Queen as a character

It’s the first Wednesday of the month again, time for a post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group. And I’m one of the hosts this month, together with Erika Beebe, Sandra Cox, Sarah Foster, and Chemist Ken. Hooray!


I’ll forgo this month optional question for a question (or five) of my own. I recently read a fascinating novel, a cozy murder mystery The Windsor Knot by S.J. Bennett. I enjoyed it, but it also inspired a few of those questions I want to ask.

You see, one of the novel’s protagonists is Queen Elizabeth – the current ruler of Britain and one of the sleuths of the story. There are also other characters representing the living people in the queen’s entourage, all with their real names. Plus, of course, some fictional characters. I wonder if the author had to ask permission to use the real persons’ names and the queen’s personality in her book. And what does it say about the British law that the permission was (obviously) granted? Maybe Bennett didn’t even have to ask. Maybe any writer could use the British royals as characters in their fictional tales. I know there are several books like that. How much difference is there between the real Queen Elizabeth and her fictional counterpart?

And the inevitable second series of questions arises. I’m a Canadian. What if I wanted to create a fictional version of our political leader, the Prime Minister Justin Trudeau? Would I have to ask permission? Would it be granted? Or is it permissible without asking?

Could an American writer use their current president as a fictional character? How about a Hollywood star or a television host? Is any public persona a fair game for fiction writers? Does anyone know the answers to my questions? If not, would you care to speculate?






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43 Responses to Queen as a character

  1. No idea. Robyn wrote a book about Trump while he was president and I know she didn’t ask permission as it wasn’t flattering. I’ve also seen ‘F Joe Biden’ books and I know those didn’t get permission!
    Thanks for co-hosting today.

  2. patgarcia says:

    Hi and Happy New Year!
    I have no idea, but I would be interested in the answers.
    All the best and thank you for co-hosting.
    Shalom aleichem

  3. Adrienne Reiter says:

    My latest series is a thinly veiled social commentary in the guise of a satirical noir mystery set in 90’s America. It references the famous as fictional characters. Voltaire. Pynchon. Palahnuik. They’ve all successfully done this. I’ve tried to copy their technique. Happy New Year, and thanks for co-hosting!

  4. J.Q. Rose says:

    I imagine, but I am no authority, if you make it very plain that your book is a work of fiction, you can use people in the public eye as characters. Lots of questions. I’m looking forward to others’ answers. Thanks for co-hosting!

  5. nancygideon says:

    With real historical characters it shouldn’t be as big a deal – unless the portrait is inflammatory or injurious to surviving family members. You can try a codicil in the beginning of the book advising that you’re taking historical liberties that in no way reflect upon the real person. If truly concerned, consult a literary attorney. Current political individuals present more of a problem. While some might not care or even be flattered, some are notoriously protective of their image and use of their names and can and WILL sue. You might want to contact the author in question and ask what steps were taken. You’d be surprised by helpful authors can be!

  6. melissamaygrove says:

    What Nancy said. /\ And thanks for co-hosting.

  7. Loni Townsend says:

    I have no clue, but there must be some clause out there saying that the work is fiction. I don’t think we’d have any stories (books, tv shows, or movies) that mention real people if that weren’t the case.

    Thanks for co-hosting today!

  8. Lynn La Vita says:

    Here’s my 2 cents: what about the tabloids? Often, these publishers distort facts, make up stories, and edit photographs all sell magazines. They attack public figures and seldom get sued, right? I think the key is, they are public figures. Another example, if it happens in public, it’s OK to use the image (at least that’s legal in California).
    Thanks for co-hosting. Great question.

  9. cleemckenzie says:

    You don’t need permission from anyone to write about them. However, you have to be careful not to write anything which could be considered defamatory. If you do, you’re liable to a libel suit for damages.

    I wouldn’t want to risk that. I prefer to state that none of the characters in my books are real.

  10. I’ve read about any number of unfavorable fiction about America’s former president, Donald Trump, so I’d say somehow, it’s OK to do that. I like Lee’s answer. I think you can defame political figures without worry of lawsuits because they are just that–political. Not sure though.

  11. Diane Burton says:

    I have no idea, either. I like Nancy’s response. I guess I’d be real careful if I wrote about a real person. I always include a caveat in my books that they are works of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental. Good luck finding the answer to your questions. Thanks for cohosting this month.

  12. Julia Quay says:

    Good questions, Olga! And should these stories be a genre all their own? (Fame-fiction? Alt-history?)

    Not sure how those permissions apply in Canada. I can almost hear U.S. lawyers drooling over all the defamation suits they could file over such a story. Our right to free speech has taken a beating these last couple years. Can’t see how this would be allowed.

