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When Fiction Meets History

When fictional characters interact with real people, writers worry about being sued. Since many of the characters in my novels are historical figures, I worried. I worried so much I drove four hours to visit an attorney who specializes in such things. And, thankfully, I learned I’ve got the law on my side.

However, there are things we need to remember when we allow our characters to bump into real people. First, we need to differentiate between public figures and non-public figures. Normal, everyday, non-famous people are afforded more right to privacy than are public figures. Therefore, while it’s fine to mention a public figure in your novel (as long as what you say is either true or non-defamatory), even saying something that is both true and non-defamatory about your neighbor or your third grade teacher can land you in trouble. Why? Because they have a right to privacy. If you really want to use your third grade teacher in your novel, it’s important to change his name and his description, including what grade he taught and where he taught it, so no one could reasonably identify him based upon the things you’ve said.

Public figures do not share in this right to privacy. Because they have typically benefited in one way or another by being a public figure, they have revoked their right to expect privacy. Therefore, it is fine to use a public figure in your fiction as long as what you say about him or her is either true or non-defamatory. For example, you may have your twelve-year-old character bump into Chicago Bear’s Quarterback Jay Cutler. If you portray Jay as a nice guy who autographs a photo for the kid or if you use a perhaps not-so-flattering but factual incident as a guide, you’re fine. But if you make up a story about Mr. Cutler that is both untrue and not very nice—such as saying the kid witnesses Jay shoplifting a candy bar at a convenience store—you’re walking on thin lawsuit ice with suited sharks circling just beneath the surface.

Since much of what I have written about public figures is not just unflattering but downright frightening, I did my homework. I researched. I spoke to people who personally knew these famous individuals. I researched some more. I made sure that if I said General Ver kept as souvenirs the eyeballs of those he killed, it was well-documented that this was something he did. If I portrayed Imelda Marcos as vain and Ferdinand Marcos as narcissistic, well, history bears that out.

Bottom line: Do your homework. If you use common people in your fiction, tread carefully, disguise, and/or gain written permissions. If you use living public figures in your fiction, be sure you do not defame. If you use dead public figures, be true to history, although know it’s legally not possible to defame a dead person. Still, you want to remain as accurate as you can to protect your integrity as a writer. Good luck!

Disclaimer: I am not an attorney and I cannot dispense legal advice. If you are uncertain about your potential liability in presenting a real person in your fiction, please discuss this with an attorney familiar with libel law.