Zoë Sharp

They say writing’s therapeutic, cathartic. They say that if you have issues, writing is a way to get them out. Writing as a form of therapy, or reprisal.

Sue Grafton is a famous example:

“For months I lay in bed and plotted how to kill my ex-husband. But I knew I’d bungle it and get caught, so I wrote it in a book instead.”

When I’m giving talks, I usually joke that it’s a great way of obtaining revenge – if someone really annoys me, I kill them off in a book. And I say that, since I’ve long since run out of people who have pissed me off sufficiently, I now take requests like a kind of literary contract killer. It always gets a laugh.

But, I’m careful in how I do this when I’m actually writing, and often the recognisable features of my victims are recognisable only to me. A private joke. A private satisfaction, if you like.

But what if they’re not recognisable only to me?

I was talking to someone recently who was faced with a literary dilemma. A member of his family had written what purported to be a novel, but populated it with characters clearly drawn from his own life and portrayed in the most unflattering terms. The writer has taken real events and added his own dark spin – a hinted-at piece of moral turpitude, the sly implication of a cheated qualification.

But what do you do about it without causing horrendous rifts within the family?

You might ask, what does it matter? Surely very few people are going to actually see or read this novel? And, at one point, you would have been right. After all, no traditional publisher would touch something they thought was going to land them in legal hot water, regardless of whether the quality of the writing was of publishable standard.

Enter the internet.

Anyone with something to say can be published to the world at the click of a mouse, and so it was the case here. The book was out there, albeit briefly, for anyone to read a sample or buy in its entirety. The person who felt most damaged by this was, as you can imagine, unbelievably upset by it.

But what can he do without tearing his family apart even further?

OK, ‘Rati, what would YOU do?

Apologies for this week’s post being a short one, but I’m somewhat under the weather. I’ll be back to respond to comments whenever I can stand up. Meanwhile, this week’s Word of the Week is phoney, meaning fake. It comes from the Gaelic, fainne (pronounced ‘fawnya’) and means a circle or ring. In the 18th century, some Irish gold was not considered the genuine article, so gold rings from Ireland were called ‘fawney’, which became English slang for fake. In the 1920s, this name had extended to fake gold rings passed around by American conmen , although the American accent led to the word becoming ‘phoney’ instead.

43 thoughts on “Dilemma

  1. Chris Hamilton

    Great post. Never considered that. If a person can self-publish without a filter there, there's all kinds of trouble they can create, mostly because there's no one looking out for legal issues, such as lying about stuff, or libel. The risks are all your own.

  2. J.D. Rhoades

    Well, defamation law hasn't gone away, and you're still liable for defamatory and untrue statements made in print (and yes, printed words on the screen count). The major difference is that with self-publishing, there's no publisher with a (relatively) deep pocket to sue.

    What would i do? Write my own book, of course, sympathetically portraying the writer of the original work as a tragic, deluded madman who turned on everyone who tried to help him and ultimately ended up a broken and sad figure, scribbling spiteful drivel that no one ever reads.

    But that's just me.

  3. Dana King

    Yet another example of why beta readers can be important. We all know not to use parents or relatives for tis because we won't get good feedback on the writing, but they can be invaluable when you wonder if a character is getting depicted too darkly. Fictionalized versions of my parents figure in the WIP (and are treated sympathetically), but The Beloved Spouse has been invaluable in making sure some of the humor wouldn't be misinterpreted.

  4. Alafair Burke

    Writers find material wherever they look. There is nothing actionable about the kind of story you describe, since even the offended family members see that it is fictionalized. Although I happen to think some events in the lives of my family are off limits, I understand writers who would make a different choice.

  5. MJ

    Well, this is why I've taken my blog down for now (until I have a good reason for it) and tend to not share much on FB, twitter etc. – our culture (esp. our online culture) is way too focused on oversharing right now, with ALL of the gory details included. For example, an acquaintance recently separated from her husband, and told us all that she would not be talking about the circumstances. Well, guess what, 3 weeks later, she is – and I really didn't need to know, and the whole world doesn't either! I'd rather seem remote to people I don't know than have anyone able to connect the dots ("oh, that's the bald boss with the bow tie she's trying to kill off…").

  6. Louise Ure

    I've gotten better at disguising the inspiration for characters over the years. In my first writing effort, my brother was deeply offended at a character that he assumed (quite rightly) was based on him.

  7. Karen in Ohio

    This is what I call giving in to temptation. 🙂 My first husband was such a dog to me, and I've been so tempted to skewer him in fiction, but I've held back. He'd never read it, so that's not the issue, but our daughter would, and I can't do that to her.

    It's such a dilemma, but hey, a real fiction writer ought to have enough imagination to also disguise that "real" person effectively, don't you think?

