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.