Is It OK to Write a Fictional Story About a Historical Character?

Q: Is it OK to write a fictional story about a historical character like Paul Revere or John Hancock? —Charles

A: The answer to that question is the same as the answer to this one: Is Brian A. Klems breathtakingly handsome? In case you hesitated, the correct answer is yes. Capital Y-E-S. (Also, when you hesitated, I died a little inside).

OK, so maybe the handsome thing is debatable, but legal use of historical characters isn’t. According to WD’s legal guru (and close friend) Amy Cook, writing about historical people is perfectly fine and won’t put you in any legal danger.

“You can write about historical people because the two main legal areas you need to worry about when writing about real people—defamation of character and invasion of privacy—only apply to living people,” Cook says. “The deceased’s heirs cannot sue under those causes of action either.”

Now you may occasionally come across the term “right of publicity,” which famous people do continue to have after death (and is a property right owned by their heirs). However, says Cook, this usually is a concern when people use famous dead people’s images or voices—that kind of thing—for commercial use, and courts have found that books are not commercial uses for right-of-publicity claims.

So there you have it, right from the lips of our legal expert. I also contacted our handsome expert, WD Editor Jessica Strawser, to help solve question number two, but she has yet to respond. I’m starting to think I should be concerned.

Brian A. Klems is the online managing editor of Writer’s Digest magazine.

Have a question for me? Feel free to post it in the comments section below or e-mail me at with “Q&Q” in the subject line. Come back each Tuesday as I try to give you more insight into the writing life.

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11 thoughts on “Is It OK to Write a Fictional Story About a Historical Character?

  1. heatherobrien

    I realize this article is old, but I’m hoping I can still get some clarification on it.

    I have a situation in my series where a well known, real-life event includes some now-deceased famous people as participants. This is not really the main plot, but a subplot that is germane to the overall piece.

    In the real-life event, there was a death (no witnesses) of a well-known person. It was ruled an accidental death.

    In the fictional piece, my fictional character is set forth as the responsible party, which makes it a murder. Fictional character is tied to some deceased but well known (real) mobsters who, according to my story, ordered the job. Can anyone sue me for using a real-life event, using real-life people (now dead), which effectively change the “accidental” death into a murder?

    If it helps, these folks are from the UK. I have discovered that all these people actually knew each other when they were alive (didn’t know that when I concieved of the subplot).

  2. KristanC

    on the same note as historical & real characters, what about historical & real events and the people who are part of them? We had a big debate once in our writers group about a certain event in American history; one writer was writing a story about the actual event but from the POV of a fictional character who happened to have the same first name as a real person involved w/the event, and the other writer argued that if you used that name, you HAD to be referring to THAT person, because only X number of people were involved in the event and you can’t adjust history that way. It was hard to keep using the argument "but it’s FICTION" as a rebuttal.

  3. R.G.

    I used to work for the local police department as a civilian and I am considering writing a novel. It may possibly be about what I expericenced or things that I know that have happened, some humorous and some not so humorous. Or perhaps a fictional character based on real life accounts. I wanted to know if it is okay for me to name the precincts, sections in the police department (such as: Special Crimes Unit, Internal Affairs, etc.) and the real street names that the precincts are on? and the real street names that events happened on? I know not to mention real names. Thank you for your help.

  4. Julie Baxter

    What are the rules in using name brand items-such as a reference to a girl looking like a "barbie". Also can I use song or movie titles in a novel? Thanks

  5. Johnny Hughes

    This is good to know. I have a question. If you write about famous people that are alive as minor characters and do not badmouth them or insult them in any way, can you use them??? I have before.

    I love short, historical stories, and memoir pieces. My last memoir piece, "Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Joe Ely, and the Cotton Club" now appears on over 200 websites in countries all over the world. My West Texas poker stories appear on many websites around the world. I managed Joe and knew those other guys. I’d like to say that this sells a whole lot of my novel, Texas Poker Wisdom. It does sell some. I don’t really care about money as much as readers. By moving around so many websites, I pick up new readers or spread the Johnny Hughes brand every day.

    Writing historical short stories is deeply satifying creatively. I research the real characters, who are minor. Everything about them is factual, as much as I can make it.

    My best story, "A Lock of Bonnie Parker’s Hair" is now on several websites. It has real characters Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. It also has Jack Ruby as a semi-major character, and an assassinaion theme.

    My latest story, "Lubbock’s Own: Larry "the Laugher" Larson" is on a few websites. It has as real characters, the Rat Pack: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop. There is a scene where a real character, Carl Cohen, knocks out two of Sinatra’s front teeth at the Sands.

    I fact check the historical parts as if it was journalism. It is the most fun I ever had with my clothes on!

    Johnny Hughes

  6. barefootonthebeach

    Hi, Brian! I have a question for your blog: I have read that if you put an article, story, or any other piece of your writing on your website, you cannot later sell it to an editor because "first rights" are no longer available. Is this true, AND how does this apply to blogging? I started my blog to gain an audience for the memoir I’m writing. Does this mean I can’t later publish what I’ve posted on my blog, in my book?! How am I supposed to "build my platform?!" I am so confused! Please help clear this issue up for me. Thank you! Please sign me:
    ~ barefootonthebeach

  7. Nancy

    HI Brian,

    I have a question for your blog:

    When noting someone’s age, I have always used the word "age," as in: "My son, age 12, refuses to clean his room." It has always grated on me when people say instead, "My son, AGED 12…" because to me, "aged" is for cheese and wine. Now, after countless years of having "aged" foisted upon me from all sides (including the New York Times), I am starting to doubt myself.

    I still can’t stand "aged," I think its usage in this context makes no sense, and I may never be able to bring myself to change my ways even if I find out it’s actually correct… but have I been wrong all these years?

  8. soly

    Hi Brian!

    Do you still doubt that you are devastatingly handsome??? With your disarming smile, what girl will not swoon, like those girls when they see Elvis gyrates as he sings "Jailhouse Rock"!
    And your sense of humor-how I love it!

  9. Jessica

    Let me put it this way: Some of you may know the fun fact that Brian and I go way back. We were classmates, co-editors and good friends in college, in fact.

    One year my mom came to campus to visit and also to meet my new boyfriend, who invited us over to his apartment for a few after-dinner drinks. Unfortunately for him, he made the grave misjudgment of inviting Brian to join us that evening. The moment my mom laid eyes on Brian, she was enthralled by his charm–and his charm alone. When we headed home that night and I asked her what she thought of the guy I was dating, I got a blank stare in return. To this day, she still talks about how funny Brian is (and how white his teeth are).

    I may or may not be a handsome expert (though my husband would say I am) but I think that story speaks for itself.