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The protagonist in my autobiographical novel is a girl on spiritual adventures. I have the idea of her looks in my mind, but I don't want to dedicate words to explicitly express her looks, so is it OK if I just mention in one line that she looks like some real world actress? Also, can I mention names of some real-world spiritual teachers as she meets them on her journey?

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    Thanks for the tick, but it's probably best to wait for a day or so before selecting an answer - that way, people are more likely to add different answers, you'll have a greater choice, and someone else might suggest something I've missed. (You can change your mind by clicking again on the tick). – ItWasLikeThatWhenIGotHere Apr 17 '18 at 7:46
  • You should be able to say a character looks like a real-world person without a problem. As for the spiritual teachers, what kind of "OK" do you mean? Are you asking whether it's literarily advisable or whether it's legally sensible? The answer to the first question is "it depends". I don't mean that facetiously. It can work well as a device if you know what your aim is and how using this method helps you achieve it. The answer to the second question is that it can be done, yes, but of course be careful not to damage someone's reputation in an unjustified way, which can be tortious. – user21247 Apr 17 '18 at 14:51
  • About the spiritual teacher...I just want my character to meet a teacher in zen monastry which really exist and the teacher really exist in real world... – user30875 Apr 17 '18 at 14:57
  • I take it that you will make clear that it's fiction. Just be careful not to cause unjustified damage to the real person's reputation and you should be fine. – user21247 Apr 17 '18 at 20:03
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is it OK if I just mention in one line that she looks like some real world actress?

Don't do that.

First of all, don't overestimate the relevance of how people look when you aren't working in a visual medium. Spending too much time on trying to get a photorealistic image of your character into the reader's head is a common beginners mistake. It usually falls under the law of conservation of detail. If the visual details of a character are not relevant to the plot or to the way other characters react to them, there is little reason to describe them. Just let the reader make up their own image in their head.

Especially writing something like "she looks just like [celebrity]" has a couple of possible drawbacks:

  • The reader might not be familiar with the celebrity you referenced. Especially when they are from a culture or demographic where that celebrity isn't as popular as in yours.
  • That character will become associated with that celebrity in your reader's head. They will start to associate all kinds of other traits of that celebrity with your character.
  • It might give an impression of being uncreative. Readers might assume that you couldn't come up with an original character, so you just copied a person who exists in real life.
  • It breaks the narrative fiction and drags the reader into the world of celebrity gossip. That's especially problematic if that celebrity doesn't exist or isn't relevant in your fictional universe.
  • Possible legal problems with regards to the personality rights of a person who can afford better lawyers than you do.

can I mention names of some real-world spiritual teachers as she meets them on her journey?

It depends. Do you reference the actual spiritual teacher? Does that teacher exist in the fictional universe? Is it plausible for your character to interact with them and/or get exposed to their work? Is the spiritual teacher dead for long enough that you can reference them without running into legal issues? Then go for it. Spiritual teachers influence millions of people, so your character also getting influenced by them is plausible.

But again, keep your reader's reference pool in mind. Most people might have heard the name Friedrich Nietzsche, but very few are familiar with what the man actually wrote. So give the reader a rundown of the philosophical concepts as your character understood them.

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    Somewhat related to Grollo's point: real life celebrities are human beings (usually) who age with time. What if you wrote the novel when Tom Hanks was in his mid 20s, but I read the novel now? It would leave me confused as to why your "youthful" protagonist looks like an old man. :) – user30916 Apr 17 '18 at 16:56
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    Is there the possibility for characters in the story to bring up a perceived likeness? "You look just like those pictures of x I saw in the magazine the other day, Marie!" – Onyz Apr 17 '18 at 19:14
  • @Onyz I discuss that avenue in my answer. – a CVn Apr 17 '18 at 19:42
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Well, first off, like ItWasLikeThatWhenIGotHere mentioned, make sure to be careful with how you portray a real person. There are many possible ways to mess up, not least of which is libel which was mentioned in the previous answer.

However, and I have said this before: don't make the reader look things up in order to understand the story! It completely breaks immersion if I have to go look up what a particular person looks like, even if that is just a short Internet search away. Just don't. It's okay if the reader has the option to do that (one of my favorite authors regularly slips little real-life tidbits into her writing), but don't make them do it.

Instead, describe the individual as they appear within the story. This doesn't need to be excessive (you might want to check out my question At what point does a POV character noting their surroundings go from showing/telling to an infodump? for some discussion on a closely related issue), but it should be enough to get some idea of what the person they're describing looks like. You can then, depending on your point of view character and how they relate to this individual, write something appropriately-voiced along the lines of "the way s/he looked made me think of the name of some movie star goes here".

