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johnnysannie
01-10-2011, 01:16 AM
Okay, here's the basic background......

I have a short novel written in which one of the main characters is a dead - more than thirty years - actual famous individual. It's a speculative novel in which the other main character somehow finds herself in an earlier decade where she meets this famous guy. It's in the romance genre and they fall in love. Because of this, his future is impacted in a positive way so that they together find their happily ever after.

My question is this - what kind of potential issues could there be with this situation? I've had one person from a publisher express concern about the main character although I know factually that there are many novels with the same individual as a character, quite a few with the same person as the main character.

Does anyone know about the use of a very famous figure in fiction?

Can it be done and if so, how?

Thanks in advance for any answers!

Kenn
01-10-2011, 02:17 AM
The recent Dr Who TV series has had all sorts of characters turning up in totally fictional surroundings (Dickens, Shakespeare, Queen Victoria, van Gogh, Churchill). I imagine the only worry might be if family members take exception to it or it is slanderous.

jaksen
01-10-2011, 05:09 AM
But someone dead thirty years hasn't been dead all that long. There are going to be living relatives, possible descendants, associates and friends who remember him or her very well. If someone wrote about one of my parents, for example, and put him or her in amorous situations, etc., I'd be quite pissed about it. (Pissed as in the American vernacular, angry.)

Someone who's been dead 80+ years is a different matter.

alleycat
01-10-2011, 05:17 AM
I'm no expert on this, but as I understand it, dead people don't really have any rights. Certain things can be trademarked about a person (such as was done with Elvis) but just using their name isn't one of them.

Can you be sued? Sure. Sometimes just the threat of having to fight a lawsuit is the weapon of choice. If it's clearly a work of fiction, you'll probably be okay.

Again, I'm no expert. Maybe one of the attorney member here will offer an opinion.

poetinahat
01-10-2011, 05:24 AM
Sam Shepard used famous, recently deceased characters in his play Mad Dog Blues (1971). I don't know if he ran into any issues there, or if he got a free pass for being Sam Shepard. But it's a prime example of this sort of thing. (Also see Tom Stoppard's very new play Rock 'n' Roll; Syd Barrett appears throughout as a chorus-type character.)

frimble3
01-10-2011, 05:46 AM
But someone dead thirty years hasn't been dead all that long. There are going to be living relatives, possible descendants, associates and friends who remember him or her very well. If someone wrote about one of my parents, for example, and put him or her in amorous situations, etc., I'd be quite pissed about it. (Pissed as in the American vernacular, angry.)

Someone who's been dead 80+ years is a different matter.
This. You're apparently not just using the Famous Person as a bit of local colour, you're placing him in a relationship with your own MC, which, if you're according them a HEA, is not going to be a quick fling. So, yeah, people might be upset.

Stlight
01-10-2011, 05:51 AM
You may not be sued, but you might take a moment to think how you would feel if your mother was in the role of your MC? Would it make you happy? sad? embarrassed? Then realize that you have the choice of putting her there. The children and grandchildren of the 'famous person' you're using have no choice.

It would distress me greatly to find my relatives in such a situation, particularly since all the individuals in my family held to one rule "Don't do anything you wouldn't want to see on the front page of the newspaper." They fell in love, they married, but they didn't have love affairs, or if they did they did manage to keep them from everyone.

But this may not be true of your famous person.

Why are you using a famous person instead of creating your own character? Just curious.

Uncarved
01-10-2011, 05:57 AM
Sam Shepard used famous, recently deceased characters in his play Mad Dog Blues (1971). I don't know if he ran into any issues there, or if he got a free pass for being Sam Shepard. But it's a prime example of this sort of thing. (Also see Tom Stoppard's very new play Rock 'n' Roll; Syd Barrett appears throughout as a chorus-type character.)

I now want to see that play.

mtrenteseau
01-10-2011, 06:13 AM
It's legal to use deceased celebrities as characters - it's their own work or images that you can't use without explicit permission. So if your celebrity were Elvis Presley, you can mention song titles, but not lyrics, and you can't use his picture on the cover.

I agree with jaksen, though, that you might offend or upset surviving relatives or friends. This, to me, depends largely on how likely your story would have been in real life. Stealing Paul Newman away from Joanne Woodward, even before they met, would seem icky. Having George Burns find love after the death of Gracie Allen might be less so.

AlexPiper
01-10-2011, 06:30 AM
But someone dead thirty years hasn't been dead all that long. There are going to be living relatives, possible descendants, associates and friends who remember him or her very well. If someone wrote about one of my parents, for example, and put him or her in amorous situations, etc., I'd be quite pissed about it. (Pissed as in the American vernacular, angry.)

On the other hand, how many fictional works have involved JFK (and his assassination)? I can think of plenty, even ones written only 20-30 years after. Or how many alternate-World-War-II stories have been told, such as "Weird War" stuff, where the Nazis are using occult powers or the Allies have to fight Nazi super-science (giant robots! Rockets! etc.), and where real figures play a role?