    Zoe, it was such a treat to meet you in Tucson, and we thoroughly enjoyed your panel. Hope the rest of your trip over here was fabulous. Also, I just finished Hard Knocks. Wow, what a ride. Thanks for a great read!

  8. Barbie

    But, J.D., wouldn't the fact that there's a statement in the book saying characters are fictional and that names have been changed be somewhat a "safety net" against law suits? Couldn't they say there's no proof the characters were based on the person trying to sue?

    I think this is interesting. I guess I end up picking up quirks from people around me for my characters, but I don't think I've ever flat out based a character on someone I know. I'd be terribly scared of offending them.

  9. David Corbett

    Rule #1 of Litigation: You can't get blood from a turnip. If Mr. Lazy Vengeful Writer has no deep pockets, this will end up in (very) Small Claims Court.

    But if said Mr. LVW does have a worthwhile asset or two worth going after, things could turn intriguing. The rules for slander/libel remain for now the same as ever. (See Alafair's post, above.) The aggrieved party has the burden, and must show damages. Hurt feelings are not damages, unless you've got medical bills, Jungian interventions, buckets of anti-depressants, therapeutic foot massages, etc. Mere emotional distress usually doesn't impress a court — especially with the increasingly anti-plaintiff bench we see almost everywhere. But as we used to say in the PI biz: Inside the courtroom, the rules of gravity no longer apply.

    Who knows?

    I wonder, though, whether we might see the law evolve a bit here. Or devolve. The Internet over-sharing MJ describes may engender a string of lawsuits that develop a body of law far more permissive of revenge against the vengeful. They may start as small potatoes, but if some bonehead scribbler pens a spiteful little get-even tome that actually takes off, only to land in legal limbo, this could get interesting. As in snarly.

    Best advice: When writing composite characters, make sure they're truly composite. Not someone perfectly recognizable, just dressed up in a fresh set of clothes.

    Better yet: Be polite. Make it up.

  10. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Dusty

    "What would i do? Write my own book, of course, sympathetically portraying the writer of the original work as a tragic, deluded madman who turned on everyone who tried to help him and ultimately ended up a broken and sad figure, scribbling spiteful drivel that no one ever reads."

    Funnily enough, that was my advice, too.

  11. JT Ellison

    Zoë and I talked about this in Santa Fe – I've never put a real person in the books from my own life. Real people yes, but they know ahead of time and it's like putting in a celebrity. But I worry too much about hurting people, so I just keep well enough away from the whole mess. I can create some pretty terrible people in my head–and karma would bite me on the ass if I didn't keep it that way, I'm sure ; )

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Dana

    That covers your own writing, but what if some member of your immediate family (who didn't like you) decided to write about your life, only making you out to be a charlatan and a knave?

  13. Zoë Sharp

    Hi MJ

    Putting in the occasional character trait culled from real life is inevitable – as Alafair said, we look for inspiration where we find it. This was a case of the writer taking his entire family and thinly disguising them, but with added nastiness. His reasoning? He was in a 'dark place' at the time.

    But you're right about TMI. There are things I really don't want to know about people.

  14. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Louise

    "In my first writing effort, my brother was deeply offended at a character that he assumed (quite rightly) was based on him."

    But was it all true, or did you twist and exaggerate for the purposes of the story?

  15. Murderati fan

    Zoeeeeeee – it's not the quantity of the post, but the quality and your post certainly set my mind to thinking. Unfortunately, I am not blessed with friends that are wonderful enough to include in a book, except Ellen who always reads my work and has the most wonderful sayings and southern accent and always says Idear instead of Idea even though she's from Tennessee (JT doesn't say idear). My friends (combined) possess all the traits of every other person on the planet, and not one has killed anyone. – though with 31 aunts/uncles on the paternal side and 18 aunts/uncles on the maternal side the first cousins numbering close to 150 provides mental fodder for a cast of characters to populate a saga. I'm blessed! Judy

  16. Debbie

    Common sense and human decency will steer a writer in creating characters. Respect others and write. Even the darkness of our minds can be written for the purge but if it involves others, leave it unpublished. So far my characters have come to me ready to reveal who they are. Some of the situations, events, outings, are taken from my life, but could just as easily be anybody's life (a walk in a city park, shopping in a shopping centre, attending a college lecture). I did ask one friend if I could cronical her ALS in a fictional character and use her name and she was flattered. I have used elements of her personality ie. creativity, generousity, but have let my friend know the character is fictional, hence little else mirrors who she is.

  17. Allison Brennan

    Wow, another post that makes me think.

    I don't write about people I know. I might use little traits or personality quirks or a snapshot of history or backstory, but it's blended with so much other stuff I pull out of thin air that if anyone even thinks I'm writing about them, they have a huge ego–or are guilty of something.

