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I am writing about a real place and the real history of a family. However, there are some things I want to include that aren't the truth. Is this legal to do?

Many thanks, Ciera

  • Are you representing your work as a documentary or "based on the truth"? If it's "fictionalized history," you may be okay, but you need to be wary of libel. Best bet is to talk with a lawyer. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Apr 6 '15 at 10:29
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Typically, you would change all the names and present it as fiction (perhaps as "inspired by a true story"). This is called a roman à clef and it's a widely used technique to allow poetic license with the truth while avoiding legal trouble.

Even with this approach, however, people have still been sued, so you might want to use caution.

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Have you ever watched a "docudrama"? These days, even straight-up documentaries on TV often include "dramatic re-enactments" of key scenes. I often find such docudrama frustrating because, if I don't already know the facts, there's no easy way to tell what actually happened, what's been added or altered to make the story more dramatic or otherwise entertaining, and what's been added or altered to inject the producer's political, social, religious or otherwise philosophical interpretations.

Books claiming to be non-fiction accounts of historical events rarely do this, but there are plenty of historical novels out there. Some just use some very general historical backdrop and populate it with totally fictional characters. But others are all about real people. In these cases they may take a few actual historical facts -- this man really was king and he really did marry a princess from Bavaria and he really did go on a Crusade, etc -- but then they fill it out with a lot of fictional material to make an entertaining story.

If the people you're writing about are still alive or are not all that long dead, you may have issues with libel. If they're centuries dead, I doubt their great-great-great-grandchildren are going to sue you, and I doubt they'd get far if they tried. I suppose if you wrote a story portraying some much-loved historical figure in a bad light you could take some heat, like if you portrayed Abraham Lincoln as a rapist or something, but I don't think there'd be much anyone could do legally.

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What you want to say will partly determine what you can do. If you want to say that someone is a baby-killing paedophile, and that person is easily identified from what you write, expect trouble. If you just change the names and embroider a story, you shouldn't have to worry. Many people add to what is actually known. I recently watched a film about Anne Frank. Of course all the dialogue was made up and many of the events. Problem? No.

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