That said, I'm inclined to agree that if there's not a really compelling reason why it has to be /this particular person/, it's probably not worth it. There's a difference between the above examples -- historical figures who are inextricably part of historical events -- and just using a random celebrity for name recognition power.

I guess the question I'd ask would be, is the story any less meaningful (or less enjoyable) if the 'celebrity' is merely a fictional celebrity? A celebrity who has recognition and meaning to your MC -- one who they'll recognize upon being tossed back in time -- but who never really existed in our world? Or to put it another way, is there something unique about this real celebrity's life that makes it necessary you use them (like how you cannot really have the JFK assassination without JFK, or how any WWII story involving the British forces is likely going to have at least some evidence of Churchill in it), or are you using the real celebrity merely as a shortcut so that the reader will already assume certain things when they read the name?

Kate Monster
01-10-2011, 09:16 AM
Isn't this more or less (although from a different perspective) what Hustler Magazine vs. Jerry Falwell covered? For better or worse, famous people have essentially no legal right over their own name. As long as you make it clear that it is a work of fiction, I think you should be free and clear.

kaitie
01-10-2011, 10:49 AM
Dean Koontz has Elvis as a fairly regular character in his Odd Thomas books. I'm not really certain how having the famous person be the love interest would make a difference, though. My first thought is that it would depend on who it was. For some reason, I could see Sinatra in a circumstance like this and I wouldn't really think twice, but some other people I might.

frimble3
01-10-2011, 12:50 PM
It's a speculative novel in which the other main character somehow finds herself in an earlier decade where she meets this famous guy. It's in the romance genre and they fall in love. Because of this, his future is impacted in a positive way so that they together find their happily ever after.

I think the difference is between having the original MC at the Kennedy assassination, or having him make a pass at her at a party, sort of a passing mention, and a little 'local colour', and having him become a MC, dump Jackie and run off so they can HEA.
Whereas I'm less unsettled by having Abraham Lincoln as a vampire-hunter, because everyone who might have known him personally is gone. I think. (cue spooky music)

Kate Monster
01-10-2011, 02:18 PM
I think the difference is between having the original MC at the Kennedy assassination, or having him make a pass at her at a party, sort of a passing mention, and a little 'local colour', and having him become a MC, dump Jackie and run off so they can HEA.

I agree that that sounds potentially offensive to friends and family members, and honestly, it doesn't really sound like something I'd read. However, I'm pretty sure it's still legal. The Supreme Court decided in Hustler Magazine vs. Jerry Falwell that parodies (and, by extension, other obviously fictional depictions) of public figures were legal under the First Amendment. As long as you make it clear that your story is fiction, you should be free and clear. (You're probably a lot less likely to run into legal issues if you use a famous actor or musician than if you use a former POTUS, though.)

PinkAmy
01-10-2011, 02:38 PM
You may not be sued, but you might take a moment to think how you would feel if your mother was in the role of your MC? Would it make you happy? sad? embarrassed? Then realize that you have the choice of putting her there. The children and grandchildren of the 'famous person' you're using have no choice.

It would distress me greatly to find my relatives in such a situation, particularly since all the individuals in my family held to one rule "Don't do anything you wouldn't want to see on the front page of the newspaper." They fell in love, they married, but they didn't have love affairs, or if they did they did manage to keep them from everyone.

But this may not be true of your famous person.

Why are you using a famous person instead of creating your own character? Just curious.

I gotta disagree with this one. You're not responsible for the feelings of other people. When people become celebrities, they open themselves up to things like appearing in books. While the family hasn't signed up for this, it's not your job to take care of the needs someone else is projecting onto them. You're writing a positive encounter with this celeb and your MC, you're not accusing him of being a rapist or serial killer.

On the more cynical side, in the unlikely event family did object, it might be good for sales and publicity.

Rowan
01-10-2011, 03:18 PM
Charlaine Harris uses "Elvis" as a character in her Southern Vampire ("True Blood") series. She refrains from naming him for the most part--in a rather clever manner, I might add. ;)

I'm not sure what issues you'll encounter but this is one example I know about.

johnnysannie
01-10-2011, 06:19 PM
But someone dead thirty years hasn't been dead all that long. There are going to be living relatives, possible descendants, associates and friends who remember him or her very well. If someone wrote about one of my parents, for example, and put him or her in amorous situations, etc., I'd be quite pissed about it. (Pissed as in the American vernacular, angry.)

Someone who's been dead 80+ years is a different matter.

Well, a major difference would be that my mother isn't famous and this main character is very famous, an entertainment icon.

PinkAmy
01-10-2011, 08:22 PM
There's always going to be someone to disagree with you johnnysannie. I wouldn't worry.