How To Get Away With Using Real People In Your Story

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You know that famous phrase, ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’? How about, ‘fake it ‘til you make it’? And what about, ‘to the left, to the left, everything you own in a box to the left’? Okay, that last one is totally irrelevant to this article, but still a stone-cold classic from Beyoncé’s back catalog, and worth remembering for drunken karaoke nights, nonetheless. The other two are relevant, and they’re the secret to getting away with using real people (including celebrities) in your story.

There could be any number of reasons why you fancy dropping Nicole Kidman, Chris Pratt, or your racist Uncle Dave (who you’re pretty sure has a couple of bodies in the trunk of his car) into your story. Whatever the reason, as you sit with your fingers poised over the keyboard, ready to type up that climactic ending in which Detective Nicole Kidman finally gets the drop on Uncle Dave and discovers his hoard of Nazi memorabilia, you’re probably wondering, Can I do this? The answer is simple: absolutely not. Sorry about that.

Writing about real people is risky business, but you CAN do it.Click To Tweet

But that doesn’t mean you can’t ever include real people in your story at all, be they famous or mere mortals. You definitely can, but you need to be fully aware of the legalities and ethical rules of doing so. That’s what I’ll be covering today, although keep in mind that while we definitely do our research, the following does not constitute legal advice.

Rules for using real people who are famous

First and foremost, Detective Nicole Kidman is a hard no. The reason is – you being the puppetmaster of their behavior and their world – you’ll be putting made-up words into their mouths and commanding them to do, think, and believe things that may conflict with what they’d say and do in a fictional situation, or what they think and say in real life.

This is instantly intruding on their ‘right of publicity’, and you could be liable for defamation charges. You may think you’ve memorized everything there is to know about Nicole Kidman from her Wikipedia page, and be confident that you could write her as close to reality as possible, but you just shouldn’t take that risk. It won’t pay off.

I mean that literally; if Nicole Kidman ever finds about your Nazi-busting detective thriller, she already has the army of slick lawyers to sue you for every cent you’re worth. You may wonder why someone as rich and seemingly untouchable as Nicole Kidman would worry about small things like this, but the fact is, famous people like her earn a living not just through their talents, but just by establishing a personal brand. Their name and image has ‘independent commercial value’, which they have to protect. The looming threat of a celebrity enforcing their rights means publishers will be very wary of stories in which they feature without permission.

You know what you could get away with, though? A cameo from Nicole Kidman, as long as that cameo is true to life. Perhaps Uncle Dave is a secret fan of Nicole Kidman, and pops on a DVD of Moulin Rouge after a particularly tiring killing spree. Perhaps, while out shopping for a human-sized cage, he finds himself warmly remembering the years when she was married to Tom Cruise. Both of these things are verifiable, an outside observer can see that they’re factual accounts, so they would be fine to include.

If you want to say something about a celebrity, make sure it’s verifiable. Click To Tweet

It would also be fine if Uncle Dave thought or voiced an opinion about Nicole Kidman that was accurate to real life, like, “Gee, I sure do enjoy her Australian accent.” Real people reference celebrities quite a bit in their thoughts and conversations, so these kinds of mentions actually give your characters more credibility.

What about if Nicole Kidman was dead? As sad as that would be, and as morbid as it is to consider, it would be safer than using her when she was alive, as the right of publicity and claims for defamation die with the celebrity.

Another viable option for using famous people – if you really want to be on the safe side – is to try and obtain a release from either them or their estate. This probably won’t be an easy feat, and if they or their estate review the work prior to publication, don’t like what they read, and deny you the go-ahead, you’ll be stuck. Seeking legal advice on whether or not this is worth your time might be advisable.

Rules for using ordinary people

You may think that someone without Nicole Kidman’s fame wouldn’t be as big a problem to include in your story, but Uncle Dave – racist though he may be – still has rights. In fact, believe it or not, writing about his life is considered an even more severe intrusion on his privacy than it would be for Nicole Kidman. This is because, unlike Kidman, Uncle Dave doesn’t live a life in the spotlight. His relative non-fame also won’t guarantee he’ll be any less likely to sue you for exploiting or publicizing his reputation.

