as a confidence, a secret, and the author chose to expose the information in a book, the injured party’s lawyer would subpoena the author and put them on the stand.

    The author could plead the 5th, “I refuse to answer on the grounds it may incriminate me.”

    The jury would take the well known, “gangster defense” as a screaming confession of guilt.

    If the other person had a loss, either emotional, job, etc. The lawyer would put the injured parties psychologist or employer on the stand under order of subpoena.

    Liked by 1 person

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