Ethical Questions

One of my favorite things to read is The Ethicist column in The New York Times. This is a place where various people ask an assortment of ethical questions and a pundit responds. One of my favorite recent ones was from a woman who was going to two therapists. She had not told the one therapist about the other and wondered if that was unethical. Personally, I thought it defeated the whole point of going to a therapist, to hold back secrets. But the question intrigued me. This is the sort of issue I can ponder for days. So I began to think about ethical questions writers confront, and I decided to pose one particular question to my fellow Miss Demeanors (who turn out to be a very ethical bunch!) Here it is: Your friend tells you a story about something her teenage daughter did and it would be an absolutely perfect plot twist for the book you’re writing. It’s quite specific, so it would be hard to disguise. Your friend would be sure to recognize it. What would you do?  Tracee:  Rule of thumb? Never use anything that would be hurtful to either a friend or an individual. I think we all know when a story is hurtful (in this hypothetical case, to either the friend or her daughter). On the other hand, I’ve heard many stories from friends and families about people and events, and I don’t know who they are talking about, so to me it is non-specific and close to being eavesdropping. Those I would repeat with pleasure! Maybe next time a friend starts to relate a story that sounds particularly interesting ask them to speak in hypotheticals! Paula:  Since most of my friends are writers, they probably wouldn’t appreciate that. If the incident were really good, I’d find a way to disguise it. I usually disguise everything anyway—at least in my fiction—not so much intentionally, but as part of the process of imagining and reimagining the characters and plot lines of my story. That said, we have a rule in our family—which is made up of mostly writers—that everyone gets to write their version of our family story. If you don’t like my version, you can write your own. Cate: If it was really transparent I wouldn’t use it. I like to think I can come up with something else just as good from my imagination that wouldn’t run the risk of hurting my friend. People see themselves in stories that I write even when they’re not there and weren’t used as a basis at all. I’d be too nervous about using an anecdote directly from someone’s life without permission. I wouldn’t want a friend to feel that I betrayed a confidence and not want to really talk in depth with me in the future. Michele: No. Just no. There is no shortage of human folly so I’d toss any thought of it away and not risk a solid friendship. Those are rare. Alison: Such an interesting question, Susan. I posed it to my family last night at dinner. (Raclette–nothing quite as wonderful as melted cheese for a meal.) I assumed that this was like a law school hypothetical where we couldn’t dance around the issue by disguising it or making other changes to the main story: this was an ethical dilemma. So the conversation began. My husband and son were more interested in the friend’s feelings than the writer’s. There was a sliding scale, though. If the friend told the story at a cocktail party, it was more likely to be fair game than if the story was told to the writer alone. If the writer didn’t care about the friend that much, no problem! My position was if the story was delicate (i.e., not the cocktail anecdote), I’d ask the friend how she felt, knowing I may lose the ability to write about it. My teenage daughter had an entirely different position. She felt very strongly that even if the friend was fine with writing about the incident, it was not the mother’s story to tell. She has a point.I have to admit that I’m persuaded by my fellow Miss Demeanor’s perspectives on this as much as my own. Guess that’s why it’s such a good question! Robin: Funny question because a friend once asked me to create a villain based on him. My first response was “how do you know I haven’t already?” Then I said no, because of libel and copyright laws. Having spent many years as a litigation paralegal such disclaimers are a knee-jerk reaction. That said, I think writers file away observations, experiences, and conversations that find their way into our work as amalgams or inspiration for the “what if’s” that take real situations in different, unexpected fictional directions. So that’s what I would do. I’d sit down with a notebook and distill the situation down to its core to figure out what about it I find perfect for my story, then dream up different “what if” scenarios to twist and turn it until it’s unrecognizable so as not to betray the friendship. Alexia: I confess, I’d use the incident but I’d find a way to disguise it. The girl would become a grown man, I’d divide the incident into multiple incidents and assign the pieces to several characters instead of one, something like that. I’d find a way. I’d also hope the story came from my friend who said (in writing) that she’d be so happy to be in someone’s novel that she wouldn’t care how the author used her. I’d attribute the incident to her instead of her daughter.Is there really anything that anyone of us has done that no one else in the world has ever done? Even if you make something up, unless it’s physiologically impossible, at least one person will have done it and think you were talking about them, as Cate noted. 

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