Again, you can still use a real person, but just make sure that you do one, or both, of these things:

  1. Stick to the verifiable truth. You may strongly suspect that Uncle Dave really does have that secret Nazi treasure trove in his basement, but a ‘strong suspicion’ isn’t fact, and even if you know it’s down there (after stealing the key during a particularly dull family get-together), revealing that information in your story would be considered an illegal invasion of his privacy. Even if you plan to stick to the truth, it’s almost always still advisable to…
  2. Use them as inspiration for a character, not as the character themselves. This rule applies to any real person, really. If you make that person totally unrecognizable – and not just in appearance – you should be fine to use them as a character. This technique has been used in everything from the Harry Potter books to Animal Farm, and often elevates a message even as it provides safety.

Writing about your family, or people about whom you are privy to sensitive information, is ethically murky water, especially without their knowledge or permission. What could be a cathartic or fun exercise for you could be a humiliating or hurtful experience for them. It’s a similar principle to hacking into celebrities’ online storage and leaking their private photos. Just because that person took and stored them, and you managed to discover them, doesn’t mean it’s okay to make that content public.

Being written about can be incredibly invasive, so be sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.Click To Tweet

Again, this doesn’t mean you can’t tap into your own experiences as a source of inspiration, but you need to ensure that you guard that sourced reality with a thick layer of fiction, or your story might have the same incriminating air as a celebrity ‘tell-all’.

Back to those famous phrases…

Artists are fundamentally observers and interpreters of the world around them. As a kid, I learnt to draw realistically by copying everything. I would copy models from fashion magazines, superheroes from comic books, and – later in life – real people in life-drawing classes. Similarly, I would craft stories by borrowing characters from cartoons and books, or even project personalities onto my toys. This is why I mentioned those famous phrases earlier. Because they’re true – to a point. The best way to learn how to create more realistic characters is to observe, analyze, and copy real life. Once you’ve got this down to a tee, you then have to learn to tweak and bend reality into something entirely new and mostly original.

Combine multiple real people into a compelling character. Click To Tweet

Even better, copy and borrow from multiple sources to create a composite character based on lots of people you know. You want to copy realistic traits, not whole people. Ultimately, threading realism into a fictional character will nearly always make them more compelling than a carbon-copy of a real person.

If you want to know more about this method, check out Resource 10 in 40 Exercises And Resources Every Author Needs. Think turning real people into fictional characters is hard? We’ll show you how to turn a garden into a ballerina! Or, if you want to stick closer to the truth, try Writing Creative Non-fiction – How To Stay Safe (And Legal). Got any questions about the legalities of your story? Drop me a line in the comments or contact us for a story consultation.

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20 thoughts on “How To Get Away With Using Real People In Your Story”

  1. I have a lead character in my novel that rents a storefront from Al Capone in Chicago a few years before Capone dies. Capone only speaks briefly in one scene of my story, stating how he enjoys how the lead character plays his trumpet. So the only two things I infer about Capone is that he owns a building (which is rented to lead character) and I have him state how he likes how the lead character plays his trumpet. Regardless of Capone being dead or alive, is this safe enough to keep? Should I omit this from the story? Thank you so much in advance

    1. Hi Franco,

      You’ll be pleased to hear that the answer to your question is pretty simple: Yes, using historical real people should be totally fine because – in the eyes of the law – there’s no danger of defamation of character or invasion of privacy.

      There is something called a “right of publicity” which famous people continue to have in death, but this only really concerns use of famous dead people or their image for commercial use which – in this circumstance – courts have ruled doesn’t apply to books. By the sounds of it, Capone should be safe to stay in your story.

      Hope that’s helped answered your question.

      Thanks,

      Hannah

      1. Thank you so much for the reply. It’s always nice to get straight answers from people with more experience than I. Very much appreciated.

        1. Hi Franco,

          You’re very welcome. Full disclosure – I know nothing about the law so I deferred to those that do to get the answer to your question, which was luckily very clear cut!

