By Russel D McLean
One of the strangest stories I read over the last week was this one:
Scarlett Johanson suing an author for using her likeness in his works (or saying a character looks like her).
But it brings up an interesting point of where real life and fiction collide. After all, many authors use real life people as the basis for characters to varying degrees. I’ve certainly named a few characters after people I know (mostly it’s a private joke and they’ve asked or I’ve asked, and even then I’ve been careful about what I do to these characters). The character of “Sooty” Soutar in Father Confessor is loosely based on someone I know both in terms of name and his physical presence. I’ve been namechecked in a few works of fiction, once or twice by nicknames rather than my real name.
Once, I was even accidentally "cameoed" in a book by a writer I know who had a particularly horrific character work out of an address I used to live at. I knew it was a coincidence (the writer in question had no idea that used to be my address, and he certainly didn't intend for anyone to believe this character we in any way related to me) but people I knew didn’t, and had assumed it was a joke in bad taste. Its now become a joke in quite good taste, of course, and an object lesson in how despite your best efforts you’re probably going to wind up getting some people confused about real life and fiction.
And of course then there’s Peter James using a character by the name of Amis Smallbone as a stab at a public figure of words who rudely dissed him.
But where does the line end?
All characters in this work of fiction bear no resemblance to persons living or dead?
To what degree?
In American Psycho* there’s a scene where Tom Cruise shares a lift with our protagonist. There’s a dialogue between the two. Nothing particularly terrible. In fact it’s kind of bland** But it got me wondering, in light of Johansson’s case, what was Cruise’s reaction to the cameo and how did he feel to be associated with this kind of character, even in passing?
At what point do we pass into use for public domain? Without using celebrities and their public personas for comparison or even scene setting, how can fiction in any way relate to the real world as it is now? They become short hand for certain associations. In the same way that music, objects and brands can be used to say something, so can the association of a certain type of celebrity. To say that someone has a Tom Cruise smile, or Roger Moore eyebrows brings with it a cultural association that sets an immediate kind of mood.
Not only that, but it helps to ground works in a certain place or time. For example, set a book in the eighties or beyond and talk about Roger Moore eyebrows, it makes sense. But set that book in the mid-1700s and the comparison is not only anachronistic but it destroys any suspension of disbelief.
Hate on Dan Brown as much as you like, but he’s very clever in using celebrity shorthand for his character descriptions. By comparing Langdon to Harrison Ford “in Harris Tweed” he sets up a very immediate association in the reader’s head, especially given Ford’s associations with characters whom Brown would like the reader to identify his character with (Indiana Jones - - yes, Langdon isn’t a brawny kind of guy but he is a man who investigates the mysterious and by making that association, Brown is able to get readers to accept the kind of journey upon which Langdon embarks)
But how much can or should we use celebrity in our fiction? Tom Cain’s debut novel used the real life death of Diana Princess of Wales as a starting point, but refused to name her specifically, perhaps relying on the implication of her life as enough of a hint to readers as to what he was really talking about. And of course a number of authors have fictionalised famous people in often unflattering ways. Ellroy’s depictions of historical figures is often disturbing and unsettling. Is he using them fairly? Certainly he uses them to service his view of the world and the use of them helps us to believe that what he is writing about is plausible is not actual.
There are lines, certainly. Lines that should not be crossed. If American Psycho had for example implicated Cruise in some horrific act that was at odds with what we know him as a public figure then that would be a cause for him to complain, in the same way that I might complain if someone used a “Russel McLean” who was a no good piece of shit dog killer in their fiction and who lived at my address and shared my taste in clothes, music and so forth.
But what point are you public enough to be fair game for fiction writers? At what point can you not complain if you are used merely as a comparison or in a purely fictional sense where it is very clear that this is not the real “you”?
I understand why Johansson might be unsettled at the idea of being mention in a fictional work. But is it any different to appearing in the National Enquirer or a tabloid where rumour is reported as truth?
And more importantly, if we were not allowed to let elements of reality – specifically the mention and use of public domain figures such as celebrities – intrude on our fiction, how would that affect our storytelling and the way that it relates to readers? Its not a question that I have an easy answer to, but I suspect that were we not to use famous faces as signposts, were we not to include an element of the real in our fiction, then it would make it that much harder for readers to engage with our work as it would be unable to function as a reasonable simulacra of the real world.
*I know it’s a classic but I’m in the midst of it right now and finding it a bit of a slog
**Which is the point, of course.