Using Real People in Fiction

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
I recently read and enjoyed a well-reviewed crime novel called American By Day, by Derek B. Miller, in which a Norwegian detective travels to America to track down her estranged brother, who's implicated in the death of his girlfriend. He's hiding in a forested wilderness beside a lake, and to get to him first, she sabotages the local police force's boats and sends a SWAT team, run by a shoot-first-ask-questions-later knucklehead, to the wrong address. They break their way into the mansion, only to be confronted by actress Sigourney Weaver who's staying at her director friend Ang Lee's home while he's away making a movie. She was the perfect strong female character to prick the ego of the arrogant SWAT team commander. In the Thanks To credits at the end of the book, the author apologises to Sigourney Weaver for using her in this way. I wonder what she made of it.

Of course, factual historical novels interpret the lives of real people, imagining what their lives were like. I've recently enjoyed Alice Hoffman's The Marriage of Opposites, about the life of painter Camille Pissarro and his mother Rachel, and Lamentation, the latest novel in C.J. Sansom's excellent series about the life of Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer who interacts with the Royal household of King Henry VIII. George Saunders' Lincoln In The Bardo, about the mourning of President Lincoln for his dead son was a tremendous feat of storytelling and unlike anything else I've ever read, for its unusual structure.

These novels feature historical characters as protagonists, but what about mentioning real famous people in a novel set in modern times? There are potential problems to do with defamation of character, that could lead to a charge of libel. This tends to happen with newspaper stories, rather than fiction, but there have been cases of famous authors being clobbered with a libel lawsuit:

Best-selling author wins libel case -

More recently, Scarlett Johansson won a lawsuit against a French author, who portrayed a character similar to her as wildly promiscuous. The payout to her was so low, that it hardly looks like punishment!

Johansson wins payout from author

In writing a contemporary novel, it's pretty much impossible to not mention what's happening in the news—and that could include naming names and your characters' reactions to what politicians, Royalty, famous actors and musicians and mere celebrities have said or done. How could a novel set in the U.S.A. in 2018 not allude to The Orange One who is currently President?

These days, so many lines are crossed when it comes to personal privacy, what with social media, hacking, sales of personal data and CCTV surveillance of our lives, that it's as if we no longer care very much about preserving our dignity. There's a pervasive sense of entitlement that has developed in modern times, that we have a right to know about someone's life. It's something that we, as authors, need to consider when it comes to wording the bio that appears on our blogs and websites, our publisher's profile of their clients and even the mini bio on the cover of our book.

I freely admit that while I resent the idea of becoming public property, to promote my own books, I still enjoy finding out about the lives of authors. I'm always puzzled when I find a novel that doesn't have a photograph of the author on the cover flap. What are they—hideous?! o_O

Given that it's unavoidable that we're putting ourselves up for grabs—as citizens and as authors—should we have a conscience about using real people in our stories? Famous people can be touchy about privacy. It surely depends on how much detail we go into. In one of my Cornish Detective novels, I peripherally referred to the British Royal Family, when the Princes were visiting Rock, a favoured coastal playground of the wealthy, as a loss of police personnel to guard them and control public access to roads, affected the action in my plot, allowing an offender to escape.

I've also used a couple of ordinary people as a basis for fictional characters, friends who gave me permission to use details of their lives as a social worker and as a visual artist. I haven't had their fictional doppelgängers say anything that's contrary to their own viewpoint—I always send them extracts to check.

Have you placed real people in your stories?

Do any of your relatives, friends (or enemies) appear on the pages of your novel?

Have you read any stories where a famous person made an unexpected appearance?

Yes, Yes, and Yes.

I was listening to Maggie Stiefvater speak yesterday. She says she Frankenstein's people together. She made it sound as though she did it on purpose to avoid them being angry. I imagine it happening in a more organic sense. But I also think there are some people who don't use the people in their lives at all.
My husband insists that a character in one of my novels is him. I don't agree. I didn't do it consciously, but he's quite chuffed by it, so I let him believe.

And a dragon in one of my books is channeling the personality of an old friend. He knows it and loves it.

I've used names in first drafts, then taken them out, thinking better of it. However, our PM just walked into my current WIP the other day, and I think I'll leave her in. She's exactly what the MC needs at that moment, and I present her in a positive way, so I'm not worried. Might flick her the scene, just to make sure, before it goes public, but she's happy to do silly things in public so I expect all will be well.
I've used names in first drafts, then taken them out, thinking better of it.

My last book included a real person who I named as such - Brigitte Reimann, the great East German author. But she ended up being quite central to the plot and then I realised my timeline had her alive long after cancer had actually claimed her (at a ridiculously young age). So I 'fictionalised' her, which I mostly regretted though I did also feel a bit grubby for involving someone who'd had such a sad fate. Bertolt Brecht, however, I allowed to be himself (along with the obvious major players of the time - Honnecker, Mielke, Ullbricht etc). The characters in the book I'm working on now are nearly all entirely real people, albeit they've all been dead for 500 years, and again I'm getting that slightly grubby feeling because I'm making one of them a little bit petty and spiteful and I'm not sure I really have the right...
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40 No-Fee Calls for Submissions in June 2018 - Paying Markets