Woman discovers she's a character in latest Dan Brown novel

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Dan BrownWhat if you showed up as a major character in a best-selling novel? Imagine what went through Marilyn Schlitz's mind when she realized that she was a character in Dan Brown's latest, The Lost Symbol, a followup to The Da Vinci Code. After catching the rumor via Twitter that a character closely resembled her, Schlitz bought the book and found herself reading fictionalized details of her own research. She told NPR she found the use of her work "very surprising and delightful at the same time."

According to the NPR report, a major character in the novel, Katherine Solomon, is, like Schlitz, an employee of the Institute of Noetic Sciences in California, and carries out similar research, with one very important difference: Solomon's work goes further than Schlitz's, all the way into the realm of fantasy.

Brown reportedly did not contact Schlitz before publication, citing security concerns, but he did send a nice note of thanks afterward. Lucky for the author, she appears content with the actions that Brown puts her character through. Her institute "explores the frontiers of consciousness" and "builds bridges between science and spirit," obvious grist for Brown's brand of fiction.

But what if Schlitz had been offended? Could she successfully sue for libel?

There are plenty of examples of books in which authors use real people in authentic circumstances while creating fictional back stories to flesh out the action. Don DeLillo's masterpiece, Libra, does this with Lee Harvey Oswald. Fans of Law and Orderare familiar with the way the TV show populates real circumstance with fictional characters. Taking real people and investing them with fictional actions is, in fact, actually quite common.

If you showed up in someone's novel without prior knowledge, could you successfully sue? A libel judgment would depend on several points:

  • Would a reasonable reader conclude that you and the character are one and the same? In Brown's case, the character's name and appearance are different. Although her work and employer are the same, O.J.'s jury would no doubt find that they were not the same person.
  • Is the action defamatory? This depends on the subject and the jury. Not everyone would be offended by being portrayed as a love machine, for example.
  • Could the work be construed as satire or parody? If such comedy was libelous, the Onion would have been out of business years ago.
  • Does the defendant have anything to lose? If not, your victory could by Pyrrhic. The world is full of fan fiction in which popular public figures are put through degrading experiences (pity poor Angelina Jolie), but the cost of pursuing these loser authors would certainly exceed the reward.
Successful libel suits are uncommon, and the First Amendment is a strong one. You can also be sure that Dan Brown has deep, deep pockets, not to mention possible friends in secret societies. So don't expect to get rich taking a role in a bestseller, except as the character.
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