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Fiction Based On Real People

Defamation Law Discussion Forum

Fiction Based On Real People

Postby Angelo » Thu Dec 01, 2016 9:23 pm

Is there a legal problem if I write a parody of a real event, and use the names of the real characters involved in that event?

ANSWER: Hi Jim - thank you for your question. You can of course parody a real event. You can consider using the real names, but whatever you do, beware that if you present scandalous or libelous material, it could very well get you in trouble.

There is some allowance for public figures, because through our rights of free speech, we have the right to make fun of public figures. However, the laws are much more strict for private people.

Even with public figures, you have to be careful what you say. Like, don't repeat out and out lies about them. Even if it's not exactly illegal, it is unethical. All writers make up their stories based on people they've known, or situations they're familiar with. That's a given. But when you write about people you know, you have to write it knowing they might find and read your story about them. Be sure to portray the characters in full realization that the real people might read it. So say what you want to say about them, knowing they will probably get the message.

I've written a few stories that have fictionalized versions of people I know, and some of the characters are composites.

Along with the stories I've completed, I have a folder of incomplete stories I call the slush pile.

In that slush pile is one story I call "Pols in Purgatory." It involves former VP Dick Cheney and some of his colleagues in a waiting room, and their conversations as they await whatever comes after the waiting room. It's not written, but if I did write it, I would use their real names. But even then, I would stick to facts and scenarios that could be documented. Because it takes place in the future, in purgatory, after they're all dead, I can obviously make up whatever I want it to say. However, I wouldn't go overboard.

If you feel you've crossed a line in your story, have an entertainment attorney read it for you before you publish it.

Does that help? If you want to discuss further, please write back.


---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

Thank you for the extensive and informative reply.

The story I'm thinking about is based on a real event - a movie production involving an eccentric actor and an obsessed director. It was a difficult production and some crazy and wacky things happened. I'm just thinking of writing a fictitious and exaggerated account of that event, intended to be funny.

Some of the people involved are still alive, including the director.
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Fiction Based On Real People

Postby rheged » Thu Dec 08, 2016 9:57 pm

Jim - sounds like a good premise for a story. You might want to do a literature review, which means dig up every other thing written on the subject. Also read up on movies that had complications, and there are lots of true stories about that. After you study what's already been written, then write your story. It will includes some of the same mishaps you experienced, but you can draw on your research to bring in interesting situations that reference famous mishaps. Thus, your story is well researched and pays homage to several famous incidents, as well as the ones you personally witnessed. A tip of the hat to famous movies, too.

It's like writing non-fiction. If you draw all your information from one source, it's plagiarism. If you draw from multiple sources it's research.

Write back if you want to discuss further.

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