I've looked at a few fictional character quote questions on here but none seem to hit onto my question:

Can I attribute a real quote to a fictional character?

That is, can I take a quote that was said by a real person, and attribute it to an original character (who is, if it makes a difference, blatantly not on Earth -- and, for the benefit of this, not have a name that could remotely be Earthly)? My gut says no, and this is all hypothetical, but I'm curious.

For instance: I write a story on a fantasy planet all about, I dunno, hunting [assassins, murderers, vampires, YourBadThingOfChoice]. An epigraph referencing a real person can be quite jarring in such a situation. Would I be wrong if I were to have the epigraph:

"He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster" - Bel'thaziak of Rikchenwood

(ridiculous made up name to stress fantasy)

Obviously this original character did not say this (it's a Nietzsche quote); hypothetically, would it be permitted to attribute it to an obviously fictional character? I'm sure this would be allowed if Quotes came under the Public Domain but I can't find any evidence that they do.

Just to clarify -- this fictional character would be original (my creation), so I'm not taking a quote and giving it to an existing fictional character.

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    "There's an old Vulcan proverb: Only Nixon could go to China." — Spock, Star Trek VI Mar 5, 2015 at 20:52
  • FWIW I've seen this done. It didn't strike me much one way or another. Mar 6, 2015 at 15:01
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    I think Robert Asprin did this in the Myth series --that was deliberately done for comic effect however. Mar 6, 2015 at 16:13
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    What about adapting the quotes? "He who fights with the gwarkspar should look to it that he himself does not become a gwarkspar" - Bel'thaziak of Rikchenwood Mar 6, 2015 at 20:42
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    @MacCooper You're perfectly free to "adapt" quotes. If you substantially change the wording, even if keeping the same idea, then all copyright issues go away. You might still be accused of plagiarism, but plagiarism isn't a crime, it's an academic violation, and if you're writing a novel and not a term paper, that's not an issue. At that point it just becomes a matter of whether you do it well or do it poorly.
    – Jay
    Mar 17, 2015 at 14:16

5 Answers 5


There are two issues here: legal and literary.

Legally, if the quote has fallen into public domain, there's no problem. If not, you're into the whole nebulous area of "fair use". Someone could conceivably sue you for copyright violation for stealing his quote. As we're presumably talking about quotes that are a sentence or two and not dozens of pages, I think you'd win with a fair-use defense, but I'm not a lawyer, an author might possibly have a case.

I think the more important issue is literary. Let's assume there's no legal problem. Still: You can do it as a joke and it could work. Suppose you have an alien from the planet Rothgar say, "As our famous poet Chwarniak once wrote, 'To be, or not to be, that is the question ..." Any even moderately-educated person will recognize that as a quote from Shakespeare and not Chwarniak of Rothgar, and so, depending on the context, they will either find the mis-attribution humorous and laugh, or they'll find it disconcerting and out of place. (I suppose in the context of the story, it might actually make sense, like Shakespeare was really an alien from Rothgar, or the aliens have been picking up the thoughts of Earthmen and thinking they were their own, etc.)

But if the reader is familiar with the quote, what he WON'T do is just accept the misattributed quote matter-of-factly. If the story is otherwise very serious, this could be jarring.

  • Excellent answer. I especially like the last paragraph: I wanted to use this cus it seemed jarring to attribute it to a real person but I think you're right that it'd be jarring anyway. The one thing I'd say is that I'm discussing epigraphs, so there'd be less attention drawn to it than your Shakespeare example -- nonetheless, I agree, especially as I'm not going for comedy. I believe the best option would be to use the quote in the epigraph but simply not attribute it at all -- the best of both worlds.
    – Mac Cooper
    Mar 17, 2015 at 14:25
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    @MacCooper I think it makes a big difference that you're using these as epigraphs. Since they are outside the narrative, you can arguably attribute them properly --in my experience, this is quite common, even in fantasy literature. It may cut against the sense of immersion a little bit, but that's not always a bad thing. (Although leaving the epigraphs entirely unattributed has advantages, it feels a little icky to me.) Mar 23, 2015 at 15:32

There are several good approaches to this problem:

  • Cite the actual author. This works if the story is set in a world that is descended from the world of the actual author, and if it is plausible that the provenance of the quote would have been passed down until the time of the story.

