I've been going out of my way to avoid referencing famous people in my novel as well as fictional characters, but I keep seeing pop culture references in other books I read as well as in TV shows, songs etc., and I'm wondering if I'm being overzealous about deleting the stuff I had written.

I'm wondering how other writers feel about referring to real people and places or fictional characters in a fictional work and in what situations it's best to get permission or avoid it altogether.

I do know that the chances of these people/place representatives even reading the reference are very slim, but in theory, let's say you ended up writing a best-seller, what would happen in these situations:

Can you reference the name of a real hotel in a novel such as the Plaza, NY. without asking for permission? Nothing negative is written about the hotel. We just know the scene takes place in front of it. Should you get permission to mention them first, or is it not necessary? Would you probably just not name the hotel?

People: I see references to famous people all the time on TV shows, in songs etc, but I feel like it's riskier in a novel for some reason. If you referenced someone in a silly way, eg. to make some funny comparison, could that end up being a problem?

E.g. "She looks like a 50-year-old Lady Gaga."

To take it further, would you feel comfortable writing this in a novel:

"She's like Rosie O'Donnell on crack."

I guess in theory some famous person could sue if they thought you were depicting them negatively, but would that just be totally unrealistic or is it a real possibility? If they are in the public eye and can be picked apart on blogs, star shows etc, is it different in novels, even if it's just a passing reference? Is it best to err on the side of caution at the expense of the content of your novel?

You can't put a fictional character like Chewbacca in your book obviously, but can you just reference such a character in passing? E.g. "My ex-wife looks like Chewbacca after a good shave."

Or how about:

"He did a Sherlock Holmes on the filing cabinet."

Could the company that owns the rights to the Sherlock Holmes/Star Wars franchise have a problem with such a line or is that just extremely unrealistic?

Referencing Gordon Gecko, Mary Poppins and the Terminator would allow me to inject some humorous (IMO) lines into my book. As long as they aren't actual characters in the book, is this ok?

From what I understand, saying your character wears Gucci heels, or drives a BMW, or reads the NY Times or eats Rice Krispies or listens to Bon Jovi - all that type of stuff is fair game, right? I recently read a novel which referenced about 10 different singers the character liked. I can't imagine the author got permission to put those names in - I'm guessing he just went for it.

I know that the chances of a book being successful enough for the parties in question to even know about the reference to them are very slim, but I'd like to know what experience other writers have with this stuff.

Yes, I know it's all subjective and no one can give legal advice, but any feedback from anyone who's published/edited fictional work would be greatly appreciated.

  • 1
    Possible duplicate of Using the real world in writing Jan 30, 2016 at 11:59
  • In my opinion, this is not a duplicate at alll. My question has a lot more parts to it, asks about real people and fictional characters and brand names, none of which are brought up in the other question. There is some small overlap but that is all. It's a completely different question.
    – MoniqueH
    Jan 31, 2016 at 6:31
  • I think this question is different enough that it's a legitimate variation. Feb 1, 2016 at 5:58

3 Answers 3


As long as you're just making references that don't portray them in a negative light, you're fine for brands and celebrities. Things like Jaguar or Rice Krispies don't really date a work, either.

Fictional characters, however, are copyrighted for a long time. So no using Luke skywalker as a character. Your characters can talk about Luke, swing swords around like Luke, and watch Luke. They just can't BE Luke.

But be careful about using pop culture. A lot of millennials wouldn't know who Rosanne Barr is, and have never heard of New Kids on the Block. To them David Copperfield is a Dickens character, not a magician. If your character listens to the Victrola, hears Father Coughlin on the radio, shaves with Bar-sol, and rides an Indian motorcycle on his way to his date with a telephone switchboard operator, that will place him firmly in the 40's. If instead he listens to Iggy Pop on his 8-track in his Trans-Am on the way to his job at the Hard Rock cafe, it's probably the early 80's.

So it's okay to add pop culture references, but make sure they will still be relatable in 30 years. Star Wars and BMW are safe. The Beatles are too. One Direction and Kristen Stewart are not.

  • Thanks very much Kitsune and The Thom. What do you think about putting in the name of a real hotel such as the plaza. I want a scene to take place just in front of it, though that's all that's said about the hotel. Is it best to avoid it or get permission or should it be fine?
    – MoniqueH
    Jan 31, 2016 at 6:04

There's nothing---NOTHING!---in the detailed list given by you that's forbidden, if used, just as you described, in a "passing reference."

