Short post this week. I have a birthday cake to make. Not mine. Much more important than that.
Lots of books are set in real places. Here in the UK, numerous crime writers are known for their [insert location of choice] books. Ian Rankin and Edinburgh. Stephen Booth and the Peak District. Chris Nickson and Leeds, and occasionally Chesterfield and Seattle. Many more. A rather good addition to Mark Billingham’s excellent Tom Thorne series which I read recently is set on a tiny, wild island off the coast of north Wales. There’s often a little note in the acknowledgements, apologizing for liberties taken with geography, but the places are generally portrayed with ninety-five per cent accuracy, or so I’ve been reliably informed by people who know the areas.
The result is often the kind of richly textured background which can mean the difference between a run-of-the-mill novel and the kind that makes you go in search of others in the series.
So, when I was asked the other day about the wisdom/ethics/logic of including real, living people as characters in a novel, it set some thought processes whirring. Would that make it even richer and more textured? Or...?
There are probably plenty of examples, especially in historical fiction, but I could only think of one which featured someone within living memory, and none at all in which the real person was still alive. (Feel free to fill the gaps in my knowledge/holes in my memory; I like to know these things.) The one was The Eagle Has Landed, in which there’s a plot to kidnap Winston Churchill; it was published about ten years after the great man’s death, and plenty of people who remember him are alive to this day, myself included.
The biggest problem, of course, is the possibility of litigation (or worse, but let’s not go there) if the living person objects to the way s/he is portrayed, especially if the person in question is famous. Actually, that could happen with a place too. I once had occasion to warn someone off setting a kidnap scenario in a certain theme park which had better remain nameless; they’re rumoured to get pretty stroppy at anything which isn’t 100% positive. But I haven’t mentioned a name, so they won’t know I mean them. There are plenty of theme parks.
In case you were worrying, in which case thanks for caring enough, I don’t think the person who set this train of thought in motion is in any danger of repercussions of any kind. But you never know. As they’re given to saying in the next county to the one I live in, there’s nowt so queer as folk.
So what’s the consensus? Go for it, and chance the consequences? Or go for it, and tread very lightly? Or back off and fictionalize everything? My jury’s out; how about yours, Dead Guy followers?