“Since they’re public figures, I can’t be sued.” YES, YOU CAN GET SUED!

“Since they’re public figures, I can’t be sued.” YES, YOU CAN GET SUED!

I am not an attorney and this isn’t legal advice. Please consult with an attorney for any and all legal questions.  

Last week, an author sent me a manuscript and something on the copyright page caught my attention. It stated that, while the book was a work of fiction, it contained real politicians as characters in the novel. Unfortunately, I had to deliver bad news to the author. He would need to go back to the drawing board, and do a major rewrite, which could take months, or longer.

Authors should NOT use real politicians or any other public figures in their fiction without permission. When you insert a real person into your novel, you are inserting them into a fictional setting, with fictional circumstances. You have them doing fictional things, and perhaps saying things they didn’t actually say. In a nutshell, you’re inventing things they haven’t actually done or said. It doesn’t matter that you called your work “fiction.” And, yes, they can absolutely sue you.

Let’s put the shoe on the other foot here.

What if someone wrote a novel, and included you as a character? How would you feel if they were profiting from readers enjoying a false tale about you stealing from the government, or cheating on your spouse, or assaulting someone, or being responsible for some crime, or having a medical issue you never really had, or anything negative or embarrassing whatsoever? You would be mad enough to sue. Why? Because some readers would actually believe you did those things. Even though a novel is fiction, using a real person can make readers think some of those things actually occurred. Politicians and other public figures deserve the same rights.

Just because it’s fiction doesn’t mean you can (intentionally or not) tarnish someone’s reputation for profit, putting them in seemingly benign situations that never occurred, and having them say and do things that also never happened.

You might think that your book can’t possibly harm their reputation but they would be the judge of that (as well as any actual judge or jury in the lawsuit they would probably bring against you). You could write something about them that may not seem offensive to you, but that angers them.

Here are some examples:

– Let’s say, in your book, your main character sees a well-known politician in a greasy spoon, wolfing down a big, juicy hamburger. And, later, PETA and voters go nuts because you didn’t know that person is a staunch vegan.

– What if your novel has an outspoken pro-life politician speaking at a pro-abortion rally? You might think it’s funny (or perhaps you didn’t even know they were pro-life) but I guarantee you the politician will be angry. Again, even though it’s fiction, it can harm their reputation.

– Your novel has a well-known Jewish politician attending a mosque.

– Your novel features a public figure known for their beautiful head of hair using Rogaine.

The possibilities are endless with fiction and any professional or personal thing you write about someone could cause them harm in some way. Even if you think what you’re writing is completely innocent, it can still anger them. Let’s say your politician is organizing a fund-raiser for a specific organization. And, what if you find out later that politician voted against a policy that relates to that type of charitable activity?

If you really want to use that person in your novel, you must reach out to their representative, and obtain written permission. If they consider your request (if you receive a reply AT ALL), they’re going to want to see a copy of the final, edited version of your book. And, their review process can take months or years.

Even if you cleverly change the name of that person, if anyone identifies that character with that real person, they can sue you.

And, no, you can’t use celebrities in your novel, either, without permission. Their names and brands are trademarked and you can’t use them for profit. And, you certainly can’t insert them into fictional scenarios. That’s a whole other lawsuit waiting to happen, just like the public figure examples above.

I know that, for some authors, it’s challenging to invent original, captivating characters. You must create their appearance, their speech, their mannerisms, their interests, their interactions, and their activities, all with your own imagination. That’s difficult!

But, what’s even more difficult? Sitting in a courtroom for days or weeks, and then paying a large judgment for the rest of your life.

Angela Hoy lives on a mountain in North Georgia. She is the publisher of WritersWeekly.com, the President and CEO of BookLocker.com and AbuzzPress, and the author of 24 books.

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Learn more here: https://24hourshortstorycontest.com/


Angela is not only the publisher of WritersWeekly.com. She is President & CEO of BookLocker.com,
a self-publishing services company that has been in business since 1998. Ask her anything.


7 Responses to "“Since they’re public figures, I can’t be sued.” YES, YOU CAN GET SUED!"

  1. Nickolaus Pacione  June 7, 2018 at 12:16 pm

    Having been published for this Real Person Horror there’s rules to follow as Wes Craven laid them out. I did a story where it revisited my research paper on Craven and used 16 sources to write the story — seeing an oil painting it has a kinship with New Nightmare. You really need to talk with the folks of this article as I ushered writers who came from the fan circuit. The aspects using real political figures pending on the medium you do have to be careful — especially in horror. Fanlore finally chimed in on the subject but were not pleased at my truthtelling at the expense of Fandom Wank.

  2. Henry Bennett  June 3, 2018 at 5:52 pm

    Aloha Angela,

    Mostly what you had to say was absolutely right. But you left out one major exception/alternative: You can NOT libel a dead person–politician or otherwise.

    Here’s just one reference regarding the issue (just the first of many available):

    Pick on dead folks and they won’t fight back…

    • By Angela Hoy - Publisher of WritersWeekly.com  June 3, 2018 at 8:39 pm

      You CAN be sued by the family or an organization associated with the dead person’s name. While those lawsuits might be a long-shot, you’d still have to defend yourself if sued and that can be very expensive. Families can sue for “infliction of emotional distress” and organizations associated with the deceased person’s name can sue for “Economic Damage From An Injurious Falsehood.”


      Again, those types of lawsuits can be difficult for the plaintiff to win but the legal fees alone could bankrupt a writer.

      – Angela Hoy, Publisher

  3. Tantra Bensko  June 1, 2018 at 3:01 pm

    Thank you for this article.

    What about mentioning the names of songs and the bands that put them out? That’s fine, correct as long as the band members aren’t playing an active role and I don’t quote the songs?

    And how about including a Facebook fan page about the bands which does figure into the story? (I make up the name of the fan who started the page.) I do plan to send the book to the bands to make sure they’re happy with it, but that’s not a legal issue, is it?

  4. pamelaallegretto  June 1, 2018 at 11:36 am

    Such a great article with excellent examples. Shared on Twitter.

  5. jedidiah manowitz  June 1, 2018 at 11:23 am

    in the usa anybody can sue anybody for anything.
    politicians will have more money and lawyers so even if you are right you will lose.
    and if you are wrong you will lose big time. could even lose everything and be in debt too.

    just dont use real people in your novels.
    dont even model your character on real people.
    you may well be sued if your character even resembles someone real.
    like say the cousin you hate or your boss.

    • By Angela Hoy - Publisher of WritersWeekly.com  June 1, 2018 at 7:51 pm

      Great advice, Jedidiah Manowitz! 🙂

      Angela Hoy, Publisher