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Monday, May 19, 2008

Using Fictional or Authentic Names

By Jennifer Hudson Taylor 

When writing fiction, authors must decide whether or not to use fictional or real names for celebrities, places, businesses, and brand names. Many authors feel that if they create a name it takes away from the authenticity of their book. Others are so concerned with possible law suits and legalities that they shy away from using real names at all.

I believe there is a need for balance. Authenticity is important, but so is staying out of legal trouble with copyright issues. When is it okay? How does one determine if it is necessary? Below are a few suggestions to consider.

There are laws that give people the right to mention household names without being sued. A household name could be a person, place, or thing that is so well known, the majority of people in each household nationwide will recognize that name. Hanna Montana, Oprah Winfrey, Barbara Walters, Britney Spears, all these celebrities are examples of household names. A celebrity doesn’t have to be a Hollywood name. Just as many people are familiar with Barbara Walters, a news anchor, as with Hanna Montana, an actress and rock star.

You can use these celebrity names in your book to identify with the “look” or personality of a character, but I wouldn’t recommend making them a character in your book, unless it is a very brief and favorable moment. One example is that your main hero or heroine might love a particular star. This character might get to briefly meet this star, but keep it brief and positive. Celebrities still have rights to their privacy, and you don’t want to give any negative impressions that could land you in a lawsuit.

Another example would be stating that a character had a dark, gothic look that reminded one of Johnny Depp in Edward Scissor Hands. This isn’t referring to Johnny Depp personally, but to the character he played in that movie.

Authentic Places
You wouldn’t want to create a fictional city with all the landmarks of New York, describe its location, and then give it a different name. It just wouldn’t feel right to readers. Why? Because so many people would know you’re referring to New York since it is so well known. A widely known location like this is one of those places you would want to name in your story.

What about local communities and developments? Lots of people who have never been to New York have heard of the Bronx, Manhattan, Ellis Island and other areas around the city. I’ve never been there and I still know that there is a China Town in the city and that Fifth Avenue is THE shopping place. It would be more appropriate to create fictional names for small neighborhoods in an area of New York that isn’t so widely known.

Small towns are easier to create fictional names for because people can’t identify with places they’ve most likely never heard of or been to. If you decide to use the real name of a small town, be sure to do your research regarding everything in that town. You will want to create fictional names of streets and businesses just to make sure no one or business could be “identified” in your story.

Businesses and Brand NamesYou probably want to be more careful about listing businesses and brand names than anything. People are very peculiar about the reputation of their business and their ability to increase profits. These businesses are copyrighted and any reference to them could be more of an issue because it could infringe or impact people’s perception of their product or service. This could affect lives, jobs, and profits.

If you want to indicate that your hero is an executive at Coca-Cola corporation, you should probably make up a different beverage and company name. The reason I suggest this, is because your story will need conflict, and the possibility that someone could think negative of anything you’ve written is a risk. What you think is positive may not be positive to someone else at that company.

You might be thinking, but isn’t Coca-Cola a household name? Yes, it is. And in your book you could mention that your character sat drinking a Coke. This is going to give them subtle marketing publicity, and at the same time show a personality trait of your character. It makes a difference if your character only drinks Coke and hates coffee, tea or lemonade. It shows personality. This is a brief reference that can’t be used in a negative light. But leave it at this and go no further with it.

Historical ReferencesHistorical writers tend to have a little more play with proper names of people and places that no longer exist. However, there are descendants of those people, as well as people who have lived in areas that they take pride in the history of those places. You will need to be sensitive to these feelings in your book.

If your story will show a person in a negative way, make sure it is fact based, documented, and well-researched before using it. Otherwise, you could have the great-grandchild of that person suing you for defamation of their ancestor. People who are not writers still have the impression that a book in print will make an author millions, and they could be out to make a quick buck if they think they can. Don’t give them any reason to challenge you.

With these simple suggestions in mind, write using authentic names were appropriate to enhance authenticity, in brief contexts, always keeping references to any real person, place, or thing in a positive manner, and you out of unwanted lawsuits.


Excellent advice for writers, Jennifer. I write historical fiction, and used the names of a few real people in my novel set during the Revolution. Readers loved it, though those characters played small, brief roles in the story.

Rita Gerlach

Once a fictional company name has been established in one form of media, say Cyberdyne from the Terminator movies, is it possible for others to use that name in their own fiction?

Since the Terminator movies are copyrighted and Cyberdyne is a unique name, I wouldn't recommend using it. If the name was less unique such as Harvest Community Church, it wouldn't be as much of a problem. That's a name that is used in many places, but can be used as a fictional name in a city where it doesn't really exist. Or you could alter the name a bit. Great question.

