Co-opting Real-life People to Be Characters in Your Fiction


While many authors love the freedom that creating a brand new and completely fictional character offers, others want to tell stories that involve people who exist or have existed in real life. It can be a powerful motivation for readers to want to read it but it can also be a minefield if it’s done badly. Here are a few things to think about to help you get it right.

Prepare to Do a Lot of Research
If you’re choosing to use a real-life person as a character, then you’ll have to know them inside and out, as much as is possible at least. And that means research. A lot of it. An awful lot of it to get the details right.

Jed Rubenfeld’s The Interpretation of Murder uses several real-life figures in the early 1900s movement of psychoanalysis (which at the time was new, controversial and in competition with neurology) as characters including Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Sandor Ferenczi, Ernest Jones and Abraham Brill. But he didn’t just decide to do it on a whim. He’d been fascinated by Freud for a long time, writing a thesis on the famous psychiatrist during Rubenfeld’s senior undergraduate year at Princeton. In particular, it seemed he’d been intrigued by Freud’s one and only trip to America. Little was known about what had happened while he was there and what, if anything, made him never want to return. It was the perfect gap to fill with a little bit of fiction informed by well-researched assumptions.

The book wove together real and fictional incidents so well that Rubinstein included an essay at the end to separate them out. He didn’t want to pretend that he had any idea what had really happened. He just wanted a vehicle for writing a cracking novel and perhaps to find a few new converts to his longstanding fascination with Sigmund Freud.

The More Famous the Better
The more famous the real-life person you choose to include in your story, the more information you’ll have access to. After all, if you’re going to write about somebody real, part of the reason is that they are already fully developed characters.

And from a marketing perspective, the better known your real-life character is, the wider the automatic audience there will be for your novel. But if part of your motivation is to get a less well-known person some of the recognition you think they deserve, it might be more work but it could be a lot more rewarding, too.

Alternative Histories
If you want to write a “what if?” alternative history, then using real-life people as characters is just a given. But remember all that research I was talking about earlier? Triple it.

The Deader the Better
Real-life people who are already dead are much less likely to kick up a fuss if they don’t like your depiction of them. And the longer they’ve been dead, the less likely it is their friends, children, grandchildren, associates and acquaintances will still be alive to take issue with your novel either (and try to sue the pants off you).

It also means if you want to use incidents that have no basis in fact that it’s easier to get away with. Phillipa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl was a smash hit and became just the first in a series but academics have pointed out its many historical inaccuracies. Of course, none of the books had to be historically accurate because they were fiction, not non-fiction.

These inaccuracies were probably the result of creative choices but many of them were based on the rumours going round at the time and long since afterwards. So it doesn’t mean you can get out of doing all that intensive research. It just means you can choose the facts that suit the story you want to tell.

People Who Are Still Alive
So what if you want to write about someone who’s still alive? It’s actually quite common to have real-life supporting characters. US presidents and European royalty get a lot of gigs in fiction. The key is usually to put them in stories that have absolutely nothing to do with their real lives. A fantastic example of this is John Birmingham’s Axis of Time trilogy. Colonel Harry Windsor (known more commonly as Prince Harry) is part of a military group that gets sucked back in time to the 1940s. It’s not really crucial that Prince Harry be in the book but it’s certainly a talking point.

Not a Vehicle for Vengeance
If you are going to head down the real-life and still alive route, it’s important to remember that this kind of fiction is not a vehicle for vengeance unless your goal is to hand over to the inspiration for the character all the profits from the book and everything else you own. If vengeance is your goal, then it’s important to do everything you can to disguise the real-life person you want to take your revenge on.

Attorney Lloyd J Jassin recommends the four Ds in order to avoid the fifth D (a defamation lawsuit):

*Disclaim – include a legal statement that the characters are not based on or inspired by real people; everyone knows it’s very rarely true but it’s a common practice.

*Disassociate – that is, change enough about the character to disguise them to everyone who doesn’t know them well.

*Depict (but don’t disparage) – truth is a defence to accusations of defamation so if you include real events without exaggerating their extent or making judgements, it’s hard to claim it’s the writer rather than the perpetrator who is responsible for the bad reputation.

*Wait for death – okay, so it might take a while but it’s the safest option apart from not writing about the real-life person at all.

Writers Who’ve Done It Well
There are plenty of writers who have paved the way in co-opting real-life people to be characters in their fiction but the king and one of the originals is, of course, William Shakespeare. Julius Caesar, Edwards, Henrys, Richards, King Duncan in Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra. I don’t think it’s a coincidence, though, that writers who have co-opted real-life characters into their fiction and done it well are good writers generally. After all, why bother with all that effort if you’re going to do it badly? So treat your real-life characters with the respect they deserve by putting them into a great story written well. It’s the ultimate compliment.

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