Both I and a close acquaintance of mine are aspiring authors. She is not a Christian and her work is a dark mafia romance series where she has based several characters on wild caricatures of people she knows and their families. For instance, the character she has told me is based on me is a small-town pastor’s daughter who ends up married to one of the mafioso’s sons. The character, named Eden, later finds out that her father carried on a brief affair with her mother-in-law prior to marrying Eden’s mother.
While I understand what she’s attempting to do, there are also several other people based on her friends and some of their family members, exes, et cetera. Am I wrong in thinking that she is treading on a very slippery slope by doing this? She’s in the editing stages and we’ve debated back and forth for a long time about it– she’s very cavalier and doesn’t see anything wrong, while I see a potential legal landmine if anyone who didn’t give consent to become a character gets a hold of her work.
Like Alli touched on (good answer, Alli!) there are two components: the legal ramifications and the social ramifications.
I too am no lawyer, but I can tell you that defamation is very difficult to prove. Someone would have to demonstrate reasonable cause that her words were based on them, not factual, and caused measurable damages. That’s tough.
There’s really nothing stopping you from writing true things about the people around you and using their real names. So writing fictional things with fictional names inspired by real people is all really fair game. In a way, aren’t we all doing that all the time?
Even if it’s subconscious, I assume that all of my characters are in some way aggregates of all of the real people I’ve met.
Socially, on the other hand, it seems like your friend is likely being unwise. Telling someone “I based this terrible character on you” certainly isn’t very nice. At the least, it’s a little insulting, at worst, it may cause other people to perceive your friend as unsafe. (What will she share next?)
So the answer is no, no one needs to give consent to be a character in your work. If it’s a work of fiction and you’re not using their name, there’s really no boundary. If it’s a true story and she’s presenting information that she reasonably believes it’s factual, she can even use their real names, no consent necessary. But it’s probably not wise or kind.
(Again, I am not a lawyer, this is based solely on my anecdotal knowledge working with other authors.)