Well, thank you very much! Many of my questions regarding people's names and names of places I've been and mention in my memoirs are answered here. Also, what is reconfirmed are many of the things I learned in English Composition class, years ago and I truly am remembering, not guessing! I appreciate your advice and feel better about releasing my book, after perhaps one more review, based on an undersanding of what names to keep, and which ones to change.

Andrea Johnson

Well, thank you very much! Many of my questions regarding people's names and names of places I've been and mention in my memoirs are answered here. Also, what is reconfirmed are many of the things I learned in English Composition class, years ago and I truly am remembering, not guessing! I appreciate your advice and feel better about releasing my book, after perhaps one more review, based on an undersanding of what names to keep, and which ones to change.

Andrea Johnson

What if the name used is modified slightly or left vague? For example, David, the famous soccer player? Or the initials of a bank name are rearranged?

As long as you modify the name or rearrange the letters of an acronym then you should be fine. It isn't the same thing. That's what a lot of the movies do with TV network stations. Instead of using CBS, NBC or ABC they will use something like CSB. Great question!

What if you use the names of cars in you book such as Chevrolet, Mercury and Ford?

You, as with many other sites, write about using authentic names of celebrities, but what about someone you know? How much can a character in your fiction be like a real person? For example, my main character shares three things in common with someone I know: Part of the name, for example Little Trucker Jim, where Jim is the middle name of someone I know. Hobby, Little Trucker Jim likes to drive trucks. This "Jim" drove trucks for a while once in his life. And, location. Little Trucker Jim lives in a town that "Jim" once lived in 20 years ago, but lives nowhere near today. LTJ is the hero in the book and overcomes much adversity, always to succeed in the end. It is a children's book, after all. Am I required to change the name, hobby and/or location to avoid libel or be forced to pay some sort of royalties?

Hi Jennifer, great article, I have printed it out for reference.
Can you clarify this question for me? There is a castle in Ireland called Doonagore castle and I wanted to use the name of it in the fiction book I am writing as the lodgings for my hero’s character around 2015. Could this cause a problem for me legally do you think? Thanking you in advance for your time. Patti

Patti, Thanks for stopping by. I would do as much research on the castle as possible. It would probably be fine to use it as long as you don't cast the castle in a negative light. You could also use an alter spelling variation that is no longer used, but might have been used in medieval times. Just the name alone is intriguing.

This may be a little late, but thank you for this invaluable information. I have a question, however, regarding how Phillipa Gregory managed to write the Tudors into characters in her books. Was it appropriate because they are such widely known historical figures and she did her research about the events that marked their lives? And would it be possible to bring back a dead celebrity (say a popular actress like Louise Brooks) as an apparition and use that "version" of a person as a character? I tried that but I did research using the actress' autobiography and listened to interviews with her to try to get as close to a match in beliefs, ideals as possible, so all of the dialogue agrees with the personal and public beliefs she had made public. Is that safe enough barrier?

L.K. Brah


I think it is easier for Phillipa Gregory to get away with using Tudor characters because they lived so long ago. There isn't any family alive who would have personally known them. In one of my novellas I used President James Madison and his wife, Dolly Madison.

As for Louise Brooks, I would be a little more concerned using her because her death was so recent in 1985 and there are family members and friends who are still alive who may have known her--especially bringing her back as a ghost. It may be tough on them.

Thanks for taking the time to read my blog and responding!

What if the character in my book has the same name as a famous character in another book Example,, Famous ,,Mr Smith and my character is Mr Smyth of similar age etc can I be sued,,

It is possible that you could be sued by using another character's name since some authors and publishers own the copyright to that particular character. Harry Potter would be a perfect example. It has never been a common name like "John Smith", but now it is a household name even if you have never read a Harry Potter book or seen a Harry Potter movie. However, for less common and "known" books and/or characters a lawsuit is less likely, but I would not take a chance if I knew of another character with the same name. If the characters, personalities, time frame or dimensions are different enough you may be able to argue that the name was coincidence only, but you would have to be able to prove it.

But what if one of my fictional characters says this about Cary Grant: “Darlin,’ I’ll tell you what I told the sheriff … I love all the men. I’ll never forget my first movie opposite Cary Grant. Now that was a good-looking man. Ohh, but what yellow teeth. Cigarettes, I think. He was too much of a man to use one of these,” she said, raising her cigarette holder. “He preferred non-filtered Camels.”