  13. Hi, Olga. In this litigious society we USians live in, I wouldn’t dare use a living person in my fiction. Good question, though. My daughter bought me a book called Mrs. Queen Takes the Train. I’ve yet to read it, but it’s about what happens when Her Magesty decides to slip her security detail and visit her kingdom incognito. By the way, did you know your link on the IWSG site doesn’t lead here? I wish you happy writing in January. Here’s to a brighter 2022!

  14. Thanks for co-hosting. You raise some interesting questions. I don’t know the answers to them. Sorry. Happy New Year!

  15. This is something I have often wondered about. In our litiginous world I would worry. Even if it was clearly stated that the work was fictional.

  16. spunkonastick says:

    That’s something I’ve never had to deal with, but some of the above answers sound right.

  17. I’m thinking that writing about living people might depend from country to country–what is okay in Canada might not be okay in the US and vice versa? Those are great questions!

    ♥.•*¨Elizabeth Mueller¨*•.♥

  18. Lee Lowery says:

    In the US, there are laws protecting living people from libel and slander, but what is and is not actionable is generally determined on specific facts to a case. A cause of action will have a higher standard for public figures. As others have pointed out, some authors have written political rants as thinly disguised “fictional” accounts. It’s nothing more than tabloid stories in hardback. Personally, I find such writing intellectually dishonest. And sometimes these authors do get sued.

  19. emaginette says:

    I did read about Gregoire Delacour being sued by Scarlett Johansson. I don’t know all the details, but an internet search might help you figure it out. Keep in mind, she is also suing Disney because of the Black Window movie, so there’s that.

    Personally, I wouldn’t dare use a famous name, or a brand name, without permission. Just call me a chicken. hehehe

    Anna from elements of emaginette

  20. Denise+Covey says:

    Well I do wonder as when you write a fictional book, you usually say that your book is not based on real characters but is a work of the writer’s imagination. A passing mention is possibly okay, but I can’t imagine using someone like the Queen as a proper character. Very interesting.

  21. 3mpodcast says:

    I wouldn’t be comfortable with it, because I imagine it comes down to how willing they are to sue and how likely they are to see it in the first place. Little ol’ me probably wouldn’t come across a famous person’s radar, but if I did, they’d have a whole lot more money than me to battle it out in court. For the most part, I think we’re safe changing their names and having characters based on them, but it’s also probably a risk. They’d have to prove we were writing about them. Good question, though, as I certainly don’t have the actual answer. Nancy’s was a good answer.

    The Warrior Muse

  22. Jenni says:

    I just have to say that this book sounds really good! I love mysteries, and it’d be cool reading one with Queen Elizabeth as the sleuth.
    Interesting question. I don’t have the answer, but personally, I’d probably stay away from writing about a living person just as I also tend to not set my books in actual places that could be picked apart for not being exactly right.

  23. Hi Olga,

    HAPPY NEW YEAR! Wishing you and yours all the best for 2022. Great questions. Here in the US , we live in a SUE, SUE, SUE, frame of mind. BUT, actually lawsuits need to be strong and an author has very little for them to take. If the book doesn’t make millions, they most likely won’t bother.

  24. chemistken says:

    I don’t know about the legality of doing it, but I suspect there might be all sorts of other repercussions from supporters (or detractors) of the personality you’d be writing about. I wouldn’t have the guts to do it.

    Thanks for co-hosting this month! Happy 2022!

  25. Erika Beebe says:

    I would think there is some legality involved and also a percent of shift in the truth to be considered. I wish I could offer more information. Happy IWSG day!

  26. Interesting questions. Did the book have the usual disclaimer at the begin about being a work of fiction and resemblance to real people, etc.?
    @samanthabwriter from
    Balancing Act

  27. yvettecarol says:

    I guess it’s part of freedom of choice and creative license, that we can write about whoever we like. But, I think you still need to be careful. It wouldn’t like to write about the Queen or any other such popular figure, in case you trod on important toes or just generally pissed some readers off.

  28. Kalpana says:

    Happy New Year. Thanks for posing such an interesting question. The novel with the Queen as one of the sleuths must be really interesting. I’m sure the author did due research considering how much trouble they can get into. I wonder if it’s worth it.
    Thanks for co-hosting Olga.

  29. Happy New Year, Olga!
    I have no idea. But those are some very interesting questions…
    Thank you for co-hosting the IWSG blog hop this month!

  30. Jemi Fraser says:

    Yikes! I imagine the possibilities for being sued are pretty big – especially if the story is negative in any way. I much prefer writing fictional folks!!!
    Wishing you all the best for 2022, Olga!!

