Friday, November 20, 2009

And, The Lawyers Win!

They usually do. Even when the verdict is for $100,000.00, a sum that was once a princely annual salary. Those six figures are the amount awarded to Vicki Stewart by a jury in the State Court of Hall County, Georgia. Instead of the usual auto accident, business fraud, or divorce case, the award was made in a defamation of character suit, wherein a “friend” sought legal damages against another friend, who just happened to be a best-selling author.

The plaintiff (Stewart) claimed that the former friend/author, Haywood Smith, based a character, Su Su, on her life. Indeed, the plaintiff claimed some 30 similarities between her life, and the “fictional slut” in Smith’s novel, The Red Hat Club. Apparently, the jury agreed, hence the award to Stewart.

A professor of English testified in Smith’s defense, telling the jury that it is common for authors to base characters on real people, citing great writers from the past, including Ernest Hemingway and Flannery O’Connor. While writers should be a bit careful, it is not only common to base fiction on real life, it is impossible to write without it. If a character is a young woman with dark hair and eyes, then any dark haired, dark eyed female reader might identify with that character. (I did, when reading The Last of the Mohicans, but I did not sue James Fennimore Cooper for killing her off. Of course, he was long dead when I read it.)

To build a character, an author must choose characteristics, and the palette of character traits comes from the author’s own experiences with fellow humans. The strong, yet self-sacrificial Venice Dylenski, the main character in Trinity on Tylos, owes some of her stamina to a certain Irene Blackstock Dodd, who had more grace under pressure than most folks. I know, because she was also my mother. When I was writing The Gift Horse, I gave Angie a mane of beautiful auburn hair, and one of my former students, a tall, rather athletic high school junior, had such a mane of hair. Angie's captor, Billie, is former military and ridiculously loyal; so was an authority figure from my own early life, when I was a student at Piedmont College. Now Angie and Billie have other characteristics, drawn from other images in my brain, but these very human characteristics are based upon people, and I do not see how to write fiction without so doing.

One fellow local author, who writes fictional mystery and nonfiction true crime, tells a rather funny story about having written a book, another in her true crime portfolio, but explains that she is waiting for the main player to die before she publishes it. Even though this person is serving life in prison, for the very crimes that are recounted in the manuscript and is presumably guilty of them, this author is so concerned about possible legal action that she has decided to just wait it out.

Sometimes folks have urged me to tackle nonfiction, but thus far I have resisted. Knowing the vindictive nature of folks in northeastern Georgia, coupled with the fact that anyone can sue anyone else over just about anything, has kept me a fiction writer. There is plenty of “inspiration” available, for fiction and for nonfiction, but wth the current crop of lawyers and juries, being any sort of writer is frought with danger. Sadly, the case of The Red Hat Club is one of losers. Stewart and Smith lost their friendship. Smith lost both the award and her own attorney’s fees. There is little doubt that Ms. Stewart, who did not win attorney's fees, will take the six figures she “won” in Hall County and pay off her legal bills, which are estimated to be more than the entire award.

Sometimes a book takes off and garners good royalties, and sometimes it doesn’t. But, lawyers charge by the hour, so they always win.

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At Nov 28, 2009, 2:16:00 PM, Blogger Sun Singer said...

Since I haven't read the book, it was hard to decide what I thought about the case. With the same jury, Dan Brown would have lost his case when he was sued for taking stuff out of HOLY BLOOD, HOLY GRAIL and using it in THE DA VINCI CODE. The news stories made it appear that the real life person had a lot in common with the fictional character. I don't know what that means since there aren't an infinite number of character traits to go around. Somebody's always going to have stuff in common with fictional characters.


At Nov 28, 2009, 3:19:00 PM, Blogger Pamela J. Dodd said...

Hello Malcolm,

I'm glad you stopped by Pam's Pages.

When I told a group of friends about this case, the consensus was why would anyone admit to having thirty commonalities with the character with such poor character? Testifying to all that must have taken some intestinal fortitude.

I do like your Da Vinci Code analogy, but the Bible isn't copyrighted. Maybe that's how Brown got away with it.

At Nov 28, 2009, 3:20:00 PM, Blogger Pamela J. Dodd said...

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