    As far as the true scenario you described goes, I suspect Mr. Vengeful Writer has done more damage to his relationship with his family than the damage done by his evil spin on his kin. I really hate the sue-happy mentality of the public in general, so unless there were very real, quantifiable damages, I wouldn't sue or encourage a lawsuit.

    Though my creative mind goes to a darker place . . . what if one of his relatives kills him? And it's up to my heroine to figure out who did it before someone else ends up dead, which means reading his diatribe, talking to the suspects, verifying alibis . . . Hmm. I feel a story brewing.

  18. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Karen

    It was a pleasure to meet you in Tucson, too! And I'm glad you enjoyed the book.

    "My first husband was such a dog to me, and I've been so tempted to skewer him in fiction, but I've held back. He'd never read it, so that's not the issue, but our daughter would, and I can't do that to her."

    I think you've hit the nail on the head with this one. There are kids involved, so taking any kind of action has real onward repercussions.

  19. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Barbie

    I'm no expert, but I believe UK libel law says something to the effect that if several people can recognise the character as the person, regardless of intention, then it's libellous, disclaimers notwithstanding.

    Or something like that.

  20. Zoë Sharp

    Hi David

    Interesting info, and I LOVED: "But as we used to say in the PI biz: Inside the courtroom, the rules of gravity no longer apply."

    But the whole point of this is, if you go the legal action route, things get messy and expensive very quickly. I was after more, erm, creative solutions … ;-]

  21. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    Those people we talked about WANTED to be in a book. In some cases, they paid good money for the privilege. But this is an involuntary inclusion. I, too, am far more likely to make up my bad guys, except for the one guy who volunteered to be the villain, and a fine one he made, too.

  22. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Murderati fan

    Oh my goodness, what a huge family – Christmas and birthdays must be a nightmare.

    So, what would YOU do if you discovered one of those cousins had written a book dissecting you all, and put it out for public consumption…?

  23. pari noskin taichert

    Thought provoking post today. I try hard to disguise when I need that catharsis.

    But it's impossible to do well if someone IS looking for him or herself in the mix. I know writers who have friends/family assume a certain character is based on someone when that is absolutely not the case, And those making the assumption refuse to believe that any other possibility exists.

    I remember one time I wrote a character that I thought was just outrageous — he's in CLOVIS — and I gave him a name to fit. Turns out several of his characteristics fit someone with that name right there in that city. NOOOOOOOOO! I never saw his name, never heard it mentioned and only learned of the reality three years after the book had been published.

    Go figure.

  24. David Corbett


    First, please excuse my failing, in my first response, to express my condolences for your being under the weather. I hope you're on the mend quickly and are soon raising your unique brand of hell wherever and however it suits you.

    Second, yes, sorry to have misunderstood your query. Creative, hmmmm. Let's see.

    It's hard to know who will believe and who will disbelieve what someone writes about you. But is this any different than the whisper campaigns and rumor mongering that goes on relentlessly anyway? People can and do say anything about anybody. One needn't attend the Valois court to get a taste of this.

    Alafair blindsided me with a little teasing dig at last year's LA Times Festival of Books — in front of Karin Slaughter, no less — that I could not figure out to save my soul, then I backtracked, thought of mutual friends, who might have said what, and made the connection. It was all said quite kindly and in good fun, and I know Alafair meant nothing untoward, but from someone else I would have been more than just flustered.

    This is the business of living. I can't imagine a life without it. And one person's teasing aside is another person's merciless snarky whatever.

    I think if someone bothered to put me in a book and either expose secrets or slander me otherwise, I'd be obliged to do the same thing I do in real life. If what's said is untrue, you can always muster friends to your defense. If there's some truth to what's said — always the trickier situation — be gracious, make a joke, laugh it off. (To quote John Billings: “There is no revenge so complete as forgiveness.”)

    But if there is some real damage — a friend lost, a career ruined, professional or personal relationships left in smoking ruins — then I would suggest three things:

    1. Reflect meaningfully on the fact that when one lives life passionately there will always be some wreckage left behind, and some of that wreckage may be articulate.

    2. Understand that those who care about you most and about whom you care most know pretty much the whole catalog of your failings already and either abide them or have forgiven you for any transgression(s) you may have made. Be grateful for that, and let them know, especially in this trying time, how much that loyalty means to you.

    2. Look into the great many flavorless poisons available.


  25. Sylvia

    What a great post and now my head is hurting from having to think.

    First off – so many people to kill and mock, so little time (and in my case, talent) to write.

    I always figure that characters in a book are a weave of personal experience, relationships, imagination and pure fantastic bullshit when called for.

    Yes, if I wrote a book I likely would offend someone or they would think they should be offended. I guess my response would be "really? what makes you think I'd want to write about you?"

    Feel better and recover fast!