This also has the advantage that you're showing an association made by the POV, narrating, or talking character within the story; not making something that can reasonably be construed as a statement of fact about someone in the real world. That alone should go a long way, though not necessarily all the way, toward alleviating e.g. libel concerns.

  • "Libel" is a surprisingly broad term. Even if you don't think something is offensive, someone else might, and that could make what you say libel. Also, many celebrities have a personal brand, complete with trademarks and copyrights, which could make referencing them rocky legal terrain for other reasons. – Nic Hartley Apr 17 '18 at 17:54
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It's possible, and there are precedents. For example :

“If you took a couple of David Bowies and stuck one of the David Bowies on the top of the other David Bowie, then attached another David Bowie to the end of each of the arms of the upper of the first two David Bowies and wrapped the whole business up in a dirty beach robe you would then have something which didn't exactly look like John Watson, but which those who knew him would find hauntingly familiar.” [Douglas Adams]

The thing to keep in mind is whether the person you have in mind is famous enough that everyone will know who and what you mean (a Monroe, possibly a Streep), and that their appearance has been consistent enough over their acting career (so not a Mirren or an Agutter, unless you define it by year or film title). If you're picking a young actor, it's worth considering that their appearance might change after publication of the novel.

[Edit : If you're not seeing an immediate image associated with the names I've mentioned above, this shows how tricky this can be and I'll have tripped over the point I was trying to make.]

Also, does a reference to a particular actor work in the "world" of the novel? As well as the readers needing to know who she is, if the characters and narrator wouldn't be able to relate to the comparison, it could look incongruous.

Comparing looks is one thing, but if you're introducing a representation of an actual person (particularly a spiritual leader), it would be wise to look at how they're portrayed. In addition to libel considerations, the followers of spiritual leaders will have a certain image of them, and will resent any portrayal that they don't consider accurate. It's worth being particularly careful with this one.

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    Careful. I don't pretend to speak for anyone else, but I'd have to look up Monroe's appearance, and have no idea who Streep, Mirren and Agutter even are, much less what they look like. Adams' description has the advantage that it doesn't rely on knowing what Bowie looks like in order to evoke a mental imagery; even if that mental imagery is not perfect, it seems likely to be close enough to get the idea across. – a CVn Apr 17 '18 at 7:45
  • @MichaelKjörling - True. I've accidentally illustrated my point by picking examples that might not be universal. I suppose it's too late to pretend it was intentional? – ItWasLikeThatWhenIGotHere Apr 17 '18 at 7:52
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    I think Adams' David Bowie joke would work just as well with any other person. It's mostly about putting a completely absurd picture into the reader's mind (one of Adams' signature moves). – Philipp Apr 17 '18 at 14:33
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    What's a David Bowie? – user30916 Apr 17 '18 at 16:57
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    Funny thought about picking real life people that might not be universally known. I could totally see the likes of Adams or maybe Pratchett doing exactly that intentionally, or perhaps referencing a resemblance to some in-world celeb but then never describing the celeb in any way, or mentioning them. – Mr.Mindor Apr 17 '18 at 19:59
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People Change

One thing to remember is that celebrities (and all of us for that matter) change and age with time. So what a celebrity looks like "today" may not be what she looks "now".

She was cute as a button, like one of the Olsen twins, but when she grew up, she grew up to look like China Phillips.

Now is I wrote that back in the 90s, you would have the idea of a cute little girl, blonde-haired girl who became rather large. Reading this today (2018) brings images of thing party girls and a mature woman.

And the following sounds even worse:

She was cute as a button, like one of the Olsen twins (from the third season of Full House), but when she grew up, she grew up to look like China Phillips (during her time with Wilson-Phillips).

Picture the character in your mind and your notes but avoid giving specific people description, whenever possible.

She was cute as a button: pig tails, blue eyes, and a contagious smile. Adolescence left her rotund, but with the same smile.

Again, that might be what you want to go for.

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    Yes! Imagine the author in a 2010 book associated the character with Miley Cyrus. Innocent enough, right? – Alexander Apr 17 '18 at 17:05
  • @Alexander shudders – JP Chapleau Apr 17 '18 at 22:14
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Many authors use real names of celebrities as a trait example but if so, I find authors use it only once or twice in the whole book.

More often writers use a vivid description of a character while using real people as an example without using their names.

I think a real person doesn't harm your story if it fits well and if you mention he/she once/twice max.

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