I am writing my first YA novel and most of the characters in it are based on someone I knew in real life. What, if any, problems would this pose for me if the novel ever became published? Many of the people written in to the story gave me their blessing (over email or Facebook) before I began, but nothing “in stone”. I have changed all names and many obvious identifying characteristics, but if one of these people read my novel, which hopefully they will some day, there will be no question who the characters were based on.
I think it does pose problems for a number of reasons. You’ve gotten vague permission from people to use them in your novel, but let me tell you, people have a very different idea of what that means once they read the novel. Certainly things could be fine and no one could complain, but let’s face it, that’s not going to happen. One person is going to complain. At worst, that person could sue you for defamation of character if she feels she’s easily identifiable in your book and feels your portrayal is unflattering. At best, you could lose a lot of friends. Remember, we all have a bit of a warped view of who we are, and someone else’s vision of who we are can be a little shocking. For example, I was recently asked if I was “too nice” to be a really great agent. When I told my husband this he howled in laughter that anyone would ever think I’m “too nice.” I’m still trying to figure out how I should feel about this ;).
From a creative standpoint I wonder if writing this way is holding you back. There’s no doubt writers get a lot of their characters from the people around them, but from what I understand most take bits and pieces to create new people rather than simply inserting people they know in the book. In other words, one character is an amalgamation of the characteristics of many people, not just friends and family, but people they observe in public. Not only do I think this is safer, but I think it allows you the creative freedom to really let your characters be who they want to be or need to be rather than fit them into a mold.
Personally I worry less about the possibility that people will sue down the road and more about the fact that you aren’t really letting your creativity take the book to new places. That by limiting yourself to writing about the people you know, you’re not pushing the book to new heights.
I’m curious, though, what other writers think about this.