Image: Matthew Loffhagen
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:
- 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…
- 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.