  • Cite the actual author, but only give the author's initials. This can work if it is plausible that some of the provenance of the quote would have been passed down until the time of the story. For example, Tom Kratman's Carrera / Amazon Legion stories take major themes from Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers. The story is set 500 years in the future, and Heinlein's name has been lost. Thus, the author of Starship Troopers is "only known by his initials, R.A.H."

  • Mangle or translate the author's name to be recognizable, but consistent with the setting. This might be appropriate if the setting does not descend from the author's setting. But a name like Nietzsche already sounds fantastic, so it might not need to be mangled.

  • Do not explicitly name the actual author, but blatantly name the character who says the quote after the author (or one of the author's characters).

  • Do not name the actual author, but instead use a vague phrase like "a philosopher" or "a great man".

  • Paraphrase a famous quote (in a way that is appropriate to the specific setting) while calling attention to the quote, without attribution. This acts like a cameo -- people who recognize the quote will recognize the inside joke. This works if the target audience is familiar with the quote. For example, in John Ringo's "We Few", an alien launches a morning air-cavalry charge with these words:

"Arise civan brothers!" he cried. "Fell deeds await! Now for wrath, now for ruin, and a red dawn!"

Roger had taught him that. He didn't know where the prince had picked it up—probably some ancient human history—but it was a great line, and deserved to be repeated.

Readers familiar with Tolkien's Return of the King will recognize "Arise civan brothers!" as a translation of "Forth Éorlingas!", and the remainder of the quote as a paraphrase of Éomer's war cry during the Battle of Pelennor Field:

"Now for wrath, now for ruin and a red nightfall!"

  • Neat idea about obscuring the name through the passage of time! You could even mangle the quote as if it had been passed down orally across generations. As the great liberator Abby Link proclaimed, "A fine believer in the people gives the truth!" Oct 30, 2022 at 13:40

Legally, in the US or the UK or countries with a similar legal tradition, the older the quote, the more famous the person quoted, and the more famous the quote itself, the safer you are. Quotations from works that are centuries old, as well as very famous quotes from the modern era, are held to have passed into the public domain. If you have specific reason to think it's likely to be a real problem, consult a lawyer - but in practice, no one's going to sue you for quoting something that's already appeared in a million magazine articles. Things might be a little more awkward if the author is alive and not seeking your vote, especially if he or she makes a living by writing.

Assuming you are in the US, the author of this blog post has written a useful summary of the situation there about using quotes on products made for sale. This presumably includes works of literature; things are more relaxed about stuff you give away. (Although I wouldn't guarantee that there will be no adverse reaction to the use of extensive quotation from living people or works still in copyright in fan fiction even though it is given away. But given that the entire field of fan fiction defies the laws of copyright a little extra scarcely matters.) She in turn quotes from a webpage produced by the University of North Carolina: When U.S. Works Pass into the Public Domain. There's a less user friendly but more comprehensive summary of US copyright terms produced by the Cornell Copyright Information Center here.

Turning to the question of whether a deliberately misattributed quote works as part of a story, it depends upon the tone. When the reader spots the misattribution he or she will momentarily be lifted out of the story and reminded of the real world. For a humorous work, or a scene with humour in it, that's fine. Some people above have already quoted the "old Vulcan proverb" from Star Trek VI. I also liked a scene in Stargate where Teal'c claimed that an old proverb of his people was "Do not fix that which is not broken". Talk of proverbs brings me to a possible in-universe justification for using an adapted quote which would work even in a serious setting: that some truths are so universal that they are likely to be independently expressed across different worlds and species. For instance many, many real-life cultures have their own version of the "Golden Rule", "Do unto others as you would have done unto you". Come to think of it, that might be a good rule to follow when quoting other writers.


I know that John Green uses a real life quote in his book, Looking for Alaska and does not sight the quote in the text so, I'd say it is perfectly fine to have a fictional charter say a real life quote.

  • Can you give a source for this? At least what quote it was?
    – Standback
    Mar 23, 2015 at 20:01
  • John Green does something called Crash Course where he makes videos with his brother. I was watched them to study for AP World and while talking about a historical figure, he mentioned he used this persons last words in his book Looking For Alaska. I'm not sure which video it was and who the person was. Mar 28, 2015 at 17:16

You could, but it is very disrespectful towards the one you steal the quote from.

When the person is still alive or not dead for long, it might also be considered plagiarism to use something they said without an attribution. But Friedrich Nietzsche is dead for 115 years now, so in this case it is very unlikely to get you into copyright trouble.

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