Fictional Story, Non-fictional People

“Hi Jim,

I’ve been reading your blog for quite a while now, and am hoping that you can offer me some advice. I am working on a piece of historical fiction and want to write in some historical characters. These characters would mostly be supporting roles, but I might make one of them a lead. The issue is that some of their family members are most likely still around (this story takes place in WW2). I don’t want to be disrespectful to them, and I definitely don’t want to get sued. How should I approach this?

Thanks,
Kimberly”

Hi Kimberly,

That one is a tall order. A really tall order. Well first of all, I’d advise you to DO YOUR RESEARCH! Make every effort to get the facts right about the person. Learn about their lives, the choices they made, and as much about their personality as possible before you write these characters in. This is a fictional piece, but even so, when you write historical fiction, YOU HAVE A RESPONSIBILITY TO GET THE HISTORICAL PART RIGHT!!

Next thing I would say to be careful of is if and how you portray someone in a negative light. Again, facts. Go with what you know to be historically accurate. Now should you choose to make one of your historical characters a villain… that’s where things get dicey. In my book, Divinity, I portrayed Pope Leo X as one of my villains, but it was mostly because of his political/spiritual views, which were historically accurate. Plus I had the advantage that most of my historical character are 400+ years old and most of their family lines have long since died out.

You on the other hand are writing about characters that are still fresh in people’s memories. You can’t libel the dead (at least not in the U.S.) so don’t worry about that so much, but there are other avenues that people can take to block your writing or sue. Other things like invasion of privacy can come up.

A good example of this would be back in 2011 when lawyers for the Estate of J.R.R. Tolkien sent a cease and desist letter to author Steve Hillard. They claimed that his novel Mirkwood violated the Tolkien Estate’s right of publicity because, among other reasons, Hillard depicted Tolkien as a character in his book. Hillard of course fought back, but this is really hot water you don’t want to get yourself into.

My personal advice would be to alter the characters. Create fictional ones based on the people you want to use, at the very least if you’re going to be portraying them in a negative light. Then make sure that you put a disclaimer at the front of your book letting people know that it’s a work of fiction. You want to cover yourself as much as possible.

But Jim, I really want this to be as historically accurate as possible. I really want to use the real people. (potential response)

In that case, I would do two things;

First, write your book out. Get everything out on paper so you have your ideas down. At this point, I would consider reaching out to said family members (if you can locate them), and ask them about their relative. Tell them what you’re trying to write and see where it goes. I’ve found that family members of a historical person are usually more than willing to share their info. If however they’re not, then I would seriously consider going back to what I said about changing the character to a fictional one.

Secondly, when all is said and done, consider having a lawyer look over your work. I’m not kidding. A couple of hundred dollars now to have a lawyer look over everything may seem daunting, but it’s better than getting in legal trouble later.

At the end of the day, when all is said and done, be respectful, be accurate, and be VERY careful with how you go about this. Lawsuits for this type of thing are rare considering how many books are published these days, but they do happen.

Good luck, friend. Please feel free to email me again if you need me to elaborate on anything I’ve said.

I’d also invite my readers to venture an opinion as well as to what Kimberly should do in this case.


Readers,

Do you have a question about writing, publishing, my stories, etc? Please feel free to post a comment or email me.
jimthewritingwizard@gmail.com
I’ll use those comments to select my next blog post.

I have been writing for several years, have 4 published works, experience with publishing and independent work, so I can hopefully be of assistance.
Please note, I only do one of these a day and will do my best to respond to everyone, but it may take some time.

Also, feel free to check out my works of Fantasy and Historical Fiction, Available on Amazon and where ever books are sold. See the link below:

http://www.amazon.com/James-Harrington/e/B00P7FBXTU

Thanks friends!
Catch you on the flip side!

-Jim

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One thought on “Fictional Story, Non-fictional People

  1. Val McBeath says:

    I am writing a historical fiction based on my Family History. All of the characters were real in Victorian England, and although all are long dead, I am still nervous about some of the storyline. You can’t liable dead people in the UK either but I’ve still changed the names of all the characters and will have a disclaimer to say (something like) ‘As all the characters had been dead for over 100 years before I started writing (and no living person knew any of the characters before they died) all assumptions about their actions and motivations are purely fictional’. I know it doesn’t help exactly with the question asked because that is more recent, but I agree with James that you can’t be too careful with this one.

    Liked by 1 person

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