    PS – finished Fourth Day – fantastic. Heading to the UK in July – whee!

  26. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Debbie

    "Common sense and human decency will steer a writer in creating characters. Respect others and write."

    Amen to that. Of course, this is always assuming that most people have any common sense or human decency…;-]

  27. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Allison

    Yeah, my mind immediately went to using this in a positive way, to inform the writing. And as the injured party in this case is a writer himself, I did suggest he build a story around the circumstances. After all, his relative can hardly complain.

    But yeah, things can turn messy and destructive very quickly. I made a decision a long time ago that before I waste energy getting mad at someone, there has to be a good reason for doing so, and just blowing off steam is *not* a good enough reason. It's like a version of 'don't get mad, get even' but with more karma involved ;-]

  28. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari

    "I know writers who have friends/family assume a certain character is based on someone when that is absolutely not the case, And those making the assumption refuse to believe that any other possibility exists."

    I've had this happen to me, too. In my first book, I had a minor character called Tony. I don't know where the name came from – just plucked out of the ether probably, because I was trying to balance the shape and sound of different characters' names to create space between them. Anyway, I had an email from somebody I had worked with slightly, assuming the character of Tony was based on him, even though the two bore no relationship to each other. I couldn't convince the real Tony that if I HAD indeed wanted to caricature him in print, I would used traits and called him something else entirely…

  29. Zoë Sharp


    You're full of phrases to admire today! I particularly liked, "Reflect meaningfully on the fact that when one lives life passionately there will always be some wreckage left behind, and some of that wreckage may be articulate." That and the reference to flavourless poisons.

    And as read on a sign outside a church: "Forgive your enemies – it confuses the heck out of them!"

    Thanks for the good wishes, by the way. I hope I recover soon, too.

  30. David Corbett

    Dear Zoë:

    I believe you mean "flavorless." Don't you have a spell check? 🙂

    Yes, do feel better soon. And tell Andy he's inched ahead in the Best Conference Spouse competition.


  31. Zoë Sharp

    Thanks, Sylvia

    LOL on the "what makes you think I'd want to write about you?" front. Good answer – I may steal it if ever I find myself in the appropriate situation. Sorry to give you a headache, though.

    So glad you enjoyed FOURTH DAY. Thanks for that. Have fun when you come over to the UK – will you be at Harrogate?

  32. Zoë Sharp

    Hey, Corbett, don't get me started on the English/English vs American/English thing. I have a hard enough time persuading my computer to let me spell things the right(?) way without you joining in ;-]

  33. Sylvia

    Zoe – it's a "good" headache 🙂

    Harrogate (had to look on the map) would be nice and I'm all for travel. I'll be in Dover making a Channel attempt. If you want to be on the boat, you are more then welcome. Feel free to bring paintball guns and shoot at swimmers to make us go faster 😉

  34. KDJames

    I guess the first thing I *wouldn't* do would be to point at said so-called offending book and jump up and down and loudly tell everyone who'd listen that I was portrayed in a negative light. Because, really?

    Honestly, knowing how much time and effort is involved in writing a book, I'd feel amused (and also sad) about how much time that writer spent thinking about me (or other family members) and probably being miserable and angry the entire time. I'd be more concerned if I found out they had spent that time perfecting their voodoo technique.

    Then again, I've pretty much accepted the fact that I'm a nasty heartless miserable bitch who pulls the heads off live kittens and eats them for breakfast and leaves the remains on the neighbour's lawn and that everyone already knows this about me. Anger at less-than-flattering revelations would be… misplaced.

    Hope you feel better soon, Zoë! I know you claim not to need much sleep, but get some rest anyway.

  35. Zoë Sharp

    Hey, David, now you're mocking me. Brave words from a man who SO nearly rode to the airport in the trunk (see, I can speak American sometimes).

    Andy says "Hi" by the way.

  36. Zoë Sharp

    Wow, Syliva – when you say a channel attempt, you mean you're going to swim across the busiest shipping lane in the world? Wow again.

    And when I said Harrogate, I meant the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival (July 21-24). Should be a terrific event.

  37. Zoë Sharp

    Hi KD – well said ;-]

    I always hope people like me. If they don't like me, I hope they at least respect me.

    And if they can't respect me, I'll settle for their fear…

  38. Sylvia

    Zoe –

    I realized after I posted what Harrogate was. I wish I were a real writer rather than "have you seen my first four chapters…" I have a drawer full of the first four. Then I could be "Harrogate? Of course I'll be there, I always go!"

    Channel attempt – yep, you got it. Cargo ships? What cargo ships? Pffft. Come ride on our boat. We're the crazy 40 & 50+ women with names like Starfish and Honey Badger who will have you in tears and stitches laughing while we just happen to be swimming.

    Feel better!

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