Being a “Bad Art Friend” – An Unpleasant New Writing Trend or a Tale as Old as Time?

Recently, I went to a writing group, where a fellow writer told me how she got her inspiration. She was writing the story of a friend of a friend losing her virginity at 28. “When my friend told me the story, I just found it so funny, I had to write it into a novel,” she told me. And I cringed. The idea of such a personal story being relayed to the world is a lot of people’s worst nightmare. And the fact that the person poaching the plot was a complete stranger (thereby obviously not having permission to tell it) didn’t make me feel better about it.  

But it did get me thinking… how bad is it to pinch parts of someone else’s life story? Is it ever okay?

There has been a lot of discussion lately about the “Bad Art Friend”- a complicated tale of a personal story being plagiarised (and consequent law suits). A lot of people cannot decide who exactly the “Bad Art Friend” was in that situation (since this certainly seems to be a case of writers behaving badly). Nonetheless- whichever side I am on- there’s something deeply uncomfortable about taking someone else’s story in order to mock them. I cannot help but be reminded of Music and Lyrics, where Drew Barrimore’s character has been traumatised by such an event. Naturally, as the audience it is impossible not to empathise- for who would want to be the laughing stock of the world?

Which makes this seem like a cut and dry case- except it’s clearly not. Because isn’t this just something writers and artists do? Drawing from real life is quite possibly the oldest tradition in writing. We all have poets and singers we admire who openly write about real life people. And while artists like Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran may have been criticised in recent years for this practice… it’s not like it’s a new phenomenon. People scour Shakespeare’s sonnets for evidence of the real people they were about. Thomas Hardy knowingly took details from real life cases he read about in newspapers to add realism to his stories. And what of historical fiction, cannibalising the lives of real figures in history and reproducing them for our entertainment. Indeed, even I am engaging in this practice by sharing my anecdote at the start of this piece!

Sadly, I don’t think there is an easy answer here. If you argue that you should obscure the references, keeping identities secret like Carly Simons did with “You’re So Vain”, you underestimate the innumerable fan sites dedicated to decoding songwriter’s every word. And if you suggest only writing nice things your victims subjects, then you ignore the likes of Christopher Robin, the star of Winnie the Pooh, who famously complained about being foisted into the spotlight against his will. And retribution for those whose stories are stolen seems out of the question- lawsuits don’t help you win allies and plotting murder like in the (hopefully entirely fictional) Plot seems a bit extreme 😉

It seems to me that there is no way around absorbing parts of our lives into our stories and art. There is no obvious dividing line where truth becomes fiction after all. But perhaps we can still endeavour to treat people with basic dignity and respect. Perhaps there are some stories that we ought to leave well enough alone. Perhaps the only conclusive advice I can offer is this: don’t be a dick. Which is sound advice in general 😉

For more on this discussion (and somewhat different takes) check out these videos:

All of this leaves me in quite the conundrum- so I’d like to hear what you think! Is it ever okay to fictionalise someone else’s story? Can you entirely avoid drawing from real life? Let me know in the comments!

33 thoughts on “Being a “Bad Art Friend” – An Unpleasant New Writing Trend or a Tale as Old as Time?

  1. The fact that the person you initially mentioned thought it was “super funny” that someone they didn’t know lost their virginity at 28 shows that they are not the right person to tell that story. I think it’s fair to use what you hear, see and notice as inspiration for your own work, but there’s a difference between putting someone’s personal story in the spotlight and just making it the spark that gets you writing a story of your own.

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  2. I have friends who have crazy lives and sometimes I think someone could make a good novel or TV show out of it. But of course I would never take someone’s life story and fictionalized it because that would be rude and they would probably be upset! These writers who take other people’s lives and basically just change the character names are out of line. I think it’s fine to be inspired by someone else’s life, but you need to use it as a starting point and change enough about it that they would essentially never recognize themselves.

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    1. Yes absolutely agree! There’s definitely a line- and I think it’s obvious when it’s being crossed. Using real stories (particularly to mock people) isn’t ok. I agree. And also think that when authors do pinch things from real life, it’s usually just a tiny thing that doesn’t make up a whole character or plot… So again there’s a line for how much you take!

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      1. Yes, I was also thinking about sort of throwaway lines or side plots. Having a character say offhandedly, “Oh, I have a friend who raises goats to make cheese,” because you have a friend who raises goats is probably fine. Taking their life story and writing a book is . . . something else.

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  3. I think drawing from life is the exact thing that makes a writer’s story more interesting. You can sometimes tell if a writer has lived through something or is just basing things off google by the way they write. I don’t find anything wrong with taking inspiration from real life especially, like you said, if we’re not being a dick.

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  4. Interesting topic.

    Two thoughts, obv. not exhaustive.

