Writing famous people into a novel, anonymously
(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.