Can fictional characters be libelous?

gavelHey, writers – ever based a character on a friend, no matter how loosely? Well, you’d best be careful to stay friends with them if you get published, because there’s now a legal precedent for a character in a novel being considered as libel:

A Georgia jury has ruled that Haywood Smith, author of the bestselling novel “The Red Hat Club,” libeled a former friend who had served as inspiration for a character portrayed as a sexually promiscuous alcoholic. The jury awarded $100,000 in damages to the plaintiff, Vicki Stewart.

In the past, defamation claims based on fictional characters haven’t been very successful. (For example, in 1985, Nathaniel Davis, the former US ambassador to Chile, lost a $150 million libel suit against the makers of the Universal film “Missing.”) But that might be changing.

In the “Red Hat” case,¬†Smith’s lawyers took this case up to the Georgia Court of Appeals before it could be heard by a jury. As a result, the case likely won’t amount to a net monetary win for Stewart, who spent five years litigating the battle.

Given that the plaintiff pursued the case beyond the point of financial victory, I’m inclined to believe that there really was some deep offence caused in this case… but as TechDirt points out, “for it to be defamatory, you have to be able to show the harm caused, and that’s only going to happen if a lot of people know that the character is supposed to be the real person, which seems unlikely in most cases.” [image by bloomsberries]

Indeed, the Barbra Striesand Effect has probably made more people aware of the character in this case. Either which way, there’s a whole lot of ambulance-chasers out there who’ll see an opportunity here, so I guess we can add libel to plagiarism on the roster of “lawsuits to file against people whose success you resent”.

2 thoughts on “Can fictional characters be libelous?”

  1. Right, so a woman nobody knew was actually in the book has now made her sex-addiction and alcoholism public by lawsuit…and nobody explained to her how this might, in fact, do the damage she purports to have already occurred? Are people getting stupider these days? This whole case makes about as much sense as suing McDonald’s for making you fat…good lord…

  2. I forgot to add…it seems to me that before this lawsuit all she would have to say to someone who asked “so, is this character based on you” is this: “Oh, well that’s all fiction. It’s funny, really. I’ve been immortalized as a ridiculous caricature!” Now? All she can say is “yup, that’s me.”

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