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

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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 WritersDig@fwpubs.com with “Q&Q” in the subject line. Come back each Tuesday as I try to give you more insight into the writing life.