Writing famous people into a novel, anonymously

by Jennifer
(St. Paul, MN)

Question: I just stumbled on this fantastic site about 50 pages into my little mess of a novel, and have a question about a famous person being a character in a work of fiction.

I won't name any names, but one of my characters is modeled very closely after a famous (now deceased) individual. I want it to be somewhat obvious who his inspiration is, but I don't want to actually use his name, out of respect to his family and his memory, etc. - and also because there are some details of his personal life that are a bit inconvenient (i.e., he was happily married during the time I'm writing about him becoming romantically involved with someone else).

Is this more or less kosher from a legal standpoint? I was thinking of using a name with a similar "feel" to it, and making him just as famous in the book as he was in real life - and even the same occupation. Do I have to change the name of everything? For example, if the guy worked for the Ford Motor Company (he didn't - just an example), would I have to come up with some faux automotive company? If he invented the nose hair trimmer, do I instead say he invented an ear wax removal system?

I'm just thinking of that disclaimer you see sometimes at the end of a movie - how any similarities to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental. Uh huh. Sure they are!

A GIGANTIC thank you from the bottom of this humble writer's heart.

Answer: First, I am not a lawyer so don't take this as legal advice.

Political figures are generally fair game for this sort of thing. Other famous people can also be used, if you fictionalize them and change some details. A couple of examples off the top of my head: Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express was inspired by the kidnapping of Charles Lindberg's son. The film, Citizen Kane, was based on the life of William Randolph Hearst.

Where you can get in trouble is if you use real names and defame a person so that you financially harm him/her or his/her heirs. Ditto for if you use real companies and say bad things about them, especially if untrue, so that you might cost them business. (A simple mention, on the other hand, is free advertising for them.)

It's always safer to fictionalize.

Comments for Writing famous people into a novel, anonymously

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Jul 08, 2014
by: Bailish

But if you include a disclaimer at the front of the book of the form "Any similarity to any persons living or dead is purely coincidental", would be a lie, wouldn't it, thus opening yourself up to a lawsuit. And yet, the omission of this statement opens you up to lawsuits. I'm not sure fictionalizing is as safe as you suggest.

Jul 08, 2014
I didn't say it was safe...
by: Jennifer

That's why I'm asking!

Jul 08, 2014
by: Jennifer

Sorry - I misunderstood Bailish's comment - I thought it was a direct response to my initial question.

The character I'm creating is based on a famous movie actor. Not a political figure. But he needs to be in the film industry because the plot hinges on it. My protagonist is a time traveler who "steals" screenplays that haven't been written yet in order to get her foot in the door and launch her own writing career. There is also a love triangle but it's not the focus of the story - it's more a voyage of self-discovery and of the protagonist learning to trust that her own voice has value.

I belong to this particular actor's "fandom" and I know other stories have been produced about him before in this way - without actually using his name. I want to include him in some way but I studiously wish to avoid the awfulness that is fanfic. My story straddles comedy, fantasy, and romance.

Thanks so much, guys!

Jul 08, 2014
by: Glen

Again, I think you are better off fictionalizing. Change a few details of the actor's life, along with his name.

This will also make your book a little more timeless.

(For instance, what if you write your book about a specific actor and the next year new information about his life emerges, or something happens to him, that undermines the credibility of your story?)

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