Is it ethical to use real people in fiction?

This past week I’ve been reading about Real People Fiction. Until after I had a chance to read Allison Amend’s Enchanted Islands, I was blissfully ignorant that a category such as Real People Fiction existed.

I have read fictionalized accounts of real people in the past and I was never bothered by them. I thought Paula McLain’s Circling the Sun and Andrea Chapin’s The Tutor were cool stories, the former is about Beryl Markham and the latter, about Shakespeare. So what happened with Enchanted Islands that left me with a nagging question in my mind by the time I reached the end of the book?

You see, if you google Beryl Markham or Shakespeare, you will find all sorts of information about them, including their biographies. When I googled the real people/fictional protagonists of Enchanted Islands, Frances and Ainslie Conway, I came out with nothing more than the bibliographic data of their published accounts of their life on the Galapagos Islands. In the case of Markham and Shakespeare, I could confirm or contradict McClain’s and Chapin’s fictionalized portrayals, and therefore, judge the plausibility of their tales thanks to the existence of other sources who have studied their subjects too. With the Conways, it was not so, which led me to the question, Is it ethical to pluck real people from obscurity and fabricate all kind of stuff about them, especially unflattering stuff, just because they’re dead and you’re a writer?

As writers, we love the “what ifs.” That’s how our stories start taking flight. But unless the person is a celebrity, a historical figure or the person is fictionalizing himself, I would certainly have some qualms about somebody else using my name and spinning tales about my life that may not be my life at all. As for using dead people’s names, the law may say we can’t libel the dead. However, I think the dead deserve their reputation and some respect even if as writers, we claim in fine print that our story is all a product of our imagination. The thing is that our fabrications may be so memorable that they may make readers overlook the fine print.

And so, I set out some rules for myself for using real people in fiction:
1. Celebrities and historical figures are fair game. Their names and actions are in the public realm. There are plenty of sources to draw upon and use for confirmation or contradiction of facts and speculations so that readers can judge the value of a fictional account.
2. My parents, siblings, third cousins, anybody in the family are off limits to anybody else except themselves or I’m the one doing the fictionalization with their consent. If they become celebrities or historical figures, then see Rule 1.
3. The use of real names is prohibited unless it is a biography.
4. Anybody can be a source of inspiration. And depending on the degree of inspiration, you’ll either be thanked by name or just acknowledged as “somebody I knew” or “it’s a mash up of a number of people I knew,” or “it came from something I read about.” No real name is used in the story because of Rule 3.
5. If I’m really, really tempted to use a real person (and his/her real name), who’s not covered under Rules 1 and 2, and all I wrote about this person is “a product of my imagination” then I promise to think about it twice and answer the following questions: Why do I need to use this person’s real identity? Is using the real name a marketing ploy? Am I hoping my book would indirectly benefit from the person’s accomplishments or weirdness? It this story written out of a need for revenge? Am I hoping people will think I’m so clever because I was able to make up such a “good” story out of nothing but a real person’s name and a few known facts?
6. Do no harm (to the living or the dead).

Using ordinary real people in fiction is up to each individual writer. I, for one would prefer a reader come to me and say, “I cried. I laughed. I thought that character was so real. She felt like a real person” than “She was a real person but this story is all made up? Oh, I see.”

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