What if I decide to write a story with a character based off a historical figure but under a different name?

For example:

(1) I write a story with a hero named Tom, who is a political figure.

(2) Tom is based on John Adams.

(3) Therefore, without references, I paraphrase a lot of Adams's ideas that he wrote in his works for use in my character development.

(4) Furthermore, even some of Tom's dialogue may include direct quotations or paraphrases of Adams's works without direct references to their origins.

(5) My intent is not to pass these off as original, but it is my hope that people will see the parallels.

My question is: Since my story will obviously include ideas and words that are not my own, am I plagiarizing?

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    Plaigiarism involves copying someone else's original work or intellectual property and claiming it as one's own. The public acts and dialogue of historical figures are not IP as such, but if this is a living or recently living person, you might run into problems regarding slander or libel. Commented May 23, 2016 at 21:38

4 Answers 4


TL;DR: There is a spectrum of copying from regular story-telling that re-uses ideas and themes, to plagiarism, to copyright infringement. These are not all the same and only the last is illegal.

The concept of plagiarism is not clearly defined. There is a spectrum of idea-borrowing and word-for-word copying that exists and some of it is acceptable, but if you copy too much, or the wrong thing, then you can be accused of plagiarism. Generally, it's not illegal to plagiarize but in some contexts it is forbidden (i.e. in school you're supposed to write your own work and not copy someone else's).

Shakespeare based Romeo and Juliet off of an older story. Countless current movies are re-hashes of pre-existing material. Every story that re-tells an older story, in a sense, plagiarizes that story. To some degree this is fine, acceptable, commendable even. It's how storytelling works.

Legally, the problem of copying is usually restricted to copyright infringement. Laws vary by country but lots of "retelling", not to mention any sizable outright copying of text, is usually prohibited by law. However you are intending to copy historical speeches that are certainly not under copyright anymore. Thus even outright word-for-word copying is allowed by law. Whether your readers will like it depends on what you do with it.

Finally, ideas: ideas are generally not copyrightable. Even though J.K. Rowling made Harry Potter famous, she does not have a monopoly on the idea of a boy going to wizard school. Even if you copied many elements of her story, you're not likely to see problems.

A case in point is the Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind, which features a convent of sorceresses who serve the Light and try to struggle against the Keeper of the Dead, yet have been infiltrated by Sisters of the Dark who server the Keeper. This sounds remarkably like Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time's Aes Sedai, who are a convent of sorceresses who serve the Light and vow to maintain order and ready for battle against the Dark One who has power over the dead. They deny the existence of the Black Ajah, a secret organization of Darkfriend Aes Sedai who server the Dark One. Occaisionally, the Aes Sedai must contend with the Aiel, a race of desert warriors who raid amongst themselves and forbid outsiders from living in their until a messiah comes and unites them together to forge an unstoppable army that will be pivotal in the cataclysm to come. This reminds many of the Fremen of Dune, a race of desert warriors who raid the Harkonnen until Paul Atreides comes from the planet Caladan to unite them and forge them into a galaxy-spanning fighting force etc.

Chronologically, Dune came first, then the Wheel of Time, then the Sword of Truth. Are these writers plagiarizing the work that came before? Perhaps. Or are they just borrowing certain set pieces to tell a bigger story? What they do with the story is ultimately what matters and makes them worth reading. (or not: Skip the Sword of Truth, it starts out mediocre and becomes terrible).

  • Thank you for providing the example with the Sword of Truth series. That really gave me something to sink my teeth into. My last question is: What if those similarities to Robert Jordan's works weren't merely coincidence? That is, what if the reusing was intentional? I ask because sometimes intent can be the difference between innocence and guilt. Commented May 27, 2016 at 4:12

First point, as Lauren Ipsum indicated, be very, very careful about taking a living person as your model. Taking a dead person as your model could also give you problems if that person was a writer (a category which could include people primarily famous for other reasons), and his or her writings are still in copyright. Whether this (putting in-copyright words from a dead author into the mouth of a fictional character) counts as plagiarism or simple breach of copyright I'm not sure. I am not a lawyer. But check here to see how long copyright lasts after the death of an author. For a long-lived author it can be surprising how long their work remains in copyright.

If the person from whose writings you quote has been dead for centuries, you are safe legally. Assuming the John Adams you mean is the second president of the US who died in 1826, you'd be fine.

I must confess, however, that as described your story sounds as if it might feel as though it violated the informal 'contract' between author and readers. If your readers are sufficiently well versed in American history that they spot the words depicted as being said by Tom really originated with John Adams they are likely to think that you couldn't be bothered to think up original dialogue for your character. If they are not sufficiently historically aware to spot the Adams link it might as well not be there. That said, I've seen this sort of thing pulled off well as a twist ending, e.g. by using real incidents taken from the historical record the story gets the reader to dislike a character whose name is cleverly concealed, and then it turns out they were some famous popular hero.

  • I see what you’re saying, but then how do we deal with cases like Crime and Punishment? Here the character is a manifestation of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, an idea that Dostoevsky didn’t come up with himself. I might be comparing apples to oranges here, but I don't think so. Here we have a case of one author using someone else’s ideas in the composition of his character’s persona. Is this plagiarism or...? Commented May 23, 2016 at 23:12
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    @LondonJennings, I confess I haven't read Crime and Punishment but for a writer to create a character who simply manifests Nietzsche's ideas can't be plagiarism or breach of copyright. The law of intellectual property deals with copying exact words, or copying with changes visibly designed merely to dodge getting sued. Many, many authors have written characters and whole books designed to show how some philosophy would work out in practice, often from a hostile perspective intended to show that the philosophy concerned would have bad consequences. When the philosopher put his or her > Commented May 24, 2016 at 7:24
  • < thoughts on philosophy into the public domain, they became fair game for authors. Portray a character motivated by X's philosophy as you wish. You can even have them quote X directly; realistic novels often have their characters influenced by real people. The point where you might have trouble is if you portray the philosopher himself or herself doing something disreputable. A change of name, minor changes of wording to published statements, or other light disguise will not be enough to make a defence if a recognisable version of a real person is shown acting disreputably or illegally. Commented May 24, 2016 at 7:29

George RR Martin created the entire A Song of Ice and Fire because of the War of Roses. So did William Morris, I think he used a battle between the Romans and Gauls, I can't remember. Correct me if I'm wrong anybody. Anyways, using history is very common among writers. It's actually something most will encourage you to do. Just don't be dishonest with your story, don't try to write your political belief into a character based on someone important to American history. If you're going to do it, try a compare and contrast of how American values, political philosophy, etc., has changed since John Adams.


I'm not a lawyer, but I'll point you in a direction you may want to go.

What you are doing sounds like something called "parody." It turns out that "parody" is one of the so-called "fair use" defenses for copying. More to the point, John Adams is not alive to sue you, and no one else can, on his behalf.

In your case, you should "make a virtue of necessity" and follow the parody format. (Get professional advance on this matter.) For instance, you should call your work something like the" President Tom ADAMS Chronicle," to make it clear that the character is a take-off on John Adams. Renaming him "Tom" is a signal that you're dealing with a fictitious character and not the original.

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