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Some thoughts about fictionalizing real-life public figures


I’m reading a well-written adventure novel right now by Stephen Hunter and want to share some thoughts about fictionalizing real-life characters. One of the characters he created in the book made me think about the matter.

The novel is “Pale Horse Coming” and it’s one in a series he’s done about a fictional Medal of Honor winning Marine from World War II named Earl Swagger. The book is set in 1951 in racially tense Mississippi. I highly recommend all the novels I’ve read by Stephen Hunter, and for vivid characters, action plotting, suspense, etc., I would especially recommend this one. BUT —

One of the characters Hunter develops for this novel really grated on my nerves, because the character is such a blatantly, lamely fictionalization of a real-life person. What really jangles my brain as I read the character is the way Hunter made almost no effort to fictionalize him. The character is supposed to be a Medal of Honor winner from rural Texas who was World War II’s most decorated American soldier. At the point he enters the story, this character is a popular Hollywood film actor who’s personal life is deteriorating into depression and alcoholism because he’s haunted by all the killing he did in the war.

Any of you Hollywood buffs or history buffs out there think this character sounds at all familiar? (Hint: The real person Hunter based the character on had a popular 1950s autobiographical movie done on his war exploits — and he played himself in the film.) In Hunter’s book, he gives the fictionalized character the name Audie Ryan. (Pop quiz: What was the name of the real person Hunter used for Audie Ryan?)

If Hunter had named his fictionalized character “Tom Smith,” or perhaps “Jim Martin,” or just about anything else, I probably wouldn’t have been so disturbed. But when he named him Audie Ryan, my first thought was, “Hey, Stephen, you really aren’t even trying are you?” (Answer to Above Pop Quiz: Audie Murphy.)

I’ve thought about my reaction to this and concluded it’s more a matter of personal preferences than any hard and fast “rule” about fictionalizing real people for novels. Had Hunter kept the character as Audie Murphy, perhaps he would have faced legal problems. I have no idea. But as someone who saw “To Hell and Back” as at the movies when I was a kid, and read the book it was based on when I was in junior high, I just felt the name change was so transparent that it was lame. I would have preferred it if Hunter had disassociated the real person from the fictional character with some anonymity in the name.

Those of you who are more knowledgeable about using real-life public figures in fiction, please comment. Give us some guidance about what can or can’t be done regarding public figures when you fictionalize them — what are the legal and ethical guidelines on this? I welcome your comments.

5 Responses to “Some thoughts about fictionalizing real-life public figures”

  1. Webmaster says:

    Actually, Hunter thinly fictionalized six different famous American gun heroes in Pale Horse Coming. Like Audie Ryan, all six have had their names changed – though none as obviously as Audie Ryan.

    I think he laid the Audie Ryan trap to intellectually goad readers into wondering if Ryan was not alone, and from there to realize, indeed, he is not.

    Excellent blog, by the way. I’m going to write one someday.

  2. Stephen Hunter says:

    Interesting post. In fact not just “Audie Ryan” but ALL of the characters in PHC are based on true life figures. It’s a device I use commonly. My rules: if you adhere to factual truth about someone than you can use his name. If you deviate you must “disguise” name so as not to ascribe your behavior to him. That seems etthical to me. I got countless emails telling me I had “misnamed” Audie Ryan, it should be “Murpy.” Wait till you see new book “I, Sniper”: lots of almost named variants on certain folks. Thanks, best, SH

  3. Gary says:

    Thank you, Mr. Hunter, for your comments and explanation. Your policy about using real people as basis for your characters certainly sounds good to me. I find it hilarious that you got that feedback about misnaming Audie Murphy.

    Looking back at my post, I think I was being much too subjective about it and it hit me wrong in the reading because of the “heroic” status Audie Murphy has always held for me — hence, though I knew you had good reason for “Audie Ryan” instead of “Audie Murphy,” it was just a bit jarring to read.

    I suspected the other characters in “Pale Horse” were done in similar fashion. I’m just not knowledgeable enough about the gun world to have picked up on them.

    I’m looking forward to reading “I, Sniper” to see what your latest goodies are for us fans.

    I hope you realize I’m becoming a big fan of your books. (Even recommended a couple of them to my son-in-law.) I applaud your work, and I thank you for stopping by the blog.

  4. Gary says:

    Thanks for your comment, Webmaster. You’ll note that Stephen Hunter himself came along and made some comments about the book and the issue of fictionalizing real-life characters. I loved hearing that he got email from readers accusing him of getting the name wrong on Audie Ryan.

    Great to know people are paying attention.

    Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment. I’m going to spend time on your website, I’m sure. (Did you note my post later yesterday about Audie Murphy? I was not aware of that Audie Murphy website. It’s got lots of great stuff.)

  5. Audiefan says:

    Wish Mr Hunter if he was going to use Audie Murphy as a basis for a thinly disguised character would have a least go the facts about him correct. Audie never drank except for an occasional wine with dinner. Hopefully people reading his book will bother to check the real facts on Audie’s life. He was and still is a true hero to many people,especially his web site http://www.audiemurphy.com. Please check it out and see the truth about him. I am a lifelong fan of Audie Murphy and you will find many other passionate fans there as well from all over the world. He was truly America’s greatest WW11 soldier and one hell of a real American hero.