Can characters be real people?

It was one of those spooky evenings when you get the impression that the people you’re talking to know more about what you’re talking about than you do. The Millom Ladies Guild were listening politely to my stories about the real vicar who inspired the one I depicted in ‘A Good Liar’ when one of them said, ‘Oh, yes I remember him. I was there when the new school was being built.’ (If you know the story of A Good Liar, you’ll understand all this: if you haven’t read it yet, now’s the time!) Thank heaven she didn’t disagree with either my details or the description of the vicar. A little later I was talking about the fire in the nuclear reactor at Windscale in October 1957 and the people there who played a crucial role, and one of my audience was a cousin of a man I had referred to.

This is why the writing of Part 3 of my trilogy, ‘Fallout’ set in the community around Windscale at the time of the fire caused me some anxiety. I wanted to tell the inside story of the fire, the details of which were revealed only recently, fifty years after the event. This meant naming names, or giving fictional names to men who would be instantly recogniseable to many of the local people who will read the book. If I name them, I wondered, can I also give them words to say, words that they might have said but there is no actual record that they did so?

I decided to include half a dozen real people, under their own names, as minor characters in the background of the action. The main Point of View inside the plant is carried by an entirely fictional character, a visiting physicist from the Harwell nuclear research labs. The ‘real’ characters were named, given things to do and words to speak, during an event within the living memory of both myself and probably the majority of the potential readers. My editor wasn’t sure how to deal with it, so we called in a lawyer who deals mainly in copyright issues, for an opinion about the ‘ethics’ and legality of doing what I’d done. His view was that it was OK, for three reasons: a) the named people were playing a background not a foreground role; b) what they did in my story was supported by the evidence in the official history of the incident and was therefore a matter of public record; c) nothing that I had them doing or saying could be seen in any way as negative or blameworthy, in keeping again with the conclusions in the factual historical record in Lorna Arnold’s ‘Windscale 1957: Anatomy of Nuclear Accident’. On top of all that reassurance, the lawyer also said how much he enjoyed the relevant sections and wanted to read the rest.

One of the ladies in Millom asked, ‘Do you have to get permission to include real people?’. A good question, and I sincerely hope that the advice I sought was correct and that the answer in this case is ‘No’.

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