          Thanks,

          Hannah

    2. Plus, Al Capone really liked jazz music. So that part is true too. Your book sounds really interesting. Do you plan to publish it?

      1. Hi. I’m glad you find it interesting. Maybe you’d like to read the rough draft of my log line:
        Separated by World War 2, a white trumpeter searches all over America for his black singer fiancé to get married and complete their jazz album despite racism, poverty, and Rock N Roll taking over.
        That’s a rough draft log line. What do you think?
        I’ve done a lot of research on jazz, history, WW2, American cities and more. So the project took a long time. A little more to go. I plan to query early next year and try the traditional publishing route.

        1. That sounds amazing! I’m writing a novel set in the Roaring Twenties that features a NYC prohibition agent, so I understand all the research it takes to write an accurate story. Would you be interested in me being a Beta reader for your story (if you’re still in the critique stage)? I would love to read the whole thing. If not, that’s fine too! I’ll keep an eye out for your book when you publish! Good luck!

          1. I’d love to have someone read my work. I’d also love to read yours as well if you’d like. I don’t believe this story is ready for an audience quite yet, but I could share a rough draft of the first chapter. I’m not sure if this site has any rules about exchanging info, but my email is [removed by moderator]. Feel free to contact me.
            My name is Franco. I presume yours is Haley?

          2. Hi Franco,
            We have no problem with people exchanging contact info. To protect your privacy, I have removed your email address from the comment and will pass it on to Haley privately.

  2. I’ve wondered about this because I’ve done it a lot in my WIP. (I’ve already accepted that I’ll probably need to change it. My only defence is that naming characters is tedious and so I cheated and used variants of real names of famous people who are somehow linked to my theme or the names of minor characters from a novel that is thematically related. I got the idea for the latter from Jane Austen who I think picked up the name Fanny Price from a poem, or maybe a novel.)
    Using your example of Detective Nicole Kidman, would it still be illegal if you change the name to something like Detective Nicole Kidlington and then changed one or more characteristics (eg hair colour or accent)?

    1. Hi Kale,

      Thanks for commenting. Unfortunately, the existing law on this isn’t minute enough to be so exact. Basically, the expectation is that you stick to the spirit of the law as described above, with those who err too close to the edges making their case in court.

      Best,
      Rob

  3. Llewelyn LaVista

    Hello,

    Many years ago I began working on a book about a kid called Jeremy who meets an alien from the planet Zoom named Tipsy, and Jeremy discovers bands through Tipsy when he sneaks him backstage to gigs, and I want to continue that and make it publication-worthy. The bands in question are all real; I always wanted to write this book to pay tribute to my favourite bands and possibly make them want to meet me! Would that be OK, as long as I portrayed every one of them accurately and respectfully, with nothing scandalous or slanderous? After all, that comic strip in Kerrang! always did pretty much the same thing with bands when the character Pandora (and now Webs) met them. Also, would it be better, for instance, if I didn’t have Shaun Ryder refer to drugs or sex until Jeremy was grown up?

    1. Hi Llewelyn,

      It sounds like this premise would put you on shaky ground, if only because what one person considers accurate and respectful may not meet the same standard as their subject. I’d recommend you look into the laws around parody and satire as they relate to this type of writing:

      //www.standoutbooks.com/fan-fiction-legal/

      Best,
      Rob

  4. I’ve written about two thirds of an account of the driving school business my husband and I started from scratch and ran for 25 years. We employed more than 150 staff in that time, met thousands of pupils some of whom are in the public eye. I initially thought of writing to the agents of said celebrities asking if they minded the world knowing that they learned their driving skills with us but changing the names of all staff and pupils. Then I realised that the more colourful characters are likely to want to read of their exploits without the alias. A few of the tales show the staff in less than a favourable light. If I change those names but leave the others, would this be a problem? I’d really like to know before I complete the book and should be most grateful for your advice.

    1. Hi Hilary,

      Obviously, it’s a gray area, and there’s a legal difference between publishing verifiable truths that the subjects don’t like and publishing unverifiable accounts that subjects claim are inaccurate (that said, as ever, being technically in the right doesn’t mean you don’t have to go to court, which is something most indie authors I know want to avoid.)

