By Glen C. Strathy
Aspiring writers often wonder if putting real people into fictional stories is allowed. Will they get in trouble if they base the villain of their story on their former boss? Can they put a famous person, such as an actor or politician into their story? What about a historical person or a character taken from an existing story written by someone else?
Must every character in a story be 100% original?
The advantage of putting real people into fictional stories is that it lends authenticity to your characterization. People in real life are interesting and unique. They do things you, the writer, might not do. They have experiences, desires, strengths, weaknesses, talents, and flaws you don't. Their material circumstances and physical attributes affect their personalities in interesting ways. Naturally, you will want to base the characters in your stories on real people to make your stories more interesting. In fact, if you don't base your characters to some extent on real people, your characters can end up being too much like you. They may come across as generic.
Every every artist draws upon things outside themselves, both the real world and other works of art, when creating original works.
That said, there are some pitfalls you should avoid when using real people in fiction.
Let's say you know someone in real life who you would love to put in your story as a character. Writers do this all the time.
Let's also assume you are definitely writing fiction, not biography or memoir, because that's a whole other topic.
Putting real people into fiction can cause problems if a reader can tell a character in your story is based on them. Even if you have portrayed the person in a flattering or neutral way, they might not be pleased. Some trait or habit of theirs you think is endearing may be something they find embarrassing. They may object that you included their flaws, which you must do to portray them authentically.
You may also need to add things to a character for the sake of the story that aren't true about the real person it's based on. What if you give your character a traumatic backstory? Or have them do something unethical, immoral, or stupid? The real person might be afraid other people will read the book, recognize the character is based on them, and think that they did the unethical, immoral, or stupid things the character does. Maybe they have things in their past they would like kept private, and parts of your novel are too close to reality for them to be comfortable with.
Worse, if the real person has grounds to claim that your novel damaged their reputation, and therefore their ability to earn a living, you could find yourself in trouble.
Please note that I am not a lawyer and cannot give legal advice. If you think you may be doing something legally questionable, you and/or your publisher should consult a lawyer. (Here's an article written by a lawyer that discusses the issue of libel as it concerns fictional characters: Rights of Writers.)
However, my understanding is that if you damage a person's reputation in print, especially through false or unprovable allegations, you run the risk of being sued for libel. Publicly revealing facts someone doesn't want exposed or painting a false picture of them are violations of a person's right to privacy can also get you into trouble. Of course, for such a claim to stick, the character would need to be so closely based on a real life person that readers would make the connection.
For example, it may be very cathartic to write a story in which the villain closely
resembles someone in your life who you feel genuine hate for. Lots of divorced people write stories about someone going through a messy divorce in which the main character closely resembles themselves and the villain closely resembles their ex. If writing such a story helps you work through such an experience, go right ahead. But publishing such a story is a different matter and generally inadvisable.
Besides, the more you have to worry about how the real person will react to your fictional portrayal of them, the less free you will be to tell the best possible story. How do you make your character do what they must in the plot if you have a voice in your head telling you that the real person, or their friends and relatives, won't approve?
It's usually better to change fictional characters so that they are clearly different from the people who inspired them. Then you are free to have them do or say what you need for the sake of the story.
At the very least...
1. Change the character's name, first and last. Don't even make your character's first name start with the same letter of the alphabet as the real person's.
2. Change the physical features of your character.
3. Change some aspects of the character's backstory and circumstances. Make sure no one who knows the real person could say for certain your character is clearly based on that person.
Even better, make your fictional character a combination of several real people you know. Then no one could say who in real life inspired the character.
To some extent, this is easier if you are writing fantasy or science fiction. If your characters were born in a fantasy world or the far future, they will automatically have a different backstory from the real people who inspired them.
In a contemporary novel, the trick is to give your character enough specific details that they seem authentic, but not base all their traits on one real person.
Sometimes writers want to use a famous person from real life as a character in their novel. They don't just want a similar character. They want to use the person's real name, because it will make the story more authentic or interesting. For instance, in a political story, the appearance of a real life politician might benefit the story.
However, putting real people into fiction as themselves can create an even bigger challenge.
On the one hand, many facts about famous people are publicly known, which means you can't violate their right to privacy by mentioning those facts in a story.
