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Incorporating real people into fiction

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I'm looking for some guidelines on incorporating real-life people into stories. In particular, I'm talking about public figures, both minor and major.

I recognise the difficulty in including someone who may have an objection to being included in a work of fiction, so there's the legal aspect that I'd like (non-binding) opinions on. I will be trying to write them in a way that is consistent with their public persona, but I recognise that I may not get it right and they may object. I believe that as a public figure there is a certain scope allowed in including them without express permission, but I'm not sure where the boundaries lie.

Assuming that there's no legal problem or objection, what sort of disclaimer should be used in the story?

The context is that I'm writing a story about a sporting club that is co-existing with the real-life sporting clubs here in Melbourne. I'm happy to make a lot fictitious or anonymous (eg. unnamed players, or players only referenced by a common first name), but there are certain well-known people who realistically would get involved with the situation that's unfolding. Not including them feels wrong (any local would wonder why they weren't involved), and including them makes me feel uncomfortable (I dislike putting words into someone else's mouth). I'm not sure what to do.

Any advice?

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It might help if we knew more specifics. I mean, you're considering putting them into your story, so you might as well say who in particular you're talking about and what kind of things you want them to do/say in the story.

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The story is set in the world of Australian Rules Football. The top level competition is the AFL (Australian Football League) and there are a number of people at that level who have spoken out in relation to homophobia. For example, Eddie McGuire, the president of the Collingwood Football League has both made homophobic comments AND made comments about homophobia being unacceptable. He is apparently a strong support of Collingwood's gay & lesbian supporter group. As a major media personality (in addition to being the president of the football club), he would have a strong interest in any gay football player competing at a high level.

There are also several players who have spoken out on the subject, either as part of the International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO), or otherwise. For example, the Carlton football club's Brock McLean featured in a video as part of the Midsumma Festival as well as having marched in the Pride march.

How much can I include these people in my story and how much should I avoid it? I like realism, and realistically I expect that if my story was 'real' that at least some of these people would get involved. I'm uncomfortable ignoring them, and I'm uncomfortable including them without their approval. It's possible I could attract their attention, but I really don't see why they would pay any attention to me if I tried to contact them.

In all cases, I intend the characters in question to be portrayed positively (if you assume being against homophobia as positive).

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American writer E.L. Doctorow is regarded as the master of this technique. His novel Ragtime is a major example of how to successfully incorporate "real people" into a work of fiction, as are most of his other works.

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There are countless stories around about boy bands, using names of real teen idols. The boys are doing all sorts of naughty things. I think once you're famous, this sort of think becomes legal, you enter the public arena and the privacy protections afforded to the hoi polloi come off.

But certainly a strong disclaimer at the beginning stating the names of real people are being used for effect and the words and actions are yours, not theirs, and that story is pure fiction should suffice.


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I don't know anything about the legalities involved, but speaking strictly about how real-world individuals can fit into fictional works, I'd say there's a difference between citing their documented words and actions and having them interact personally, even second-hand, with the characters and events in your story. For example, it's one thing for your character to say something like, "Did you know that Real Personality A said he thought X about Y..." and another to have Real Personality A express those thoughts directly to your character. My personal reaction to the latter is that it introduces a jarring note that takes me out of the story. "Oh, really?" I find myself thinking.

Of course, when the whole purpose of the story is historical fiction, that's a different matter, as in the case of Doctorow's "Ragtime," as has been mentioned. But for contemporary personalities, incidental introduction of them directly into the narrative usually comes off as gratuitous to me. And anything more involved than that gets into the area of fan fiction which, again as a personal matter, is distinctly not my cup of tea.
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If it's fiction couldn't you write it so that it's obvious who they are to people in the know - AFL aficionados, but use pseudonyms for them?

That's part of what got me thinking about this. I read a story recently set in Australia and they used this approach. I actually found it jarring -- encountering the pseudonym took me out of the story because I immediately knew what they'd done was wrong.

If, for example, I refer to anyone other than Eddie McGuire as the president of the Collingwood football club, that would jar any Australian reader who has the slightest knowledge of AFL football out of the story because he's one of the best known figures in the sport because in addition to his role in football, he's also a major TV and radio presenter. He's been known as "Eddie Everywhere" by some of his detractors because he tends to crop up in all sorts of places. One of his homophobic gaffes was during the 2010 Winter Olympics when he made an inappropriate comment about Johnny Weir (American ice skater). He was a presenter there simply because he's very well known and popular.

So far with what I've written, almost all 'real' characters have been referred to indirectly -- they don't appear directly in the story. The exception is a couple of TV hosts in an interview, but I've put most of that interview off-camera (so to speak) so it's really only a couple of questions from the real-life hosts that appear in the question as actual 'footage'.

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I say just use "sortof" names, e.g. Eddie McGuire can be Eggie McDoom. He'll have the same job etc, and say things in character with Eddie McGuire, and any football fans will know exactly who he is. I think they did a similar thing with Rocky V, when they wanted to show notorious promotor Don King as the villain and just basically used a lookalike with a similar name and catchphrase.