      My personal advice would be to change all names, and this is for a couple of reasons. First, creating a deliberate divide between the ‘good’ accounts and the ‘bad’ accounts might say more than you intend. If I’m someone who believes they can be identified from your account even though you changed my name (if, for example, I think people in the same industry will know you mean me,) I can then also prove that you knew you were saying something negative about me because there’s a clear pattern of what you think is negative. Second, people are strange animals, and there are a hundred reasons someone might object to an account that someone else thinks shows them in a good light (maybe, for example, they think an even BETTER light is accurate, and they’re being done down,) so there’s no reason to deprive yourself of protection in such cases.

      None of this is legal advice, just what I’d do, but people are so complex and the law so specific that it’s generally best to avoid identifying individual people when there’s another option.

      Best,
      Rob

  5. Thanks for your service, and I hope you`re still receiving comments on this article.

    I`ve written a fan fiction novel based on a real-life political couple. I can hardly believe it turned out that lengthy, but it was one of those times when you just keep typing and chuckling. (Blame it on quarantine.) Trying to make money from this story is out of the question. The question is, should I slap a silly nom de plume on it and toss it out there for the entertainment of others?

    The plot takes elements of the couple`s real lives and combines them with obviously fictional elements from superhero, science fiction, and murder mystery genres, making the whole thing way too absurd to be mistaken for a biography. A possibly sticky part: it also contains explicit erotica. Nothing nasty. This is definitely fanboy fiction that views their relationship in a positive light.

    If I do toss this thing onto the internet, it`s unlikely ever to come to the attention of the busy people it`s based on, but you never know. Probably there`s no point in directly contacting them for permission, because no matter how they actually felt about it, any lawyer would advise them it`s better to be paranoid than sorry.

    Maybe I could keep it under the radar by submitting it to a website that caters to very specific tastes. Does that sound reasonable?

    The names of people and locations could be changed, but the identities of the main characters would remain so obvious that the pseudonyms would read like a joke. Do you think I should bother making these changes?

    Bottom line, I guess I`m looking for ethical rather than legal insight. On the one hand, writing this story has brought me a ton of amusement which I`d like to share with like-minded others, who I have a feeling are numerous. On the other hand, I wouldn`t want to cause any grief. But for all I know, the potential for grief here might be imaginary. My head is spinning with the difficulty of quantifying the factors involved.

    Thanks for reading my question!

  6. Good evening. I am writing a non-fiction love story. I am confused if I can or can’t put someone famous in my novel. I understand mentioning a name is okay. The same goes for a place of reference, be it a restaurant, town, etc. My character gets called up on stage to perform a song of my choice to sing with this person. Kind of like Michael Buble’ does when he picks someone from the audience to sing along with him. Is this something I could do? I don’t recall this performer doing a segment like this, which is letting someone from the audience sing with him. Therefore, I’m not sure since this is something out of the ordinary for this famous person. I appreciate the feedback and guidance.

  7. Hello!! thank you so much for the advice you’re giving! it’s been very helpful!
    I was wondering if you could help me out with some legal concerns about the novel I’m writing.
    I’m starting to write the story of a person who travels through time, all the way to the roaring ’20s (the 1920 decade). In the story, the main character (completely fictitious) meets 3 Cuban musicians (actual people, all of them are dead already) and befriends them. In my story, they will be interacting a lot, and my fictional character would fell in love with one of them, but could not be requited since this person is gay (a real yet not well-known fact). Also, in one part of the story, my fictitious character would deliberately stop the suicide attempt the real character committed in his real life and then would give his life a different and happier ending.
    Also, I would like to know if it’s possible to mention (or infer the existence) of a very famous song they wrote since that’s the way the character gets to know about them.

    PD: they aren’t wildly known celebrities and their lives were rather unknown.

  8. I’m completing a memoir in which I describe episodes about famous people I know, people with whom I have or have had a friendship. Can I tell a true story about them–a story that involves an important moment in my life–without fear of harm?

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