This subject is steeped in legal concerns so don’t take chances if you don’t need to. I’m a gambling man, though we won’t discuss my win/loss ratio, and in my first novel I have real people for characters. My people have been dead for about 150 years which should provide me some cushion, but even then I could be a target for lawsuit if I don’t respect the usage requirements.
The first consideration is in how you portray your character. If the representation is defamatory in any way, then you shouldn’t do it. You are protected to an extent if you can prove the actions or dialogue are true, otherwise it is libel. Even then, the facts you reveal about the person, if they are not publicly known, can be an invasion of privacy.
The knowledge I have on most of my historical figures is slim, essentially some blood relatives, occupations, and maybe an achievement or two. For many, like the townsfolk of Berlin, my source is simply a census. I don’t have to use any of these names, but I like the idea that I could travel back in time and meet all my characters. That said, I’m sure they would speak differently, look differently, and perhaps be angry at my version of them.
Each of them have been given specific traits and descriptions that are unlikely to be true to the person, so I take care not to be insulting or show them in a poor light. You never know when one of their great great grandkids is wealthy and wants to protect the family name.
For anyone considered a villain taking to unscrupulous action, I turn to fiction. These characters are made to be disliked and do terrible things so I’m not going to base them on anyone that didn’t spring from my head. I suggest you do the same.
If you’re writing a nonfiction book that intends to make use of a real person, then be kind, be truthful, and be careful. If this person is evil and you want the world to know they are evil, then you must still be truthful, but also be suggestive. Don’t say “He is a terrible, puppy hating balloon popper that purposefully adds spoilers to movie reviews.” Tell the true and well known account of when they took a knife to a bunch of party favors. State how he has had five dogs that died well before average life expectancy. Paste excerpts from their poorly written and insensitive movie review blog. Do all of that, but don’t add opinion. Let the real life occurrences tell the story and the reader will conclude this person is evil.
If you’re writing a fiction book, and it is not parody, then ask yourself how closely you need this character to be like their real life counterpart. If you changed some of their traits, a little of their background, and obviously their name, would your story suffer? Would readers not be able to hate this person with as much passion as if they were real? Could they still draw parallels even if it wasn’t spelled out for them?
I think I’ve made the right choices to keep the ancestors of my novel’s characters happy and keep me out of the courtroom. I will be sure to update this blog with any future developments in this arena, perhaps from the prison library. In the meantime, use this article for reference, do additional research, and ask a lawyer if you’re really in doubt.
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