I am thinking of writing a spy thriller, and I am in the process of forming an outline. The plot in my mind involves 3-4 countries and would involve accusing some countries of heinous crimes, as an example say Country A. I have three sub questions:

  1. Although fiction, but inspired by real events; countries will have to be named, and can their real names be used? Or should I find fictional names for these countries to prevent unwanted problems?
  2. Are there any cases of real life problems due to real names being used? I am sure these won't create any diplomatic tensions, but could these create problems to authors; like prohibit entry of the author to Country A.
  3. How are such problems overcome by writers apart from using fictional names? A disclaimer?
  • 2
    Does this answer your question? Using real names in fiction
    – Chenmunka
    Commented Oct 17, 2021 at 10:16
  • 1
    I suppose, since you are writing spy fiction that you have read extensively the works of John Le Carre, Tom Clancy, Len Deighton, Lee Child and many more. You could do worse than be guided by their examples. Commented Oct 17, 2021 at 12:32

3 Answers 3

  1. Really depends on the audience, the size of the country on the world stage and the geopolitical relationships of countries. Typically, big players on the world stage tend to include the United States, U.K. (not a superpower but one of the closest allies of the U.S. - and James Bond's home nation, when he isn't Scottish and at his most awesome), Russia, and China. Other nations tend to be major European Powers like France and Germany, or major Middle East Powers (Turkey, Pakistan, and Israel).

    Two outliers, small nations that typically get mentioned, are Cuba (The U.S. militant dislike of Communism and its proximity to Florida have made Cuba a surprisingly powerful intelligence focused nation) and Switzerland (not known for offensive intelligence operations, but given Swiss Neutrality, Switzerland tends to have a lot of spies pass through as they have connecting flights between rival powers; if you do see Swiss military or intelligence in action, it's usually in Rome of all places, since the Swiss Guard are the official bodyguards of the Pope and the Vatican).

    From there, smaller countries may attract attention for stories, but at this level many authors can have fictional nations blended in.

    Few Americans can tell the difference between Rojava and Val Verde; the former is a real break away region in the Syrian Civil war that is seeking to become an independent nation but has not yet been recognized, and the latter is a fictional Caribbean or Central American nation that was used in many 80s action films and still gets a nod from time to time. The phrase "Val Verde" (Green Valley) was used because it is identical in French, Spanish, and Portuguese).

  2. China famously will not allow works that are critical of China to enter their market places... legally of course... and the Middle East tends to get touchy about their depictions in fiction, but not overly so. China being a financial powerhouse tends to disrupt Hollywood film productions.

    Other nations actually don't mind their depictions in fiction and a few are grateful for recognition. Russians actually have a love of Russian villains in American films, although this is because during the Cold War, actors from Russia were scarce in Hollywood so the roles were given to Americans who spoke with very fake Russian accents that were laughably bad to native Russian speaker's ears.

    It's probably more offensive to depict a nation incorrectly in terms of culture or city layout. Try to find maps to use as references.

  3. Fictional countries are used either to have a composite of elements or to have more creative control over the government's response or international relations in the world.

    Say you want to set your story about North and South Korea uniting... it might break the willing suspension of disbelief if that was depicted in your story... but if you had a fictional separated Asian nation that was very Korean in culture, it's easier to accept the negotiations going on.

    It might also be useful if you have an assassination plot as most nations don't like depictions of their leaders getting shot (The U.S. public is especially sensitive to successful presidential assassinations, especially when it's a current president, but they love "save the president" and "Die Hard in the White House" plots).

  • 1
    'The phrase "Val Verde" (Green Valley) was used because it is identical in French, Spanish, and Portuguese.).' - actually, it should be "val vert" in French. Commented Oct 21, 2021 at 5:45
  • @O.R.Mapper It's a more archaic french where it works.
    – hszmv
    Commented Oct 21, 2021 at 13:01

Generally, the way that this is usually circumvented is by making up some fake country located in a similar area as the country that is being referenced. Usually this happens when the writer wants to touch on something that has happened in current events but wants enough slight of hand to not name the persons involved (but, given context, any contemporary reader knows what's being talked about). This has happened frequently enough that Tv Tropes even has four separate trope pages for these stereotypes: generic stereotypic Latin American junta, generic stereotypic Soviet or post-Soviet eastern European country, generic stereotypic warlord-controlled post-colonial African nation, and generic stereotypic Middle Eastern Islamic fundamentalist state. The reasons why are kind of obvious, given that usually these fictional countries are characterized as hotbeds of political corruption.

A good example of this can be seen in The Authority, which was an late 90s-early oughts comic that was basically "a more violent Justice League gets involved in modern geopolitical issues". One issue of The Authority had them intervening in East Timor, which is a real region and the issue at the time was referring to a real crisis in which Indonesia was trying to prevent East Timor from seceding by scorched earth tactics and UN peacekeepers from the West and other southeastern Asian countries got involved. It was intended to be a reference to contemporary events, but in reprints DC comics changed the setting to a generic location out of concerns of political sensitivity.

Generally smaller countries will get replaced with generic counterparts, but the Soviet Union and USA as a whole are left as is because there are really only one of each and it would look silly trying to replace them with another superpower unless you are going completely alternate history. Western European countries often get mentioned by name, generally because they have a history of allowing free speech. Notably some middle Eastern countries, particularly Iran, have been offended and called for violence against authors for things that may or may not be historical (in the sense that whether or not the event happened is debated, but the religious debate over their veracity goes back at least 1000 years). There are also some parts of history that certain cultures or countries consider offensive to talk about at all. Not just culturally/politically insensitive or unflattering depictions of those events, but any portrayal of that time period outside of a history book is considered offensive, even if the author belongs to that group. The point of this is even restricting yourself to things that actually happened in real life can get you in trouble.

Other times authors will just go heck with it and include real countries by name. Though I don't know how far countries will go in pursuing action against the author barring how many Middle Eastern countries don't like any depiction of Mohammed. Tom Clancy got criticized several times for using real-life countries and political events in his novels, and even supposedly got pulled aside for questioning by U.S. intelligence for accidentally reverse-engineering state secrets through thought experiments. Whether anything more extensive has happened to spy fiction writers is unknown to the author.

Sometimes differing approaches can get mixed up in the same work. For example in the Metal Gear series you have Zanzibarland, which is a fictional county located where IRL Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan should be (it's mentioned as at the border between the former USSR, Afghanistan, and China). On the other hand years later in Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, you have Abkhazia and its independence movement, which despite sounding like a generic fictional county actually exists.


Bond movies, Jack Ryan stories, Jason Bourne stories and similar get around this by doing what is more interesting an authentic anyway. They don’t pin misdeeds on entire countries but on specific people within those countries. They introduce ambitious generals or intelligence officers or politicians with plausible motivations and career objectives and blame them for the bad stuff.

All you have to do is make them distinctive characters, different or opposed to the real leadership currently in power there. Often writers will even make their villains actions illegal within their own country for an extra layer of comfort. With that you can make your antagonist country Russia, China, the US or the UK without having to offend the populations or the real leaders.

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