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So the story I want to write can really only be written in one of two ways. Basically it's the modern world, a handful of people develop god-like powers, and some of them want to use those powers to force the world to get better - ie, they want to use their power and nigh unstoppability to dictate terms to all badly behaving actors in the world to act according to their (the supers') standards. In other words, the super(s) are becoming de facto dictators.

This means they will be interacting with world leaders, thought leaders, major corporations, etc. Take Trump for example - or Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, Pence - the protagonists are going to want to have words with them and lay down the law - the new law anyways.

So my two choices are - right about a fictional parallel universe with all the same people as the real universe, using their real names, OR -

I could create all new name like President Ronald King, a real jackass of a man.

The benefit of the latter approach would be better insulation from legal action and it would probably be a little more timeless if not tied to real people at this moment in history.

My question is this: If I went with the first option, said that the protagonists teleported to the White House and threatened Trump, whereupon he cravenly and quickly yielded to them - what is my real risk to being sued or otherwise being taken to court?

PS. I looked at other similar topics already on this site, and didn't really find the answers I was looking for, as my fiction doesn't just use these characters in passing, but spends a chapter or two with them, possibly more.

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It is completely unproblematic, if real people are part of the world that your fictional characters inhabit. For example, your detective Smith might see President Trump on tv and hear part of a speech that the real president actually held. If you make sure that you represent these real people accurately (that is, you don't misquote them) and in a neutral manner (that is, you don't defame them), then everything is fine.

Is is extremely problematic, on the other hand, if you use real people as active characters, that is, if you have real people do and say things in your novel that they haven't (verifyably) done or said in reality. It is problematic for two reasons:

  1. Every person has a right to their own outward appearance and story. If you want to use their likeness in a publication, you have to ask their permission (and a literary description such as a name is a "likeness" in this sense, too). And if you want to narrate a part of their lives – and it doesn't matter if what you tell has happened or was made up –, you have to ask their permission, too. This is why you read in the newspaper that this or that film company has bought the right to make a movie of the life of a certain person.

  2. Every portrayal of a real person, no matter how well-meaning and benign, can always be seen by that person of a misrepresentation of themselves.

Authors, film makers, and other artists have faced court cases over both reasons. The easy way to avoid this is to use fictional presidents and other fictional celebrities.

There are, for example, many Hollywood movies in which the President of the United States plays some role, but it is invariably a fictional president who gives the order to attack the aliens or whatever. Real presidents only appear in movies about major historic events (such as the Kennedy assassination), and usually these presidents are no longer alive, that is, they are "historic persons".

In your case, using a fictional president doesn't affect your story at all, as your story is not about Trump, but about a certain kind of person in a certain kind of office, and just as crime writers don't have to use real detectives to show how a murderer is caught, you don't need a real president to show what a president might do wrong (or right).

  • Yeah, that's the main issue, that many of these real people are going to have to be active characters, interacting often with the protagonists. I guess that partly I was hoping I wouldn't have to explain the kind of man that "President Ronald King" is if I just said "President Trump" instead, but if I do say "President King" I have to spend time acquainting the reader with why the protagonist isn't happy with him. The silver lining to using made up names is that the story better stands the test of time and people who don't know, say, Mitch McConnel will still find the book accessible. – Sindyr Mar 18 '18 at 12:01
  • @Sindyr It is also better because not everyone views Trump in the same way, and if you rely on readers agreeing with your view, you might find that they don't and therefore disagree with your story. Whereas if you have a fictional president and plainly state that he is however he is, then that is a "fact" and all readers are with you. – user29032 Mar 18 '18 at 12:27
  • Well, not alienating readers is probably a better business decision, on the other hand expressing my personal feelings about real people feels more authentic and appropriate for what is essentially a work of art, so YMMV. ;) In other words, perhaps I am not writing so much for people that don't get what the severe issues are with the orange cheeto. – Sindyr Mar 18 '18 at 12:30
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    @Sindyr If the purpose of your writing is to express what is wrong with Trump, who is it aimed at? Either people already agree with you, and you aren't adding much to what they already know (why would it be of interest if you are 'preaching to the choir')... or are you trying to shed light on issues with the guy to people who actually like him? Personally, that would be interesting to read if you find a way to persuade people to think of him differently.... – Carlo Mar 18 '18 at 12:55
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    @Sindyr .... My suggestion, try to not alienate people who might not agree with you upfront on your views... because you might have the most impact on them if you are successful with your portrayal of him. Just an idea. – Carlo Mar 18 '18 at 12:56
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If you were to use a name like "President Ronald King," the reader should be able to pick up on your social commentary. In addition, it can show the reader what you think of him [Trump] and how you want to portray him.

An example that I can think of off the top of my head is Terry Pratchett's work in his Discworld novels. He uses fantasy as a means for social commentary. Take his novel Moving Pictures, he uses Holy Wood instead of Hollywoood, Blown Away as a parody to Gone With the Wind.

You are writing a fiction piece, after all. Might as well take advantage of that, and play around with names that resemble the real life people/institutions you want to portray in the way you want to portray them. The added bonus is that you don't have to worry about legal ramifications, which seems to be your main concern.

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One problem I notice with reading paperbacks from the past (whether from BookThing or my mom's trashy-lit shelves when I was a teen) is that they name-drop a LOT, but those names mean/meant nothing to me.

The writer dropped the names in often as a shortcut, like "The secretary had hair like Cheryl Ladd," but that told me nothing. This was pre-Wikipedia, so for all I know, Miss Ladd was the writer's next door neighbor!

Or worse, if the celebrities were interacting with the clearly fictional characters, they got less description, because "everyone knows" the difference in sex-symbol-ness between Tom Sellick and Burt Reynolds, but I barely even knew they had mustaches!

It's fine to write for NOW, in fact, you sort of have to. (I think there was a writer for Cracked who was complaining that his book "was so full of zombies and so 2007 (or whatever year)", and his partner was like "It's never been 2007 before! Write it!") But also bear in mind that with luck, your writing will be discovered and rediscovered in future decades -- capture as much of reality as you can, and don't assume readers will fill in the gaps the way you want.

You may find it helpful to look at historical fiction writers and how they handle "real world characters" -- you're just looking at a slightly less historical history.

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