NOR is there any problem with mentioning real businesses or hotels, UNLESS you do so in a derogatory way; such as: "I stayed three nights in the SOUTH NARK hotel, right off Broadway, in New York. And it took me three weeks to clear the bed-bugs out of my clothing, belongings and suitcase! Couldn't get a decent night's sleep there, either; there was a continual party going on, hosted by the Grunge-Rockola band, "ROCK, PAPER, SWITCHBLADES," and they were raising hell non-stop along the entire length of the 13th floor!"

If you wrote that about a real hotel, you'd be hip-deep in hell, but otherwise--- simply "I/he/we/they stayed at the SOUTH NARK," you would have no problems.

Some great authors created new brand-names for all the businesses, vehicles, and even tools, that were mentioned in their short stories or novels. Others were intricately detailed, and so generous with the geographical references in their stories, that a reader or researcher could track the action 'round the city, even half a century later.

Read many, MANY similar works---not only ones exclusively in your genre---and simply do as those authors do.

And please stop with the paranoia!

The vast majority of authors DO NOT live to sue other authors; I've something like 80-odd things still in print (almost all are under other names and in other nations, by now) plus I've been "publishing for money" since about 1968. AND I'VE NEVER SUED ANYBODY!!!

Oh, gee! Somebody used "my" catch-phrase: "It Cost Him A Shiny New Nickle." Big deal!!!

Good luck, my friend!

  • Thank you very much Fred. I will take this on board. I think I will mention the Plaza Hotel after all - it would just add some atmosphere and all we know is that the protagonists get out there and a valet parks their car. They don't even go in! What is your opinion about a line like, "now you want me to be Martha Stewart on crack." It's obviously an analogy, but IN THEORY, could this be seen as negative to her brand or something?
    – MoniqueH
    Feb 2, 2016 at 8:57
  • Thanks; I'm glad to have helped! While some authors follow the Rex Stout approach and even make up names for cars (the Heron Nero Wolfe loved because the soft suspension and deeply-upholstered seats gave him a posh ride!) and others, such as Tony Hillerman, who ignore everything but their story-line, and how best to tell the story.
    – Fred Kerns
    Feb 3, 2016 at 1:14
  • (Hit The Wrong Key!) You REALLY have to forget about all the "potential, possible, once-in-a-blue-moon, etc., paranoid fears that you MIGHT write something the "Named Subject" can get mad about!! FORGET ALL THAT STUFF! Rich, successful, well-to-do people (and businesses!) have exciting, entertaining careers. I know of NOBODY who kept a staff of trolls whose job it was to read "everything," in search of "negative references" about them. REMEMBER: IF IT WAS "ACTIONABLE" THE MAGAZINE OR BOOK PUBLISHER WOULD HAVE EDITED IT OUT, BEFORE IT GOT TO PRINT!!!
    – Fred Kerns
    Feb 3, 2016 at 1:32
  • The only thing I MIGHT change about the "Now you want me to be Martha Stewart on crack . . . ." line would be something like: "Now you want me to act like I'm your personal Martha Stewart on crystal meth?" That makes the whole thing "personal" (between you and Dominatrix) and the "crystal meth" ref. is more "contemporary" (crystal use is fast outpacing crack and other drugs.) REMEMBER THAT THIS IS ONLY A SUGGESTION!
    – Fred Kerns
    Feb 3, 2016 at 1:39
  • Thank you very much Fred. I will take all this on board. I have spent 2 years writing and am about to self-publish in a few weeks, so that's why I'm trying to be ultra-careful so that nothing goes wrong!
    – MoniqueH
    Feb 3, 2016 at 8:33

1) Sherlock Holmes is public domain. No one's going to sue you for it. We all own it.

2) While classics like Sherlock Holmes are safe, referencing pop culture can date your work. Just FYI...

  • Sherlock Holmes stories before 1923 are public domain in the U.S.; details in stories published after that date are not public domain yet. Jan 31, 2016 at 14:07
  • Downvoted because it doesn't answer the question, only one of its examples. Feb 1, 2016 at 5:58
  • Would anyone have an issue writing, "I don't want you to turn into some Gordon Gecko hybrid." When I say issue, I mean, would you be afraid that you don't have the right to use his name in a novel? I also make a joke involving the Terminator. Would that be acceptable?
    – MoniqueH
    Feb 21, 2016 at 5:40

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