In this post, Writers Write explores the use of real-life people as characters in fiction.
Characters can be inspired by real-life events, or loosely based on real people. Sometimes, a character reference is more blatant: a fictional portrayal of a known person.
A risky and rare technique, some writers have pulled off what is called ‘real people fiction’.
Here’s how to write it legally and well.
The Use Of Real People As Characters In Fiction
What Is Real People Fiction?
Real people fiction uses portrayals of people or events, often famous ones that readers know. Names and identities can be changed, but the type of ‘real people fiction’ we mean here is more obvious.
Examples include the Eleanor Roosevelt Mystery Series by Elliot Roosevelt, Frank Sinatra in Underworld, and Marilyn Monroe in the Joyce Carol Oates novel Blonde.
These are real people, often deceased, implanted into fiction by the writer.
Something is ‘dramatised’ when it portrays real events, but with a fictional reconstruction. Something is ‘fictionalised’ when it is rooted in fiction using real characters, but not necessarily real events.
‘Fictionalised’ portrayals require less accuracy, while something that is ‘dramatised’ requires more attention to detail.
Authors are not usually advised to use real people in their fiction, but there are well done exceptions.
1. The Value of Disclaimers
A disclaimer is important, and tells the reader what they are about to read is a fictional portrayal. For this type of fiction, a disclaimer should mention that events and personalities mentioned are still fictional.
Disclaimers are a legal text, usually inserted by a publisher to avoid the possibility of libel lawsuits.
Especially for the use of characters who exist(ed) off the page, disclaimers matter.
2. Avoiding Libel & Reputational Damage
Libel is the worst case scenario for writers, especially ones who have identified someone in their fiction. Let’s be clear: libel is what you never want to happen.
Specifically, libel is any expression which causes harm or damage to someone’s reputation.
An unflattering (or damaging) portrayal that cannot fall under parody law is almost automatically libel. Deliberate misrepresentation of facts and quotes can also be libel.
Always be careful, whether your character is alive or not. Estates can sue, too.
3. Permissions From The Living
Permission is a powerful thing. If you want to use a real person as a fictional character, the safe approach is to approach the person (or their representative) with the idea.
Not all adaptations need permission, but it makes things easier for the person, the publisher, and the writer.
Parodies of many stars in shows like Family Guy or The Simpsons are done with permission (or as cameos starring the actors, via their agents): this is how you don’t get sued.
If the person you want to portray is deceased, contact estates, trusts, or living family members to avoid trouble.
4. Dramatised (Of People Or Events)
Dramatisation is a specific type of real people fiction, whereby a writer imagines how true events would have happened. The rules are different, and accuracy is more important – though sometimes, bent a little for things that are impossible to tell (but viable to guess).
Good examples are The Murder Of King Tut by James Patterson, and Portrait Of A Killer by Patricia Cornwell. From Hell by Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell is another one. Of course, these are not all.
Dramatisations like these are often based off famous events, using imagination to fill in gaps. Real-life resources and permissions can still be important.
Historical fiction often crosses into dramatisation.
Excellent examples of historical fiction writers who have made careers out of their dramatisations include: Philippa Gregory, author of The Other Boleyn Girl, and Dame Hilary Mantel, multiple winner of the Booker Prize and author of Wolf Hall.
5. Abe Lincoln & Vampires: How To Do It Well
Real people can appear in fiction, where they are used as part of the plot or storytelling vehicle. Think of them as a video-game NPC (non-playable character), or a fictionalised cameo to picture it.
One great example is Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith.
The events are obviously not real (or surreal!), though the imagined personality of Lincoln as a character is used to tell the story.
The Jane Austen Mysteries by Stephanie Barrion uses author Jane Austen as a sleuth, with no actual events based on her life.
Accuracy is less important, but being careful about the story remains. Libel rules would still apply, and permission can be relevant.
6. Patterson & King: When Not To Do It
Have you ever heard about a book called The Murder Of Stephen King by James Patterson?
Intended as clever real-life fiction, the concept was raised by Patterson – who eventually decided that a book where one living author kills another is probably a bad idea.
On mutual agreement from both writers, the idea was scrapped for being too risky.
Fiction, especially with real people, should never inspire harm or the thought of it.
For Further Reading
Real people fiction is an elaborate topic, for which one article could not give enough legal background. For writers who need further reading, have a closer look at some of these articles for the mindful writer:
- Using Celebrities & Other Real People In Fiction (Charm City Legal)
- Real People In Fiction (Copylaw.com)
- Novelists & Real Life Characters (The Guardian)
The Last Word
In this post, Writers Write explored the use of real people in fiction. With any great idea, comes great responsibility. We hope that the articles on Writers Write can help you to write better (and more often!).
By Alex J. Coyne. Alex is a writer, proofreader, and regular card player. His features about cards, bridge, and card playing have appeared in Great Bridge Links, Gifts for Card Players, Bridge Canada Magazine, and Caribbean Compass. Get in touch at alexcoyneofficial.com.
If you enjoyed this, read other posts by Alex:
- 8 Proofreading Tricks (That Save Valuable Time)
- 7 Techniques Of The Faustian Story
- Famous Rejection Letters & Their Lessons For Other Writers
- 8 Self-Published Books (That Went Big)
- The Art Of The Complaint Letter
- 6 Bits Of Writing Advice From Authors’ Letters
- The Art Of Writing Fiction With Fewer Settings
- 8 Statistics About The Writing Industry (You Should Know)
- 5 Incredible Story Beginnings & Endings
- 7 Tips For Writing Competitions