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Using real people in a story?

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Offline emilynemchick Reading
13 Feb 2014, 05:44 PM | Post: #1

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Using real people in a story?

I should really know this, and I'm sure there have been many discussions about it, but I thought I'd put it to the great minds of the KUF.
I'm currently helping out an author with his book. Without giving away too many details, it is a PA in which he blames a certain very well-known leader for having created the chemical warfare which has wiped out 90% of the population in his fictional book. What I want to know is: is he allowed to do that?
I'd appreciate any insight!
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Offline Mads Sorensen Reading A Quiet Life by Natasha Walter
13 Feb 2014, 05:53 PM | Post: #2

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RE: Using real people in a story?

My gut reaction is an absolute no. Even if it's technically legal, which I'm not sure it is, it really isn't worth the risk. There's a reason for disclaimers such as, 'any likeness to real people...is coincidental'.
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Offline emilynemchick Reading
13 Feb 2014, 05:55 PM | Post: #3

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RE: Using real people in a story?

That was my gut reaction too, Mads. It doesn't seem worth the risk even if people do get away with it. Thanks for your input.
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Offline davidwailing Reading
13 Feb 2014, 06:03 PM | Post: #4

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RE: Using real people in a story?

What a great question! Technically this is libel, which is defamation of character in permanent (written) form, and therefore illegal. If the author is claiming something untrue about a living person, in a way that could cause harm to their reputation, that is defamation of character.

In practice, the chances of legal action being brought to bear because of a work of fiction are very low - especially if the 'well-known leader' is a politician of high standing, about whom many libellious works probably exist!

My advice would be to inform the author that he is commiting libel, and that although he's unlikely to get sued, it is technically possible - thus covering yourself if the worst happens.

Anyone else have experience/knowledge of this?
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Offline emilynemchick Reading
13 Feb 2014, 06:08 PM | Post: #5

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RE: Using real people in a story?

Thanks, David. It struck me as something which could definitely be considered libel, although the context is clearly fictional. I'll be sure to give him a heads-up.
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Offline emilynemchick Reading
13 Feb 2014, 06:11 PM | Post: #6

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RE: Using real people in a story?

Another question: would it be okay if an author alluded to 'the leader of x country' as the perpetrator of heinous acts without mentioning specific names along with a disclaimer? (Although it would still be bleeding obvious who he meant?) Or would he have to fabricate a fictional person?
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Offline Daphne Reading Wanted by Tim Arnot
13 Feb 2014, 06:35 PM | Post: #7

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RE: Using real people in a story?

I recently read The Ghost by Robert Harris in which a British Labour prime minister is accused of war crimes. The prime minister is called Adam Lang, but has been described as “a thinly disguised version of Blair”. Reading it, the disguise is very thin and readers may draw their own conclusions. No libel case was bought. Could your author use a different name for his character as Robert Harris did? Or even make him the premier of a different nation and allow readers to draw parallels whilst not being specific?
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Offline Mads Sorensen Reading A Quiet Life by Natasha Walter
13 Feb 2014, 06:46 PM | Post: #8

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RE: Using real people in a story?

The trick is to change a few characteristics along with the name while keeping the real person recognisable in the fictional character. 'Thinly disguised' rather than 'identical'. If the person is well known, this shouldn't be difficult.
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Offline Ray Kingfisher Reading No, Writing.
13 Feb 2014, 06:49 PM | Post: #9

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RE: Using real people in a story?

(13 Feb 2014 06:35 PM)Daphne Wrote: Wrote:  I recently read The Ghost by Robert Harris in which a British Labour prime minister is accused of war crimes. The prime minister is called Adam Lang, but has been described as “a thinly disguised version of Blair”. Reading it, the disguise is very thin and readers may draw their own conclusions. No libel case was bought. Could your author use a different name for his character as Robert Harris did? Or even make him the premier of a different nation and allow readers to draw parallels whilst not being specific?

Agree.

If it's arguably coincidence (even if it's bleedin' obvious it isn't) I don't think it would ever get to court. Look at Yes, Minister and Absolutely Fabulous.

Having said all of that, Emily, whatever advice you pass on (e.g. that the author should disguise the figure somehow) I would stress (politely) that you are not in the legal profession and that they should consider getting legal advice before publishing.

That would be helpful but would also cover yourself it it blew up (which is very, very unlikely).
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Offline Mads Sorensen Reading A Quiet Life by Natasha Walter
13 Feb 2014, 06:57 PM | Post: #10

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RE: Using real people in a story?

(13 Feb 2014 06:49 PM)Ray Kingfisher Wrote: Wrote:  
(13 Feb 2014 06:35 PM)Daphne Wrote: Wrote:  I recently read The Ghost by Robert Harris in which a British Labour prime minister is accused of war crimes. The prime minister is called Adam Lang, but has been described as “a thinly disguised version of Blair”. Reading it, the disguise is very thin and readers may draw their own conclusions. No libel case was bought. Could your author use a different name for his character as Robert Harris did? Or even make him the premier of a different nation and allow readers to draw parallels whilst not being specific?

Agree.

If it's arguably coincidence (even if it's bleedin' obvious it isn't) I don't think it would ever get to court. Look at Yes, Minister and Absolutely Fabulous.

Having said all of that, Emily, whatever advice you pass on (e.g. that the author should disguise the figure somehow) I would stress (politely) that you are not in the legal profession and that they should consider getting legal advice before publishing.

That would be helpful but would also cover yourself it it blew up (which is very, very unlikely).
Great advice.
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