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I'm thinking of writing a fiction novel. The plot I've outlined so far centers largely around one possible path the future of our world could take over the next several decades. In doing so, the story revolves largely around the politics and policies of the United States and China. It may also connect to certain pseudo-governmental organizations, such as the UN, WTO, WHO, etc.

However, it will not be naming any real people, private businesses, etc; other than perhaps for some historical context.

I would make up names, but who they are in present day is a big part of who they will be in the future. The story doesn't paint them in a very flattering light; but the light will be consistent with the way they have conducted themselves out here in the real world. Warts and all.

What kind of liability would I be opening myself up to if I used the real names of these countries and pseudo-governments?

Edit to clarify: I'm mostly concerned about the real-life countries, governments, and pseudo-government organizations. The near-duplicate questions do indeed answer the question about real-life individual people.

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    Does this answer your question? Ramifications of using real public people as characters in fiction?
    – Chenmunka
    Oct 11 '20 at 10:18
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    Can you explain why how "… it will not be naming any real people… etc" and "I would make up names, but who they are in present day is a big part of who they will be in the future…" are not diametrically opposed? Here in the UK, I'd recommend you learn by heart the references to libel in McNae's Essential Law for Journalists, after 70 years now in its 25th edition… just substitute the word Writers for Journalists. Many another jurisdiction will have similarly respected, readily digested resources. Oct 11 '20 at 12:31
  • The story is a continuation of history thus far. Basically, everything up to present day is fact as history records it, but everything past that is the fictional story. I wouldn't dare write fiction about real people. But the story does involve real countries and governments; after all, we're kinda stuck with the ones we have. I meant I don't want to make up the names of the countries, governments, and organizations like the UN.
    – tsilb
    Oct 12 '20 at 1:32
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Including real people in works of fiction is extremely thorny from a legal standpoint.

Your question states that you are talking about organizations and politics, and not specifically naming people, but since an organization and a political system must necessarily include discussions of the people in them, I'm going to give you that perspective.

Have you ever wondered why there's always a disclaimer in front of certain books, usually somewhere on the copyright page or the inside cover, saying:

Any resemblance to real persons in this work, alive or dead, is purely coincidental.

This is why.

On the one hand, there are plenty of ways you can include real places and real events in your work without causing much fuss, because places aren't people and events aren't people. But people... are people. Especially if they're living people. That makes it different from asking if you can use the word Chicago or the Civil War in your story, because the Civil War doesn't have an identity, nor does it have feelings.

If you include any living person in your work, even if it's a satire or a caricature or anything else of that nature, you are opening yourself up to a world of problems. Particularly because you say outright that your work doesn't paint them in a very flattering light. Even if you disguise who the fictional character is supposed to represent, i.e. changing their name, it's still usually pretty obvious who you are modeling that person after. I couldn't include a pompadour-haired business tycoon who builds skyscrapers and hotels in my story and uses the word "yuge," without it being pretty obvious that the character is modeled after Donald Trump.

So, how can you do this properly? There are three things to consider.

Defamation.

Does your work defame the person or make false claims about them? This doesn't mean you can't insult them - you can - but you can't claim they said things they never said, committed crimes of which they are innocent, or did things they never did. That's where it edges over into potential defamation territory.

To quote this article:

Libel is the publication of a false statement that injures a person’s reputation (as opposed to slander, which covers the verbal form of defamation). The statement must be false and factual. The defamed person need not be identified by name. The writer need only use enough identifying information in creating the fictional character so that the real person is identifiable to readers.

Invasion of privacy.

Are you invading this person's privacy by including intimate details of their life in this work, or otherwise putting things on paper that they may have wanted to keep out of the public eye? When private facts that are not known to the public are included in a work, you have committed invasion of privacy, a very serious charge in most courts. Tread with care if your work includes close details of the person's life.

The right of publicity.

Are you using this person's likeness? Likeness, in legal terms, is how much your fictional character closely resembles the real person. You may recall that several celebrities have sued video game companies for including NPCs and characters who are very obviously inspired by them, and even if those suits aren't always successful or warranted, you have to be incredibly careful not to include enough information that somebody could make a likeness misappropriation claim against you.

(Source for all of this information, and further reading.)

