Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Writing 101: Historical Figures

If you're writing a period piece, you have to really put your characters in their time frame. You have to know about the music, books and politics of the day. And you might be writing a story that takes place hundreds of years before anyone you know was ever born. So under those circumstances, is it all right to use historical figures in your fiction? 


Expiration Dates

Anything ever written by Jane Austen can be purchased for free by you today. Any publishing company can print out copies of Jane Austen books, and they don't have to pay anybody any royalties for what they sell. It's because Jane Austen has been dead for so long that all her copyrights have now expired. Anyone can publish and use her books for free these days. 

So what's the expiration date on a personality? If Jane Austen's copyrights are expired, does that mean that I can make her a character in my newest book? 


The short answer to this is yes. If Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter taught us anything, it's that historical figures are pretty much fair game in fiction. I can't even count all the romance novels I've seen featuring William I or Charles I as supporting or peripheral characters. They were both sort of larger-than-life personalities, so it makes sense to use them for color in a novel that's set in the right time period.

But that's the short answer. When it comes to actually using historical figures as characters in your novel, the answer is really much more multi-layered. Even long-dead historical figures have fans, people who have studied their lives. Some expert may devote into careers into the study of certain historical figures -- the House of Tudor, for example, in England. So if you're going to do it, you must do it well. 

Research thoroughly to be sure you know a reasonable amount about this character. In order to realistically include them in a story, you ought to know what they look like. Knowing something about their personality can't hurt, either. Throw in any interesting facts you can find, things that humanize characters (Charles I and his dogs, for example). 

If you plan on rewriting or changing history and still including historical figures, it gets trickier still. You may get some criticism for that. But if you've got a story idea and you think it's good and you're compelled to write, this is what you must do. When you're including a real-life person in your books, try to adhere to at least one rule: be respectful. Do this, and in most cases you'll probably be okay.

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5 comments:

  1. -- Hello Jade. I hope to use actual locations and actual people as characters in my latest novel, a work of fiction based on actual events. For example, Woodstock. Can I use Jimi Hendrix as a character? is there a problem using the location Woodstock?
    How about the bombing at the U of Wisconsin in 1970? Can I write about the actual place using the names of the actual people, but fictionalizing much of their words and actions?
    What about president Nixon? Many of my characters hate him and say awful things about him, just as people of the day did. Any problems there?
    If the actual person is dead, can I legally use that person as a character and have him or her involved in imagined scenarios?

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  2. Jim, I've gone over your comment carefully, and I'll do the best I can to answer all your questions.

    Using Woodstock isn't a problem. The events there have been well-documented and authors always have freedom of choice with setting.

    When it comes to fictionalizing real people, the answers can be pretty tricky. What you're basically asking is if you can be held guilty of libel for using real people as book characters. The short answer is, probably not. Libel cases against authors are very rare. However, legally you can be accused of defamation if you use an actual person's name AND make defamatory and/or false statements about said acual person. OR, you may freely use the character to make disparaging and/or negative remarks about this person, BUT you must make an effort to hide their true identity. I wrote a post about the Roman a Clef, a wonderful little literary device that many authors have used in order to save themselves from a defamation suit.

    http://jadevarden.blogspot.com/2014/07/writing-101-roman-clef-or-how-to-beat.html

    BECAUSE, if you make signifigant assumptions about a real person's thoughts, deeds, private moments and so on, there is a chance that you can be legally held accountable for it. The definitions are somewhat vague and loose in defamation cases, purposefully so. Each case is treated on a case-by-case basis, and the matter is decided in court.

    HOWEVER, defamation and libel can ONLY be applied to the living. This is why books about Abraham Lincoln hunting vampires are possible.

    DISCLAIMER: I am in no way a lawyer, nor associated with law enforcement. I am not an expert on libel and will not help you if you get sued.


    Further reading:

    http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/questions-and-quandaries/legal-questions/is-it-ok-to-write-a-fictional-story-about-a-historical-character
    http://www.copylaw.org/p/libel-in-fiction.html

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    Replies
    1. ....Hi Jade. Thank you so much for the reply.
      So, if I use a dead person as one of my characters, he or she can say anything about another dead person. For example, Jimi Hendrix could rip Nixon's character from here to Hades, and it's all good. Or a fictional character can say the most horrible things about Nixon, and all is fine.
      I think the idea is to use real people who are dead. Which I have been doing throughout my story, anyway.

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  3. Sounds like an interesting plot, Jim!

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  4. "you ought to know what they look like. Knowing something about their personality can't hurt, either" -- seriously?? Looks more important than personality? This is going to be some trashy, lightweight story. I bet most historical figures used in people's fiction would have hated it if they'd seen it.

    ReplyDelete