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Gigi Will Know: Can I fictionalize people from history without being sued?

I'm inspired to fictionalize the lives of real women in the 1940s, but I'm worried I'll run into legal trouble.

An illustrated crab with sassy blue glasses wields a pencil in one raised claw.
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Dear Gigi,

I heard about a true story that happened in the 1940s. I would like to fictionalize the life of these particular women (who are all deceased) but not sure how or if it is even legal to do so. I was so inspired, however, and want to write it. It has been suggested that I set it in a different world (off-planet, dystopian) and set it in a different time period, but I don’t want to do that. Any advice? Can I write this story? Or could I be sued?

—Once Written, Possibly Sued

Dear Once,

There are a ton of books out there, not to mention stories, movies, and plays, that are written “inspired by the life story of” or “based on the true story of.” You don’t need to fret, but you do need a disclaimer along those lines. Once you have that disclaimer in place, you’re mostly good to go. I say “mostly” because there are a number of specifics that need to be considered. I’d also consider, with the acknowledgments section of your eventual book, being very clear about what liberties you have taken with the work.

The three primary issues are defamation, right to privacy (which ordinarily does not survive a person’s death), and right to publicity (which is primarily a person’s right to profit from their own likeness or name). A quick Google search will help you to understand these more but stating that you’re “fictionalizing” in general means that you’re making something up – that you’re stating it to be untrue – so you can look at these terms in light of your intention with the work.

The other thing is, if these women have descendants or living relations, it would be appropriate and nice for you to let them know that you’re undertaking this project.

I mean, you wouldn’t want to stumble into a Barnes & Noble and come face-to-face with your mom’s life story, would you? That’d be an awful lot like being blind-sided.

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Do your due diligence. Research well and be intentional about where you’re deviating from the real script and why.

Also: I am a lot of things, but I am not a lawyer.

Plot on—

—Gigi

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