Novel writingStory Details

Use of personal identifiers in fiction–PART 2

[RICK COMMENTS: After reading last week’s post, Scott chimed in with some useful information from a police officer’s perspective. PART 3 will continue where PART 1 left off.]

From Scott:

One thing a writer needs to balance is the need for realism and detail versus privacy and reliability. I understand that sometimes we want to put every last detail into the story. Maybe you have a police officer running a license plate over the radio, or you want one character to give an exact phone number or address to another. That’s all fine, but before stepping so deep into the minutiae, it helps to think about unintended consequences. Too add further thoughts to Rick’s discussion on this topic, we thought I should present the issue from the perspective of a police officer.

Obviously, giving out someone’s real identifying information is a bad idea. Driver’s license numbers, social security numbers, addresses, and dates of birth, all can be used for identity theft and fraud. Revealing this information in a book would likely result in civil liability against the author.

Think of it from the other person’s perspective. Your friend puts you in a novel with your real information, and the next thing you know there are a dozen credit cards out there in your name, which you don’t even know about until the bill comes. We can file that one away under “Never Ever Do This.”

So let’s take a look at the pros and cons of giving false information on your characters. I’ll start with addresses. As Rick mentioned last week, be careful of what addresses you use. For example, if your character is a police officer, and you say he arrested the drug dealer who lives at 123 Main Street in Peoria, Illinois, you could have trouble on your hands. More than likely, Peoria actually has a 123 Main Street (two, actually, East Main and West Main). The people who live there would not appreciate the implication of drug dealing, and it could result in liability on your part. That’s why, in Martyr’s Inferno, I was deliberately vague about such locations.

But if you choose to use phony, nonexistent addresses, be sure to do a little research first. Learn how addresses are structured in the area you are writing about. In my county, the numerical portion of the address is how far north, south, east, or west of the courthouse the address is located. The 5000 block is exactly one mile further out than the 6000 block. Also, the last number in the address is important. Odd-numbered houses are always on one side of the street (i.e. the north side of an east-west road), while the even-numbered houses are on the other side. A little attention to detail here adds realism.

Driver’s license numbers are not random, either. Each state has a structured way of determining each person’s number. In Illinois, a DL always starts with a letter, which is the first letter of the person’s last name. The next three numbers are the computer’s code for the phonetic pronunciation of the last name. Everyone in Illinois with the last name of Gamboe has the same first four characters on the DL number. The last three numbers are the day of the year that a person was born. So January 2 would be 002, and February 5 would be 036. If the person is female, they add 600 to those last three numbers. The two digits before that trio shows the year of birth. So if you just randomly make up a bunch of numbers, guaranteed that someone will call you on it. All it takes is a quick Internet search to get this information.

[RICK ADDS: And before you think it would be clever to create the DL number for your character based on this information, think again. There is a finite chance that you could accidentally create a number that already exists for someone. DO NOT DO THIS!

If you’re really intent on making up an Illinois DL number, then construct one that does NOT follow these rules and which could not possibly exist in Illinois. And be sure you specify it as Illinois. Otherwise, you could accidentally end up with a valid DL in some other state. But our best advice is not to use a DL number at all–unless you’re constructing one for a future earth or on another planet.

Or, better yet, just give out your own Dl number. That way the no one else will get into trouble and you’ll be the only one at risk for identity theft. (smiles)]

As for phone numbers, they tend to fall in the same category as addresses. I definitely would not deliberately give out someone’s real number in a novel. But at the same time, if you do use a phone number in your book, you just gave out someone’s number. One way to avoid this is to use a nonexistent area code (Rick discusses this in PART 3). Yes, a reader might call you on that. But at least you haven’t created a problem for the real holder of the number. Another way would be to include a real area code, but use a 3-digit prefix that doesn’t exist for that area code.

[RICK NOTES: I advises against even this because you never know if in the future that prefix might become active, just as new area codes get added periodically.]

On a whim, I did a Google search on the ’80s hit “867-5309/Jenny” by Tommy Tutone. There is an enormous list of people who (in different area codes) actually had the number and complained of receiving nuisance calls, as many as two hundred in a day. Back then (1982), the phone company couldn’t trace the calls. But with today’s technology, I believe there may have been civil and/or criminal charges involved. Granted, this is an extreme case, with a #1 hit song. But if your book should become a big seller (and isn’t that the point?), you could find yourself in a similar situation.

My recommendation, as a police officer, is to never use real identifiers in your novels. In fact, wherever possible I would simply be vague about the information. If you have a solid reason for putting an exact number or address in your novel, do a little research first. It can save a lot of headaches in the long run.


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