"Ripped from the headlines" plots & people

Sandra Parshall

[Cross-posted from the Poe's Deadly Daughters blog]

I know a woman who could be transferred to the pages of a novel exactly as she is, to become a marvelously twisted character. She would be a plausible killer because of her unmatched talent for holding a grudge and her relentless vindictiveness. She would make an even more believable victim because everyone who knows her longs to be rid of her.

I’ll probably use her in a book sooner or later. But regardless of how accurately I try to portray her, the minute she hits the page she’ll begin to morph into something else, a fictional woman. A character. She will live in a world the real woman has never known, and respond to events and pressures unique to the story she’s in. As the pages and scenes and chapters wear on, she will become less and less the real person I know and more a creation of my own imagination.

I was thinking about all this a few days ago while listening to Laura Lippman talk about her books, which she said were all inspired by actual events. When one book, What the Dead Know, was published, Laura felt she had to publicly acknowledge that the story was inspired by the disappearance of two young sisters in suburban Maryland in the 1970s. I’m not sure she had to address the issue at all. Children disappear every day. There have been other cases of young sisters disappearing together. At the time of the case Laura had in mind, the sisters’ disappearance was little known outside the Washington-Baltimore area where it happened. But what’s most important is that, other than the disappearance itself, her story had absolutely nothing in common with the actual events, or the lives of the real girls and their parents.

Today, of course, 24-hour cable TV would make the simultaneous disappearance of two young sisters an international story, and the whole world would hear about it, day after day, every hour on the hour. In far-flung locations, TV viewers would stare at photos of the smiling girls and grow teary-eyed when contemplating their probable fate. The voracious news machine would scoop up every scrap of information or gossip and put it on the air within minutes, without bothering to verify it. Crime stories, as reported on round-the-clock cable, can become so detailed and sensational that no writer’s imagination could envision anything to top them. Drawing inspiration from today’s news might mean laboring for a year on a story that will be stale by the time it appears in book form. Even if you change significant aspects of the crime and its solution, the story may still seem overly familiar to readers -- and the real people involved won’t look kindly on your creative endeavor.

The folks who put Law & Order’s “ripped from the headlines” shows on the air can snatch up a sensational story and turn it into fiction much faster than a novelist can, and an episode may go on the air while the horror of the real crime is still unbearably raw for the victims and their families. In a few cases, L&O has come up with its own version before the real crime was even solved. The “characters” are eerily like the real people, with no effort made to disguise them beyond name changes.

A recent Washington Post story – which you can read here -- reports that many people whose worst nightmares show up on L&O feel “blindsided and used” and find the experience, on top of the tragedy they’ve suffered, deeply disturbing. “We’re trying to heal,” said a man whose young son and housekeeper were murdered in a still-unsolved case, “and to have it constantly dredged up is painful.” No one from the program or network contacted the family or alerted them that the show would be aired. The older brother of the murdered boy called the program “sick.”

Law & Order and its spinoffs have used hundreds of real cases over the years, loudly advertising them as “Ripped from the headlines!” while simultaneously claiming that they’re pure fiction, depicting no actual person or event. Such a claim is usually enough to protect creative work from libel and slander charges, but that might be changing. Since 2004, L&O has been fighting a lawsuit over a program that aired in late 2003, and despite efforts to have the suit dismissed, it was recently cleared for trial. The eventual outcome could make a difference in the way television crime shows are written.

Will it make a difference to novelists? Combined with the over-exposure many crime stories receive now, would a judgment against Law & Order be enough to make writers stop combing the news columns and cable networks in search of inspiration? I almost hope so. Unless we have Laura Lippman’s ability to take the germ of a situation and turn it into something brilliantly original, maybe we’ll write better books if we stop trying so hard to be topical and rely on our imaginations to provide us with material.

I’ll go on using real people as the starting points for characters. I’ll probably put the awful woman I mentioned earlier in a book someday, but I know she'll be someone else, a fictional person, by the time I'm done. I hope no one ever reads something I’ve written and exclaims, “Oh my god, that’s me. She stole my life!” I don’t want that kind of guilt – and I don’t want the lawsuit.

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Comment by Dana King on April 11, 2009 at 12:15am
Wow, that was dumb on L&Os part. Get the seed from the headline, fine, most of us probably do that from time to time. But use your imagination after that.
Comment by Sandra Parshall on April 10, 2009 at 4:40am
Jon Loomis wrote: I wonder about that lawsuit: hard to imagine what legitimate grounds there'd be to sue the authors of a fictional story, unless you were identified by name.

In that case, they did use the real person's first name for the character. The man who brought the suit is an Indian-American lawyer named Ravi Batra who practices in New York City. He was linked to a bribery scandal involving another lawyer and a judge, but he was never charged with a crime. And he's bald. On L&O, he was played by a bald actor who looks very much like him, and the Indian-American character's name was Ravi Patel. A New York State Supreme Court judge ruled that there is "a reasonable likelihood" that viewers might believe the fictional character's corruption "to be the truth about Batra." The judge cleared the case for trial.
Comment by Jon Loomis on April 10, 2009 at 2:28am
Another thought: maybe none of this is all that new. Remember "Dragnet?" The story you are about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent?
Comment by Jon Loomis on April 10, 2009 at 2:25am
Even the magical realists borrow from reality--but it's hard to fault them for lack of imagination. What L&O does is interesting and often kind of brutal--it's part true crime, with a lot of real life details thrown in, but of course the cops and DAs are fictional, and the story's "fictionalized" more or less, depending on the episode. It's almost a new form--true crime fiction, or something. I wonder about that lawsuit: hard to imagine what legitimate grounds there'd be to sue the authors of a fictional story, unless you were identified by name.
Comment by Dana King on April 10, 2009 at 1:48am
I think many fictional ideas are taken from life, whether the author realizes it at the time or not. Seeds get planted in many ways; it's what the novelist does with the story and characters that matters, as IJ says above.

I think novels are better suited for this kind of thing than television. The depth available to the novelists can allow for a less literal translation of the event, and the longer lead times allow for the event to drop, at least somewhat, from the public consciousness
Comment by I. J. Parker on April 10, 2009 at 1:41am
Surely, both plot and character can be sufficiently disguised. I frequently change the gender of a character, It makes for interesting plot changes.

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