Colm Toibin, the Irish novelist, once told one of his writing classes, “You have to be a terrible monster to write. Someone might have told you something they shouldn’t have, and you have to be prepared to use it because it will make a great story. You have to use it even though the person is identifiable. If you can’t do it then writing isn’t for you.” (Nigel Farndale in The Sunday Telegraph).
The good news is that people rarely recognise themselves in a novel’s nastier characters. Humourless, self-serving little git – moi? I attended a lecture some years ago by a libel QC who said that you were more likely to be tripped up by some detail that appears fairly minor than you are by a lurid description of a person’s viler characteristics. A novelist can find themselves in trouble, unwittingly, by some fluke coincidence. If, say, the paedo in your thriller happens to be a chiropractor called Chris Brown with a clinic in York St, Edinburgh, and, by chance, there really is a person matching that description (but without the criminal element) you could find yourself in deep doo-doos. (And never rely on a disclaimer.)
Several years ago I advised a friend to put her novel in the bottom drawer because it so accurately described her heinous in-laws that I thought they would probably take her to court if it were published. You only have to look at misery memoirs (a genre aptly named ‘victim victories’ in the States) to realise that the pen can be a very powerful weapon. The author of Ugly, a judge herself, was taken to court over her autobiography, which describes how her mother brutalised her as a child. I don’t believe, however, that any book will ever be truly successful if revenge is the author’s chief motivator. It is as Colm Toibin describes: people and scenes from real life act in service of a wider, universal purpose.
Wanda Whiteley, former Publishing Director at HarperCollins, is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Manuscriptdoctor.co.uk, a literary consultancy