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I enjoy using real life people in a story, but by the time I write about them they are long dead and cannot protest too much. But I understand where Graeme is coming from, the names do add credibility.

Steven's idea of these "sort of" names also works since everyone would recognize who I was mentioning if I said President Omama. But I may write historical fiction and in that the names of real people adds the credibility I desire, especially if I can quote them accurately. Otherwise Cole is quite right, the proper disclaimer is necessary.

There is a fiction writer's group here in South Florida called ANRALD, short for Absolutely No Resemblance to Anyone Living or Dead. A few screen writers, some very well published novelists, book sellers, and a president of Mensa. My father is a member and when they meet I get to chat with them although I have not joined. I asked about attribution to real people and they agree that at my level it isn't a problem...but sell a million books and things might change.

Take a leap Graeme, give the story your all.

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Another alternative is using first names or last names only and job titles to never outright name someone.

I remember back in the 90s there was a comic where Batman guest starred in a comic from another company (Image comics) and he told the other hero, "God, you're dumber than Clark." Image comics didn't have the rights to use Superman, only Batman, so they used the first name to create a Superman joke.

SImilarly you can have a reporter saying, "The captain of the Pitbulls teams sent out a tweet last night saying "I've got no problem with faggots". Or you could have the main character narrate, 'I turn around and found myself face to face with the best player in the whole country. "Um, Hi Mr. McGuire," I said. "Hey kid," he said to me. Is it true you're dating another guy?"

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The laws about this might be different in Australia than in the US or the UK. Maybe you could query some Australian authors who have written fiction with real-life people who are still alive.

Colin :icon_geek:

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The laws about this might be different in Australia than in the US or the UK. Maybe you could query some Australian authors who have written fiction with real-life people who are still alive.

I don't think that's true, as long as you have the disclaimer indicated by Cole above.

I'm reminded of Tom Clancey's 1987 worldwide best-selling spy novel Patriot Games, where in the opening chapter, his "Jack Ryan" character saves the lives of Prince Charles and Lady Di while they're attacked on the streets of London... and after he wakes up in the hospital, Queen Elizabeth walks in and knights him! I'd call that an example of a huge, significant novel that very definitely incorporated real people.

However... when the book was later made into a (mediocre) film, they changed everybody's name and made the prince somebody else, which to me ruined the effect. I think it happened because a) Charles had gotten divorced in the meantime, and b) the studio execs were pussies who got talked out of the original story by too many nervous lawyers. Charles came off extremely well in the book, like a very courageous, with-it kinda guy who was intelligent, capable of action when he had to, and yet also upper-crust and friendly.

The only time I've done this is when I used the names of actual LA newspeople in covering a fake news event in my novel Jagged Angel, and I did it mainly because I had a couple of friends at KNBC news, plus I thought it was a) funny and b) added some verisimilitude to the story. But: a good friend of mine who read the novel told me she thought was a little too inside and that the real names kind of pulled her out of the novel for a moment. Aaaaa, what does she know. :unsure:

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I can only offer the reserve shown by the makers of the Australian movie political satire, The Honourable Wally Norman.

The makers changed the names of the the two leading political parties into parodies of their real selves. This really diminished the power of the satire as far as I was concerned.

I think there is a fine line between using a real live person to do things in a story which they might not do in real life, and simply have them perform the duties they would normally do as in the cited case of Prince Charles. A little satire is usually okay, but misrepresenting a live person would leave one open to criticism if not a lawsuit. The problem being that as an author you must be very careful (with back up of any evidential articles) that no one is being maligned.

David Williamsons' play, made into film, The Club, may well be of use for Graeme, and I advise him to watch it if he hasn't already done so.

Personally, I would go for fictitious football clubs with fictional characters, unless the story is a biographical fiction, a history, or an indepth satire.

Most of my lawyer friends would advise caution. Aussie law is not the same as in the U.S.

Graeme, most lawyers will grant a one-off 30 minute free advice session, or a phone call, on such hypotheticals. Try calling your local Law Society to see if they can direct you to a lawyer who participates in such matters.

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This is how I would handle it. Just my opinion and I may be overcautious about it.

High level politicians and sports officials make statements and give speeches all the time and it's public record.

I would find what I needed from those speeches and statements and use them verbatim. In fact, I would probably use television or radio media to deliver the statements in a fictional context.

I might even go as far as to footnote the quotes.

You can't be accused of putting words in someones mouth when they have already used them.

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David Williamsons' play, made into film, The Club, may well be of use for Graeme, and I advise him to watch it if he hasn't already done so.

Personally, I would go for fictitious football clubs with fictional characters, unless the story is a biographical fiction, a history, or an indepth satire.

