Using Real People/Places/Events in Fiction

Hi Angela,

I am currently writing a novel (Adventure/Fiction). My characters, plot, etc. are fiction; however, I am planning to include real places. Do I need to ask permission from the business establishment my characters would be attending?

Ex: I am researching (a popular event in Alaska). I won’t name the event in my novel, but if anyone has been there it’s pretty clear to what I’m referring.

Of course, each of my characters won’t be the same in their responses, so some of them won’t like/enjoy/might have bad things to say about their experience at the business establishment. Is that okay? I don’t want to be sued for defaming their establishment.

Thank you,

I am not an attorney and this is not legal advice.

While you’d think that you could include any event/place in fiction and be just fine, the reality is that some people think all authors are rich (ha ha ha) and that they would love to find any reason at all to sue you.

Of course, if everything was hunky dory at the (event) in your novel, you’d probably be just fine. But, if you have one of your characters getting food poisoning there, somebody could conceivably assume that really did happen once upon a time and that could put the event in a bad light – as ridiculous as it sounds.

So, while you would probably prevail in such a lawsuit, the lawsuit alone would probably devastate you financially. I really don’t think there would be a lawsuit but, in this day and age, where a judge can sue a drycleaner for $67M over a pair of pants (true story), nothing surprises me anymore.

So, you should go ahead and borrow ideas from the event (what author doesn’t use reality to research for fiction?), but make enough changes so nobody can prove it was that exact event. For example, if there is, say, a large ice sculpture of a penguin (just an example here, of course), you might change that to a large life-sized igloo. If the event occurs in, say, Fairbanks, change it to Anchorage. See what I mean?

If you were writing about real people, you could change their names, their appearance, even their gender to further protect yourself from a potential lawsuit. Basically, if you use someone/something real in a book and profit from that while embarassing them, they might sue you. Even if you don’t embarrass them and create a profit based on them, they might still sue you. Will they win? Maybe. Maybe not. Is it really worth the risk to find out? Protect yourself by throroughly fictionalizing your ideas that are sparked from real people and events.

On the flip-side, some authors use real places and products in their fiction and actually land advertising deals for doing so. Of course, you can bet they put those places/products in a very good light!