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    I think the main thrust OP's question was about governments and international organizations.
    – DWKraus
    Oct 11 '20 at 14:25
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    @DWKraus It definitely was their main point, but they said they will not be changing names and will be using identifiable likenesses from these governments and organizations, hence why I wanted to provide the perspective of what to be careful of when using real people in the work.
    – Sciborg
    Oct 11 '20 at 14:30
  • Yes, the plan is to start the story in 2030, so I can make up names of the people who will run the (real-life) governments at that time.2030 also happens to align with the deadline for certain events to occur. In my story, the governments of the world fail to meet that deadline.
    – tsilb
    Oct 12 '20 at 1:35
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    See Animal Farm, and the response from Soviet Russia for an example. This didn't mention anyone explicitly by name, but it was pretty obvious. Oct 12 '20 at 5:49
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People are People:

Governments are not going to come after you for portraying them in a negative light unless they are autocratic and you live there or visit. That being said, some states like China have shown a willingness to be extremely petty, so don't expect that your book will get any royalties from sales in China.

It's in the future, so it's science fiction. This is grist for the mill. Unless you are WILDLY successful, they won't even care. If you actively LIE about the things they are currently doing, you get into a murky zone where they might challenge something, but even then, they would be exposing themselves to all sorts of unwanted attention in challenging them, and fiction is what fiction is - you can always say you were talking about an alternate reality where those things happened. And again, unless it's a New York Times best seller, no one cares (and in that case, being sued would push up your book sales).

As for actual individual names: unless you are picking specific real people currently alive and portraying them as doing terrible things in the future, you are fine. If you say "Dean Wayne Kraus is going to turn into a tyrant and kill people" I'm going to sue you. If a character that happens to be named Dean Kraus in your story because it means "confused leader" does something, and you don't know me personally, then you aren't singling out a real person. So don't go using the name of anyone you know personally or who is notable and famous.

PS if you use Dean Kraus I know you stole it and I'm suing ;)

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    Oh, I fully expect China will ban the book altogether. If they do, I will consider that a mark of success. There won't be any lies, though for the purposes of fiction, there are somewhat-accepted theories that the story will accept as fact. Not their actions to date, but their motives behind those actions.
    – tsilb
    Oct 12 '20 at 1:39
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Your risk as a writer using living people as characters in your story is inversely proportional to your success and how well known the person is. If nobody ever reads the story about your neighbor at your previous residence, it’s perfectly safe. If it’s a runaway best seller about a politician or celebrity, you are going to get sued — whether the portrayal is positive or negative. They have a vested interest in controlling their public persona, and even if your character does things they would do, it’s not something they did do...and they don’t want that confusion.

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  • your risk is directly proportional, not inversely - inversely would mean there's a low risk if you're successful or the person is well known, and a high risk if you're not successful and the person isn't well known. Sep 7 at 15:49
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Read Tom Clancy.

Not particularly for the quality of writing, but for how he handles exactly this problem. He generally steers away from naming individual politicians except in the broadest and uncontroversial terms.

He does use actual countries, of course, but he puts fictional politicians in place as leaders of those countries. Similarly for organisations such as WHO or CDC, he puts fictional people in charge of those organisations. As far as possible though, the way in which those countries' and organisations' leaderships work is portrayed in a way which holds fairly true to evidence of how they are run, because this makes the plot more credible.

For liability, it fundamentally is not possible to libel a country or organisation, only an individual. Of course you could find that unflattering portrayal of a country's citizens hits your sales there, but if that country is China or Iran then your sales are probably not going to be significant anyway.

For libel of individuals, it is not sufficient to simply change names if other characteristics make it clear who they are modelled on. If your ex-President is called John W Shrub and is nicknamed "Dubya", and in your book takes grossly incompetent or ignorant actions, then clearly you have problems. If your ex-President simply claims victory in some military campaign which later turns out not to have been fully successful or complete, you can perfectly well name him GWB and use his exact quoted words, because truth is always a complete defence against libel.

Libel in general is something where your editor and publishing house will have strong opinions. If you sell your book to a publisher, they will take care of checking all this.

And in practise, libel as a civil case is only worthwhile against someone who can pay. Any damages are also proportional to the damage to reputation, which depends on sales. If you sell your book to a publisher and it hits the bestseller lists, anyone who takes offense will sue the publisher, and the publisher as a company has deeper pockets. If you self-publish on Amazon and sell in the tens or hundreds, anyone who takes offense has to sue you personally, which means practically they can't get more than your savings; and damage to reputation from a tiny number of sales makes it pretty insignificant; so generally the game isn't worth the candle for anyone to fight you over this.

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