questionmarkI’m planning on writing a script about a character who is based heavily on somebody I know (a local comedienne), with a few other people thrown into the mix. As a character, I find her fascinating. Normally, I would just ask the person in question and they would most likely agree. However, the character in the new script is a big jerk, completely devoid of any empathy, tact, or manners, much like the real person. I’m not going to ask her if I can make a movie based on how big of an asshole she is, and I’m worried that she’s just the kind of asshole who would sue me if I did.

I’ve changed the name of the character, but I want her to be a comedienne, as this fits really well with the story. Most of the other aspects of the story are completely made-up, and I’ll probably only include a few situations based on real events.

Can I get in trouble for creating a character with the same personality and the same profession as the real person? How much can I get away with? Can I include things that this person has said in real life? This character is fascinating and needs to have her story told!

— Lex
Calgary, Alberta

Yes, you can get in trouble. She could sue you for libel, defamation — or the equivalent under Canadian law. By your description, she probably would sue, so you’ve really answered your own question.

Don’t poke bears.

As a writer, you’re naturally going to be drawn towards real-life people who are fascinating. That’s a good thing. Observe behavior. Figure out motivations and pathology. Then forget the real person.

Unless you’re writing a bio-pic, don’t base characters on anyone who actually exists. Not only are you exposing yourself to legal trouble, you’re ultimately shortchanging yourself as a writer. Real people are good in the real world, but you need characters that feel real in the universe of your story.

So stop thinking about this character as being the comedienne. Rip a photo out of a magazine and decide your character looks like this woman instead. What does her voice sound like? Where does she live? Is one of her neighbors stealing her mail? Is she trying to avoid her Bible-quoting brother?

Make her situation specific, and specifically different than the comedienne. It’s okay to admit to yourself that she inspired your character — inspiration is free to the universe. But every detail should be something you created, discovered, or wove in from the hundreds of other people you have studied. Your story will be better for it.