Thursday, September 8, 2011

John Wayne and “The Help”

John Wayne had opinions on most subjects and was not reluctant to share them. Among my favorite Duke quotes is “Life is tough, but it's tougher when you're STUPID.” Now I don’t know what Wayne would have thought about a recent discussion that took place on line among my writers’ group but I’ll bet the above quote might cover it.
I have my own personal John Wayne story that I’ll reveal at the end of this article. (In the TV world that’s called a tease.)

The writers’ conversation regarded a recent lawsuit and the bestselling book, now a movie, The Help by author Kathryn Stockett. According to an ABC news article, “Ablene Cooper, the longtime nanny for Stockett's brother, has filed a $75,000 lawsuit against the author, claiming she was upset by the book that characterizes black maids working for white families in the family's hometown of Jackson, Miss., during the 1960s.”

It seems Stockett named one of her characters Aibileen Clark. The character apparently resembles Miss Cooper and she doesn’t like it. You can read the full article at

The lawsuit has since been dismissed by a Mississippi Judge because it was filed after the statue of limitations had elapsed. This dismissal did not affect the depth of the writers’ group discussion. The conversation centers on how a writer should go about creating and naming characters. Should a writer use a real person as a model for the character? If the writer does model a character after a real person, should the writer get permission? Or should writers avoid using real people as models in fear of being sued?

The general consensus was that it is probably better to avoid using real people in fictional ways. We can’t help bringing our life experiences to our writing. Characters are naturally drawn from people we have known. Most writers are people watchers. They love to watch so they can find characteristics and mannerisms that they can bring to their fictional characters. But the writers mostly agreed that one shouldn’t do something STUPID.

In my currently published book NO MORE BULL I used the name or character of three real beings. One is a lifelong friend. I named a Cripple Creek donkey after her. (Sorry, you’ll have to read the book to find out who she is.) I asked her permission which she graciously gave and prior to publication even showed her the passage where she was named . The second real name I used is Salsa, a Texas Longhorn steer. Salsa plays a pivotal role, as does the donkey, in my mystery. Now I didn’t ask Salsa’s permission. For one thing he’s dead now and his magnificent skull is hanging on a wall. But I did mention his inclusion to the owners with no objection. In fact they kind of got a kick out of it.

The third person is me. Yeah, I wrote myself into the book. Now I didn’t ask for permission, but as of this writing I give it and promise not to sue. (Again, you’ll have to read the book to find me there.)

I personally wouldn’t include a person I didn’t like or couldn’t reveal in a favorable light into one of my stories even with permission. It’s not that I’m afraid of being sued, if I don’t like them I don’t want to give them any additional publicity. If they are a jerk and most people know it, I don’t need to pass it on. If I’m the only one who thinks they are, I don’t want to reveal my own jerkness. Now I might borrow some of the things I don’t like about them, mix it with characteristics of another jerk and mold that into an entirely separate character. In fact I did that in NO MORE BULL and am doing it in my current work in progress. A reader that knows the same people I know would find it impossible to identify any individual I create. I won’t say I have never done something STUPID, but so far that’s not one of them.

Now to my John Wayne story. The daughter of one of my closest friends, Steve, had a baby boy three or so years ago. The couple decided to honor their own grandfathers by giving the child their names. So they took Grandpa John and Grandpa Wayne and . . . well, you get the picture. I don’t know if they thought through the ramifications. But it wasn’t long before my buddy was calling his grandson John Wayne and/or The Duke. Little John has grown up with John Wayne blankets, John Wayne tippy cups and other paraphernalia. Needless to say, by this time he is acutely aware of who the other John Wayne was.

Recently Steve, while watching John for the day, thought it would be fun to view the latest True Grit starring Jeff Bridges followed by the original starring The Duke. Little John was enthralled and watched every scene. He loved it.

Shortly before, John’s mommy had announced the impending birth of a second child. When John got home from watching the movies he went up to his mom and rubbed her tummy. Serious as all get out he looked her in the eye and asked, “Do you think we can call him Rooster Cogburn?”

And, yes, I asked permission to share this story.

I encourage comments about The Help, John Wayne, the naming and creating of fictional characters, grand children and the cute things they do or anything else that strikes your fancy. If you want to discuss my jerkiness, the manager of my complaint department is Helen Teller. Go to Helen Teller.
Talk with you down the trail.



Jim Brownlee said...

Gosh, I wonder who Steve is? Do you have his permission? And Helen Teller, I can't imagine where you got that name,Ohrt I be thinking of someone else? Jim

Marsha Ward said...

John, thanks for the laugh-out-loud John Wayne story.

When I craft characters, I don't use a single person of my acquaintance for attributes. I might mix up the attributes of several folks I know or have known, as you have done. I don't use the names of friends or relatives. I make up names, or use those of spammers. Hey! You have to get some use out of all that spam, right?

Karen Emanuelson said... did Salsa's skull wind up on a wall...? Anyhow, yeah..."The Help" not a book I'll read or a movie I'll see, although it's all the rage. Whatever. And that Ablene Cooper? What a loser! Now, I really won't read the book--I've heard all the maids were portrayed in a more positive light than their employers. I do "people watch" but with more of the "Cormac McCarthy" attitude, than any sense of wonder. My characters emerge from my psyche & subconscious, whatever, whatever... In my family, we believe that being a storyteller is genetic. My mum was a storyteller & so was my paternal grandpa. We don't need to write biographies or autobiographies to tell a tale, the stories live inside of us.

John Sharpe said...

Thanks for the comments. Jim, I think you must be thinking of Zeke. Helen did work for him until I hired her. She'd done such a good job just hanging in there.

Marsha and Karen. Creating characters is, for me, one of the most enjoyable part of writing. I loved your spam comment, Marsha. And I'm with you, Karen. I'm not going to have The Help on my To-Read shelf nor will I see the movie. But I do think Stockett's use of the Aibileen Clark name falls under John Wayne's quote. STUPID.