I am working on a fictional book which would be similar to that of Winnie-the-Pooh in terms of its format and ability to be read, but I want there to be philosophical meaning to what goes on in the book. My problem is that I will be using some fairly unique, -- or at least attributable -- ideas from philosophers.

One such example is one of the characters having "bad faith". I wouldn't include direct quotes from Sartre, but the idea of "bad faith" will be quite thinly veiled. Anyone who would read it that knows about Sartre would probably see some pretty clear connections. My question is whether I need to cite my sources for the idea of bad faith or not, since I'm not going to include any quotes from him.

The reason I don't want to cite the source of using his philosophy would be that I think it would take away from the story for you if you were reading and then all of the sudden see a parenthetical citation or footnote. Would it best to just include his name in acknowledgements or in some other type of recognition after or before the book itself?


8 Answers 8


Footnotes and citations in fiction (and, in particular, children's fiction) are extremely rare, and I recommend against using them.

It's often said that ideas are common; it's how they're used and implemented that matters. Nevertheless, fiction writers who feel they owe a debt to another writer's ideas usually say as much in an acknowledgements section. In extreme cases, they may write an entire afterword if the story is complex (and something the reader would care to read).

There are exceptions to this, though. (Aren't there always?) An obvious example os Terry Pratchett, who used footnotes in his novels to great comedic ends. But he had an extremely strong authorial voice, and an awful lot of experience writing. I'd hold off unless you're certain a footnote is the right way to go. Just do it knowing you're writing something that's a bit off-beat that may take the reader out of the experience temporarily.

  • Personally, I love footnotes and endnotes, in any kind of book, but my taste is a little... ahem... baroque. Jul 11, 2016 at 2:42

To my knowledge (not a lawyer), you don't have any legal responsibility to attribute the ideas in your actual text, unless you're directly quoting or paraphrasing. It's very rare (but not unheard of) to footnote a fictional text because it damages suspension of disbelief (except where the fiction is presented as if it were an academic work).

Given that you want to give credit where it is due, I would suggest an endnote where you discuss where the philosophical ideas came from. If I recall correctly, this is the approach Neal Stephenson took in Ananthem where real philosophies are attributed to fictional characters within the narrative (and correctly credited in the endnotes).

Conversely, if the characters are themselves influenced by the real-world philosophers, and not reinventing their philosophies, then it would be simplest to have them refer to the philosopher directly when introducing the idea. "As Sartre would say, you're in a state of bad faith, Gertrude." I think that is the approach taken by Walker Percy in The Moviegoer. Typically, that's what people do in real life as well (although you want to be sparing with it if you don't want the whole thing to read transparently as a philosophy lesson).


An "idea" is not copyrightable, only its expression is.

"Bad faith" is an idea that is as old as time, that Satre "popularized," but did not invent.

What is attributable to him is an exposition of what constitutes "bad faith (say a paragraph or longer). That would be copyrightable. That you would cite and attribute to him (and get permission to use).

But as long as you use "brief" passages from Satre (a few words or short phrases) and not long sentences or paragraphs, you're ok.

For this kind of "use," you don't need to cited sources, because Satre also had his sources,


It's fine as long as you're acknowledging the philosopher (clearly or not). But if you don't want to add the quotation details (such as the originators) to too many other quotes, you could always make reference by adjusting your story to actual events that also happened to those philosophisers: such as one of your characters having a mystery reason to depart a settled job (like John Dunnes) or having an affair (like Benjamin Constant).


No, Dostoyevsky explored religious and existentialists ideas in many of his books--his genius was to add to the discussion by exploring existing ideas through fiction and finding new ground through the exploration.


Ideas are not copyrightable. Having a character follow a philosophy is definitely not a form of plagiarism. Presenting that philosophy as a paraphrase of the original work might be plagiarism, though dubiously illegal (copyright on most of these works has long expired already anyway.) In most cases, if you just follow the idea but express it in your own way, this just falls under drawing inspiration which is an entirely legal, common and perfectly acceptable practice.

It's still a good form to credit the original author, possibly in an afterword, or similar "paraphernalia." There's definitely no need to add footnotes to the fictional story or follow academic practices of bibliography or such - you're neither violating copyright nor writing a paper that needs to follow academic scrutiny. But giving a credit where it's due is a good savior-vivre, not obligatory but welcome.


No, I know of several fantasy authors who not only use citations without the philosopher's name, but attribute the quotes to a fictional author who is part of their world.


Plagiarism is an academic violation. If you wrote a scholarly article for a professional journal and did not give proper credit to your sources, you would be guilty of plagiarism. If you were caught you might lose academic standing, maybe even lose your job at the university.

But works of fiction are not scholarly articles. We do not normally expect a work of fiction to have footnotes. Fiction writers routinely incorporate moral or philosophical themes into their stories without giving a scholarly discussion of the history of the idea and their sources.

Note that, as a couple of others have implied but I don't think quite stated clearly, there is a big difference between plagiarism and copyright violation. If you write a book, you own a copyright to the specific words used to express that idea. If others copy your words, you can sue them. But copyright law specifically says that you do not have a copyright to an idea, just to the words to express that idea. Plagiarism is copying someone else's ideas without giving proper credit, but plagiarism is not a crime nor a tort: you cannot be arrested or sued for plagiarism. It's an academic violation that can get you in trouble with universities and publishers, you could lose your job or be blacklisted by professional journals, but they can't sue you for it.

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