  31. J.S. Pailly says:

    The parody or satire of public figures is a protected form of free speech. That’s why Saturday Night Live can do what they do. That’s why political cartoons can exist. That’s why “Hope Rides Again: An Obama Biden Mystery” was able to be published.

    So long as what you’re writing is clearly intended to be fiction, you should be safe. Even if you’re portraying a public figure in an unflattering way, the courts would consider that a form a parody or satire and throw out any lawsuit against you. Now if you were writing non-fiction and making statements about a public figure that were provably false, that would be a very different situation, and you would be exposing yourself to libel laws. But writing fictionalized versions of public figures should not get you into any kind of trouble.

  32. Thank you for co-hosting the blog this month. That’s a good question you pose. Does it fall into the category of public domain because the people are “famous”? Also, if they are dead, does that mean you don’t have to ask permission and if you do, who do you ask? I would be a little nervous writing about such historical figures but it could be because I don’t know any of them well enough. Thanks for the thought-provoking ideas. https://dianeweidenbenner.com/iwsg-whats-the-one-thing-about-your-writing-career-you-regret-the-most/

  33. Rebecca Douglass says:

    Seems like there are some reasonable answers above to your question. Here’s mine: when I say that all the characters in my books are fictional and any resemblance… blah blah… well, I’m lying. I certainly have borrowed bits of all sorts of people, though never under their own names (well, I did borrow a minor character or two complete with name but still fictionalized). But it still feels right to say they are all fiction. I mean, yeah, there’s a resemblance, but they aren’t *that person*. So am I a liar?

  34. Sandra Cox says:

    Those are some seriously good questions. I’d love to know the official answers. If you find out let us know.

  35. Those are great interesting questions. Hmmm. I really wonder.

  36. Steph W says:

    THose are really good questions. I am sure Americans do not have that ability!

  37. Beth Camp says:

    Not a clue here., though what I’ve read confirms what others have said here. In writing historical fiction, I’ve tried to be as true to the nature of the person as revealed by research as possible. But these are not primary characters. Happy New Year, Olga. I miss learning what you’re up to!

  38. Jemima Pett says:

    Hi Olga, – happy new year and thanks for co-hosting and for visiting me 🙂 I’ve been mired in setting up the paperback of my new book, so I’m a bit late to the party this week.

    As a Brit, I am accustomed to people making up their own image of the Queen. She’s sort of public property. But I don’t think it applies to anyone else living. The Prime Minister is the Prime Minister, and shouldnt be named as May or Johnson, or pretend to be them. (Thatcher may be history enough to be made up, although she invented herself well enough). But fictionalised versions that clearly are fictional are generally okay. I know that tv series like The Queen get to be passed through the Queen’s offices, and screened for anything objectionable, but if it’s not reporting, a more lenient approach is generally taken. Hence the hoo-ha over the Diana representations.

    I saw the Windsor Knot and decided not to bother with it, but your comments make me more intrigued. Other great books featuring the Queen include one by Alan Bennet (a British gem) where the Queen discovers a mobile library and starts to read all sorts of interesting books she’s not seen before. And Roald Dahl included her – in the Witches, I think. And one I read at Christmas gets to visit the queen (unsuccessfully), and in that she sends a letter, but it’s almost certainly not bothered with any clearance, because it’s fiction, and the queen is a fixture for something like 90% of the population now. I think a sign of easing on the ‘fiction’ for the Queen came with her parachuting with James Bond into the Olympic arena in 2012. We all went wild about that! She did of course agree to that, much to the surprise of the Olympic planners 🙂

    But… these notes really apply to British writers. I think those from ‘abroad’ may have to do things differently – with the press, there is very little opportunity for control, hence scandalous pictures of royals in bathing suits. Canadians may have a code in between, as she’s your queen too.

    I suspect if you wanted to include Mr Trudeau in your work it would be okay in passing; but if you wanted to make him the main character there would be some questions to answer. His dad might be fair game, though.

    Disclaimer: I’m writing from a custom and practice viewpoint, not with legal knowledge (lol)

  39. Gwen Gardner says:

    Those are tough questions that I’ve wondered about myself. Maybe as long as they’re shown in a positive light?

  40. ahtdoucette says:

    Here in the States we have laws related to “public figures” such that you can use them in fiction in ways you wouldn’t be able to use more private individuals. These and other reasons I would not want to be a “public figure.” There was actually a comical series with Joe Biden and Barack Obama solving crimes together. Totally respectful and totally fictional (probably – I mean who knows?) You might want to give it a read. Great topic for the month!

  41. Nick Wilford says:

    I don’t know the answers. I guess you wouldn’t need permission to mention figures like the Queen in background mentions (a lot of books do), but as a main character? I think I’d rather stay out of that sandpit. Great questions!

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