Thanks, Des. I saw The Club many years (decades?) ago and I'll admit that I'm taking some broad inspiration from it. I've also gone with a fictitious football club with fictional characters for the majority of the story. It's the interaction between them and the 'outside' world where my problem lies. There are some very well known football and media personalities that I feel need to be referred to in the story to make it feel 'real'. I have no problem with including them third hand so no words are put directly in their mouths, and to have their actions reflect their past and existing behaviour (as recorded by the media). It's a question of whether any of these people make a direct appearance in the story itself....

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I don't think there's a problem when you take a celebrity of some kind -- TV figure, sports star, politician, singer, whatever -- and make them a minor background character. The problem is if they interact with your characters and actually become part of the story... which Tom Clancey clearly did with Prince Charles. Since the book sold around the world (including England and Australia), I'm inclined to think it's OK in this context. Me personally, I would be reluctant to do anything more than make a living person just a very minor background character who has two or three lines.

Then again, there's Stephen King, who made himself a pivotal character in book 6 of The Dark Tower, to the point where a significant character sacrifices his life saving King! But at least in this case, King didn't have to pay himself royalties.

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The only people I'm considering doing this with are celebrities -- major or minor. If they weren't celebrities, I'd have no reason to include them :icon1: None will have a major part and I don't intend for any of them to say or do anything that's not compatible with positions they've taken publicly.

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Then you're fine. No problems. But I'd still recommend a disclaimer. Find a book that does what you're doing and read the disclaimer they use.

Standard American book disclaimer:

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. All trademarks and copyrighted material mentioned are the property of their respective owners; no infringement is intended or should be inferred. Any resemblance to actual events, locals, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Having said that... if anybody wants to sue you, they can, but it's tough to prove damages. If you wrote a book and made it entirely a story about a famous person doing things they would never do (or maybe even things they would do), that person could in theory sue you for trying to make money off their name. Same thing if you tried to publish a novel featuring -- as one example -- the Star Trek characters. Fan fiction is tolerated to a point; even Lucasfilm gave up trying to chase down all the fans who wrote their own Star Wars stories, and basically said "you can do it as long as it's not done commercially or for profit."

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I have had a similar question as I am currently writing a piece set against real events, so real people had to be mentioned. So I sort advice, this is a synopsis of what I got:

1. If at all possible avoid using real people in a novel unless they are dead. The dead can't sue for defamation.

2. If there is no alternative but to put them in then be very careful to make sure that everything you have them doing or saying is totally in character for them, best to use reportage of actual events and place your characters at the event. Remember the fact that something is true is not a defense against defamation actions.

3. Don't try to use pseudonyms for real people when the people can be identified, the fact that you have used a pseudonym is no defense against an action for defamation. If it is possible to identify the character, even where is disclaimer is used, there can still be grounds for defamation.

4. Be careful of invasion of privacy, not too big a problem in the UK or USA but can be a problem in a number of Australasian and European countries, for instance you may state something about a person that you know to be true but if that information is not in the public domain it is a breach of their privacy.

5. Remember that something may be permissible where you are writing but the law that will apply is the law where the work is published. With internet material that is deemed to be the country in which the item is viewed, so keep that in mind at all times.

That is a cut down version of what I got from a Law Professor who specializes in international publication law.

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That is a cut down version of what I got from a Law Professor who specializes in international publication law.

I believe your professor is mistaken. Again, go back and look at the books I've referenced, and you'll see that it can be done. In truth, though, nothing can stop you from being sued... but the question is whether they really want to go to that trouble. And if it's just online fiction, posted for free, nobody cares. The only possible exception there might be plagiarism or libel, but those are very separate issues.

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5. Remember that something may be permissible where you are writing but the law that will apply is the law where the work is published. With internet material that is deemed to be the country in which the item is viewed, so keep that in mind at all times.

I believe the key to this opinion lies in the last line of it. If this is accurate, it flies a very sobering flag of caution.

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But I again ask: how was Tom Clancy able to publish Patriot Games in 50 countries around the world?


I think there's such a thing as being over-cautious, and nobody is going to sue you for online fiction if their appearance in the book is clearly Fair Use. For example, if a character turns on the TV and Barack Obama is giving a speech, is that really going to be an issue? On the other hand, if you wrote a novel where a fictional character decided to murder the President and you provided lots and lots of exposition, dialogue, and details on how it was done, then I think some could construe this as a threat. But that's not the same thing as having a very minor background character deliver a couple of lines.

On the third hand: J.K. Rowling created a fictional Prime Minister in her final Harry Potter book, and all the UK government officials mentioned are all invented.

Here's a couple of good essays on the pros and cons of using real people in your novels:




The upshot is that it's much more dangerous to use private individuals as characters in your work, since they're not public figures. Whenever I've done that, I've changed the names, altered physical characteristics, and combined certain aspects with other people so they're pretty much unrecognizable. At best, the characters are an amalgam of several different people, to the point where nobody would know who inspired them but me. But if somebody turned on the radio and heard The Beatles, it's actually that group on the radio. There's no risk of the Beatles suing me. (Although... quoting from the lyrics is technically a copyright infringement if done without permission, but that's another problem.)

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