    As a writer, one thing I worry about is that, should my work ever become widely-read, people will assume that it MUST be autobiographical and try to figure out who I was writing about. Sure, lots of my own and other’s life experiences went into my books, but they’re just novels, people! A related problem is when people think you are trying to Make A Statement about something when really you are “just” telling a story. And of course stories are written from a philosophical point of view, but my novels are not intended to be preachy or have a Moral. Yet some people will try to look for a Moral in everything.

    Someone sent me a video about Chinese people who were on the Titanic. It was interesting to learn about, but the guy doing the video was pretty angry with his viewers for not already knowing this. Among other accusations, he told the story of a Chinese Titanic survivor who survived by climbing on to a piece of floating debris and then asserted that this man’s story had been “stolen,” without credit, and applied to Rose in the movie Titanic. I sort of doubt the Chinese guy was the only person who climbed onto a piece of floating debris, but if someone wants to claim, for interest group reasons, that “their” story has been “stolen,” they can always find a story about something similar happening to someone not in their identity group, and start pointing fingers.

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  5. If you have the permission of someone to write their life story that should be fine. However if the person is dead that might be complicated.

    btw my blog is down at the moment. A blogger decided to ban me from their link up party and post about it on Twitter. I don’t know what else to do.

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  6. I think it is in fact a form of plagiarism if you take their story without permission and present it whole, but if their story inspires you to nuance it and change it as your own creative writing so that it becomes something new I think that’s oaky.

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  7. There is very fine line between fact and fiction. This was a kind of a layer in the recent book I read, The Roughest Draft. I agree what they said in book, fiction comes from reality. And I believe if it doesn’t then it should be fantasy. How else we are going to relate to the character or feel it realistic if it hasn’t happened to someone somewhere. I believe facts, real stories can be and always will be the inspiration for fiction as long as author changes few things, respect the facts and not use it to lessen someone’s dignity, and not copy everything of person’s life. And if what I’m saying wrong there shouldn’t be historical fiction or true crime fiction.

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  8. Interesting. Overall, I’m more of the opinion that taking an anecdote relayed by a friend and using that as a jumping-off point for a fictional story is probably okay… so long as it’s not beat-for-beat exactly what the other person experienced. I think, for me, it’s the difference between a basic concept (28-year-old virgin) versus using the entire story as told by a third party. (And LOL, murder is a little extreme — love the reference to The Plot, which generated some heated debate in my house!).

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  9. I understand being inspired by real life accounts (especially historical events) but modern day events are a bit more complicate for me. Especially if you’re taking inspiration from your friend’s lives – I feel like if the character has any nuance, then the friend may be offended by any negative traits, if that makes sense?

    Inspiration has to come from somewhere, but I think that the responsibility is on the writer to make sure that no matter what, the people around them don’t feel like they’ve been taken advantage of.

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  10. I haven’t heard of that phrase. I’m thinking that if you’re using someone’s experience you’d need to change it a lot or only use it as inspiration. Certainly if it was going to be recognisable you’d have to ask the friend’s permission. I wouldn’t completely discount it though, the ideas all have to come from somewhere.

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  11. It’s funny, I’ve always thought that if I like a person I wouldn’t want to embarrass them by including them in my stories and potentially misrepresenting them and if I dislike them then I don’t want to dignify them by giving them the attention. It’s lose-lose.

    Really interesting post!

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  12. I think authors have always been inspired by their own stories and the stories of other people. be it by a conversation between friends that you overhear in a coffeeshop, by something you read in the newspapers. And I am ok with it. What would not be ok is to take the personal story of a friend and make it a novel without permission. Especially if it’s embarrassing!

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  13. There’s definitely no easy answer to this! But in this case I really think the writer crossed a line. It’s okay to feel inspired by things, people, newsstories, but there’s a point where a writer should take off on her own and make something new out of it.
    I’ve been struggling with these kind of questions for the last year in my online course about journalisitic editing. A journalist obviously crosses the line a LOT and even has to when the job requires it. But there are still certain things that can be kept under lock and key in a story. It’s important to preserve people’s dignity, and that writer clearly didn’t.

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  14. I think it’s natural to get inspired by the things you experience in life. And maybe it’s okay to use someone else’s experience as an example in your story. But yes I feel there has to be a certain level of respect, keeping opinion out of it. With that said, believing that we shouldn’t use real life examples will leave us void of inspiration, most of the time, what we write about is our experiences, thoughts and feelings that are bound to include other peoples experiences as we are interwoven with each other by law of nature. I think there are respectable ways to use someone else’s story, you can ask them to tell you their story and permission to write it, or use it to create a fictional story or as an example in your own stories. Definitely avoid using names and places that could identify them. If you write about your own story, you know for sure that friends and family will see themselves in that. In the end, if you are afraid of possibly stepping on someone’s sensitive toes, you’ll never be a writer. That’s just part of the trade.

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