Yesterday NPR announced that Kathryn Stockett is being sued for using someone's likeness in The Help without their permission. Her brother's family's nanny, a woman named Ablene Cooper (compare to Aibilene Clark, the character in the book), claims that she explicitly told Stockett NOT to use her as the basis for a character in the book, but Stockett did anyway.
The character isn't totally drawn from life, but apparently there are some significant similarities: the first name and initials, obviously, but also the fact that both the character and the real woman had a grown son die, and both have a gold tooth.
Personally, I'd have a hard time arguing (with a straight face) that the character was me because of a gold tooth, but I guess it's all in the number of similarities.
NPR asks the question, how much borrowing is fair? And honestly, I don't think Stockett did anything wrong. She changed some details — maybe not all, but enough that apparently one-third of the argument is based on the presence of a gold tooth (?!) — and also, as Stockett notes, the character is a heroine, so what's there to be offended about?
One of the comments on the article made the point, "Would Ms. Cooper still be suing Ms. Stockett if the book wasn't a big hit and hadn't made a ton of money?" And I think therein lies the crux of the matter. Cooper is pissed off that Stockett made money off of her likeness — otherwise why would she have taken so long to come forward? The book has been out for two years now!
In my opinion, Stockett didn't do anything wrong, though I can't say it was the brightest thing to do — I mean, really, couldn't she have given the character a different name and eliminated the gold tooth? And maybe make it a daughter who had died instead of a son? Small changes, but changes that would have completely eliminated Cooper's claims. Even with those few similarities, though, I don't think what Stockett did was wrong. The character is still only loosely based on real life (otherwise they would have had more than a gold tooth to prove it), and let's be honest here, all writers base their work on real life to a certain degree. Some of the best literature we have immortalizes real people: Little Women, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, even the Chronicles of Narnia. Are we really going to allow this case to determine that it's no longer okay for writers to draw inspiration from real life?