I'm new here.

Anyways my situation is that for my English class I'm writing a paper depicting the similarities between characters in fiction that begin their stories with overwhelming abilities such as overpowered strength, speed or intelligence and how their "character" can be compared to characters that have to gain such abilities throughout their stories. Everyone seems to have done contrast pieces of these so I wanted to do a comparison instead.

This means I am giving examples in the paper of the characters and their stories.

My concern is if I need to give any references or if mentioning the characters is enough. I've checked and they're all in the public domain; classic characters like Hercules, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Tarzan of the Apes, Captain Nemo, Captain Ahab and Sherlock Holmes so I assume they're fine given I'm just mentioning them and not quoting anything but I would like to check on it.

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    I don't believe you can get in trouble for using characters in essay writing, or else every 2nd grader would be sued for their book reports they do.
    – ggiaquin16
    Commented Sep 28, 2017 at 20:50
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    but like all school reports, it should be well documented where you are referencing the heroes from. Like if you say that tarazan and hercules are the same, you will need to quote from their story. Make sure that you have everything properly quoted and referenced/cited. Where you can get in trouble is making claims without providing anything to back it up, or forgetting to cite/reference something and take it for your own (plagiarism). Also I don't believe a teacher would provide you an assignment such as this if it required you to get permission or chance to be sued.
    – ggiaquin16
    Commented Sep 28, 2017 at 21:00
  • I'm not quoting anything just mentioning the characters. I just want to know if I need to add citations and a reference page for fictional characters that are old enough to be not only in the public domain but common knowledge. If I do compare them I mention something like 'how much effort much an overly strong character put forth to live in a world consistent with wet tissue paper?' That's how I'm comparing, not anything specific from their stories. It's the idea of an overly powerful character or developing abilities character not a comparison of the specific characters. Commented Sep 28, 2017 at 21:15
  • Please refer back to my original comment then :) Also as JanS said it would also be best to double check with your instructor. However, I personally have never had to reference a character just for name dropping them. Fan Fiction gets away with writing within a known realm because they don't make money off the story. In this case, it's not even being published to the internet. Simply being read by your teacher for a grade. I have qualified the character though by stating something like "In the novel Tarazan of the apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the character Tarazan.......".
    – ggiaquin16
    Commented Sep 28, 2017 at 21:18
  • If you quote a few lines from a copyrighted work in an academic paper, that will almost always qualify as Fair Use: The purpose of the work is academic, not-for-profit, and educational. You are not copying the piece in its entirety, but merely quoting a few lines from it. Your use is unlikely to have any impact on the value of the work. whoishostingthis.com/resources/student-copyright Also it's public domain characters, so this shouldn't even be an issue :)
    – ggiaquin16
    Commented Sep 28, 2017 at 21:36

2 Answers 2


Citations are not about copyright:

  • You have to cite to provide evidence for a claim, allowing the reader to find information, or avoiding to mislead others into thinking that something was your creation (plagiarism). If quoting something is a breach of copyright, citing the source does not alleviate this (even though half the Internet seems to believe this).

    You have to decide for yourself if any of the reasons for citation apply. For example, will your readers want a thorough evidence that Sherlock Holmes has his mental capabilities to begin with? Will a reference to A Study in Scarlet be of use to them, so they can look it up themselves? Could anybody be tricked into thinking that you created Sherlock Holmes? In your case, the answer to all these questions – particularly the last one – is probably no.

    Still, be aware that your instructor may have a differing opinion about this and after all, one purpose of your exercise is probably to practice citing.

  • Copyright is about ensuring that creators can economically benefit from their work.

    In all reasonable legislatures, quoting and summarising literary works for purposes of analysis, criticism, etc. is not subject to copyright or explicitly exempted from it (with the possible exception if you do this excessively). In American copyright law, the keyword is fair use; in other laws it’s called something along the lines of the right of citation.

    You have to worry even less about copyright if the works in question are in the public domain. However, if this is actually relevant for your literary analysis, you are likely to do something else wrong anyway.


If in doubt, check with your instructor. Generally, whenever you reference another text, you need to cite it both to protect yourself and to provide a way for verification.

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