Novel writingStory Details

Use of personal identifiers in fiction–PART 1

From Rick:

A while back, one of the members of Silver Pen (Silver Pen Writers’ Association, asked a question about using names, addresses, telephone numbers, and various other personal ID numbers (social security numbers, driver’s license numbers, etc.) in fiction. The person wanted to know what could and could not be used. I thought this an interesting topic and copied my response to use later in the blog.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a lawyer, and none of this information should be considered as legal advice, nor should it be taken as if I’m an expert and that by following what I say exactly you’ll avoid any possible legal entanglements. To the best of my knowledge, the advice here should be good information, but at the same time, you should not push any limits. If in doubt, either don’t use the ID information, or else consult an authority.

FULL NAMES: Since names for the most part are not guaranteed to be unique, the only time you should have to worry is when you use a well-known name (a prominent figure or celebrity, or a name that obviously belongs to one of your friends or acquaintances. one of your friends’ names). Even then, the use of such names will only cause problems if you use then in a negative light or in a way that could be construed as defamatory (whether true or not).

Let’s say you wanted to put give a terrorist in your novel the name of a living (or current) US president. You’d probably be okay (although I would not recommend it) if you made it clear that his (or her) parents had purposely named him after the US president. But consider whether readers would see this as something clever or something stupid–and whether some readers might take offense. They key principle is intent. Is it clear that you’re trying to craft a credible story, or are you crafting a piece of literature critical of the President.

You should avoid using friends’ names, full or otherwise, (even in a positive light and even if it’s a true nonfiction account) unless you have their consent–in writing!–to protect you. It’s also a good idea to show them the completed manuscript prior to publication to be sure there won’t be a problem. Some people may be uncomfortable with being identified in writing in a public venue, even in a positive light. Always get permission. And should your book become a bestseller, this could increase the problems.

My good friend and author Adam Fenner, in his nonfiction account of his tour in Afghanistan (On Two Fronts) wanted to use the names of his team members in the book. I advised him to get their permission, which he did, and all of them consented to having their real names used. At the same time, he had a number of female relationships mentioned in the book. All (or most) of those names he changed because some of them were ex-girlfriends, and he didn’t want to be accused of making negative statements about specific individuals. This is how you protect both yourself and others.

A current Taco Bell commercial features men whose real name is Ronald McDonald, and the city where each one lives is displayed beneath his name on screen, and I’m sure the ad agency or whoever made the commercial paid these men well and had signed releases and contracts to use them in the commercial). I’d also assume that they used real people who had this name to avoid legal complications with McDonalds.

In a similar vein, some of your friends may think that your characters are them simply based on descriptions you use. While you can certainly use traits and descriptions of people you know, be sure you mix up them up sufficiently so that no one person is clearly identifiable as being the model for your character–even if you change the name. And if you do change the names, don’t make them too close the originals. Don’t change a Richard to an Eric then use the nickname of Rick, thinking you’re being clever. Use completely different last names. Don’t change “Johnson” something like to “Jackson.”

If you really want to cast one of your friends into your novel and that person thinks it would cool to one of your characters, I strongly recommend letting the person see the novel before it’s in print. And have something in writing! You never know how a friendship could change in the future. What if the two of you have a falling out later and the friend decides to exact revenge by suing you? As long as you have a signed statement, you at east have a defense.

Don’t forget that family members can sue just as well as the person can. A deceased person’s family might try to sue for a perceived defamation of character or the family name if they think they can squeeze money out of you. Therefore, be careful not only with names, but with where you derive your inspiration for your characters. Protect yourself, and avoid the temptation to model your characters after people you know–unless it’s nonfiction.

Having beat that to death, let’s move on.

HOME ADDRESSES: As long as you don’t identify the city or town, you won’t have a problem, especially if you use a street name that’s common or likely not unique (Main Street).

If you use an address that’s a business or an abandoned property in real life, but in your novel it’s a residence, you likely won’t have a problem. For example, in one of the episodes of the TV shows Burn Notice a specific and real address in Miami, Florida was mentioned as a bad guy’s house. I couldn’t resist looking it up on Google Earth to see where and what the address really was. It turned out to be an abandoned building in an industrial district next to a freeway, so no problem.

In one of my novels set in Detroit, Michigan, my coauthor (in Detroit) supplied a real location where a nightclub exists. We used it as a club owned and run by a female vampire character. The club, in both real life and in the novel, was a converted bank, but we gave ours a different name. As long as you’re clearly not intending to comment on the location in a negative way, you should not have a problem. And nothing went on in our club that’s likely to cause us a problem.

In my upcoming novel The Mosaic, whose primary location is in a tiny town in Kansas (population around 1000), my coauthor Chris Keaton and I picked a location for the main characters’ house on a piece of wooded farmland outside the town. There’s no mansion that’s been converted to a museum anywhere in sight of it. In any case, we never mention a street address of any kind.

Not all street addresses are valid anyway. If two adjacent houses in real life have are at 20 and 24 Brown Street respectively, use 22 Brown Street. Another possibility is that if the street only extends to number 350 in real life, put your location beyond the end of the street.

Next time, we’ll deal with numeric information and ID numbers as well as websites and email addresses.


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