On the other hand, famous people generally make a living from their fame and reputation, which makes them even more likely to prosecute cases of defamation. Moreover, in many places people have a "right of publicity" which gives them power over how others use their name in print.
If you want to put a famous actor into your novel, you might get into trouble, especially if you say anything about the actor that is not backed by evidence. Even worse would be if you try to use the actors's name in the title of your novel, in order to boost sales.
But that doesn't mean you are entirely forbidden from mentioning famous people in fiction. Public figures are public after all.
To put this in practical terms...
If you write a story set in the 2000s in which your main character is listening to Taylor Swift songs, that's probably fine. It's simply a detail that adds authenticity to the setting. You're not defaming Taylor Swift. You're not harming her reputation, quite the contrary. (Don't quote lyrics from her songs -- because that would be plagiarism, which is another issue. But you can mention the title of one of her songs, because titles are not copyrighted.)
On the other hand if you write a story in which you make up things about Taylor Swift, and especially if you have her do things that are unflattering, that might be construed as besmirching the artist's reputation. You could find yourself in legal trouble.
If you must include famous people in your novel, it's best to stick to publicly known facts about them. Avoid saying anything that could be construed as libel.
If you want to have a famous person as the villain in your story, or even have them play an active role in the plot, the best strategy is just don't do it. Create an original, fictional character who bears some similarity to the real person, maybe a couple of traits, but no more. For instance, you could create a character who is a young female pop star, but give her a different name. Give her a mix of traits that make it impossible for anyone to say for certain she is supposed to be Taylor Swift.
That said, there are some real people you can include in fiction and pretty much do whatever you want with them...
You can use real historical people in fiction and pretty much have them do what you want them to do in your story, provided they have been dead a long time. Dead people cannot be libeled. That said there are still a few constraints you may face.
1. Recently dead people have heirs who also have rights and may want to protect the reputation of their ancestors, especially if their dead relative was rich or famous. A person's heirs may continue to benefit from his or her reputation for some generations, especially if they inherited intellectual property. So if you want to include a historical person as a character in your novel, and be free to have them do whatever you like, it's best to choose someone who has been dead for a century or more -- someone whose intellectual property has passed into the public domain.
2. If you put a real historical character into your novel and have them act out of character, your story may lose some credibility. The established facts about historical figures and their personalities are often widely known. Violating these may annoy readers who are students and fans of history.
3. Because the life history of many historical figures is well documented, anything you have them do in your story should be in keeping with the historical facts. For instance, if you put Julius Caesar into your novel and have him die of old age, or in a hunting accident, that would violate the historical facts concerning his death, which again may upset readers. You might get away with it in an alternative history story, but not a story in real historical setting.
On the other hand, history does not document every detail of a person's life. You may be able to set your story during a time when no one knows what your historical character was up to.
Much of what is true for historical persons applies to characters from mythology or other writers' fictional works.
Generally, writers own the copyright on their works for their lifetime, though they can license them to publishers. Works remain under copyright for a certain period after the writer's death -- generally 50 years, but 75 years in some countries.
Once copyright has expired, works move into the public domain and anyone can use them how they like.
For example, anyone can write a story about mythological, folktale, or classic characters like King Arthur, Rapunzel, or Odysseus. Anyone can write a story about one of Jane Austin's characters or Sherlock Holmes, which is why many imaginative retellings of these works have appeared in recent years.
If you are going to use a character who is in public domain, make sure you only draw upon stories that are in public domain. For instance, if you are writing a story about Count Dracula, don't draw upon a recently published Dracula novel in which the writer added some new facts about the character. The author of that novel likely owns the copyright on that new version of Dracula. Only use facts about Dracula that are found in original or older works for which the copyright has expired.
As with historical persons, a new story about a famous character or a retelling of a beloved story may sell better because it has more of an audience. But that also means readers will expect you to respect the characters or the aspects of the original story they love. Some readers might not be happy if you portray Sherlock Holmes as an incompetent drug addict of low intelligence or Elizabeth Bennet as a courtesan. (I could be wrong. You have to know your readership.) You can change a character so much they become unrecognizable, which misses the point of using them in the first place. But there is a lot of scope to write new stories about classic characters as long as you respect the source material and do it in a way readers will love.