Writing Modern People in Fiction

Hello, Jim–

I was wondering if you had any insight to offer on a dilemma I’m facing in a current novella draft:
The story is a blend of Alternate History and general scifi, set in a world where a much more aggressive Space Race and Cold War has led to the establishment of a joint USA-USSR colony on the Moon by the late 1990s, ostensibly as a neutral site for lunar and space experiments, as well as helium-three mining. Most of my characters are fictional, but many of the secondary ones are public figures, including real astronauts or other personnel involved in flight engineering and other aspects of space travel; some are deceased, while at least one is himself a published author. I am concerned about using such figures due to possible legal issues (which I am still unclear on, despite diligent searching and questions elsewhere), but I don’t want to go back and redesign the characters, which might involve scrapping the whole draft (something I’ve already done once before with this one). Do you have any suggestions on how to sort this out?
Sincerely,
Mark Ciccone

Hi Mark,

This is a tough one. On the surface, you can argue that they are real people being exposed to fictional situations, but that still won’t cover you. In the past, I’ve had people ask me about historical figures or past political ones. However, those people have always been deceased and you can’t libel a dead person. Now even then, you’re not free from legal challenge or public scrutiny, especially if that person has an estate and living relatives.
This is a complicated problem, especially if you’re going to to through the self-publishing realm. Again it would be easier if a publisher were involved because then a lot of the legalese is sorted out by them. However if you do self-pubish and even if you don’t, you could be getting yourself into trouble. This is ten-fold with self publishing as you PERSONALLY are responsible for any legal woes.
I have two suggestions for you and neither one is really going to be easy…
1. First, contact an attorney, let them guide you through the legalities here (I am not an expert, so I will tip my hat to their knowledge). I would also reach out to the people in question. Try to speak to them personally, let them know what you’re doing, and what you’re planning on using them for. Finally, get written authorization from these people. Again, this won’t be fool-proof protection, but in the case of a cease and desist or lawsuit, it will help your defense.
2. Change the characters. I’m afraid this is my recommendation.  Keep your characters as they are, but change the names and make them slightly less recognizable. I know it’s not what you want to do, but believe me, it is the easiest way to save yourself a headache down the line.
Like it or not, if you go with option one, no matter how much you insulate yourself, no matter how much you follow the letter of the law, there is virtually nothing preventing the people you write about from contacting their attorneys and issuing a cease and desist letter demanding that you cease production, destroy whatever copies you have, and send them whatever money you have made off of your book. You can fight this, but legal battles are not cheap and for authors who don’t make much money off of their books, it’s hardly worth the effort or risk. This is arguably the more lenient possibility.
The other could be a lawsuit for libel, which will be far more costly.
Now what are the chances that any of the people you write about ever reading your book or deciding to take legal action against you? Arguably, that’s very slim. The cost of legal action is often not worth whatever damages they get paid out, but you never know. Some might file the suit based on principle alone.
So in the end… I’m sorry, but I’m afraid my advice is to simply alter your characters enough that they aren’t exactly the people you’re trying to write about. It won’t be easy, but you’ll be better off in the long run when it comes to having to worry about losing your hard work or earned money.
However, as with always, that’s just my opinion. I’ve got a lot of other knowledgeable people amongst my followers, so let’s open it up to them as well.
Readers- what do you think Mark should do? Should he chance it, or should he simply go through the process of altering those characters?
Just a quick reminder, I am not a lawyer, not am I any sort of legal expert. I give out advice on writing based on my own experiences. When it comes to any legality, my advice is as it always has been; CONTACT A LAWYER!!!


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

Note:
If you have read my books, PLEASE log into Amazon and post a review. I really love to hear everyone’s thoughts and constructive criticisms. Reviews help get my book attention and word of mouth is everything in this business!

Thanks friends!

Catch you on the flip side!

-Jim

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4 thoughts on “Writing Modern People in Fiction

  1. Reblogged this on Professor Porkchops' Lab and commented:
    Always love thought out advice. Hope this gets out to someone who needs it.

    Like

  2. I’m afraid I choose to take the coward’s way out: I NEVER write about anyone who was ever real – they’re all in my head (and yet I suspect some of them will sue me, anyway…)

    Like

  3. I have to also go with option two. Analogs are safer than using the real people. If you mention an alternate life for a person (for example the events of the altered history leads to someone being more or less famous than they were–unless you just want to make someone you don’t like look bad and being mean about it) is one thing, but using them in the actual story and making them prominent is opening yourself up to trouble. With analogs and original characters you can basically do what you want with little repercussion.

    Liked by 1 person

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