Celebrity Name-Dropping in Novels

RagtimeIs including famous historical figures in works of fiction nothing more than celebrity name-dropping? Or can it add dimension and perspective to a novel?

A few of the advance readers for my historical novel All Different Kinds of Free suggested I remove the scenes and references to Charles Dickens from my book. They said it felt like celebrity “name-dropping” (these were all folks in the publishing business in one form or another). Other advance readers loved the Dickens sections and encouraged me to leave them in (these folks were mostly  readers and fellow writers).

What to do? To help me decide, I did a quick review of the first historical novel I ever read (and loved), Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow.

I was in high school when I first read it, and at that time I hated “history.” Here’s the back-cover blurb from my now dog-earred paperback copy: “Ragtime is set in America at the beginning of the century. Its characters: three remarkable families whose lives become entwined with people whose names are Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, Evelyn Nesbit, Sigmund Freud, Emiliano Zapata.”

Hmm…. It sounded suspiciously like “history” to me, not a juicy novel. Boy, was I wrong. Murder, magic, sex, money, racial tension, intrigue, love, betrayal: this book had it all. I especially loved that it included well-known historical figures along with the stories of average people. It was my first lesson, really, in how “history” is a part of our everyday lives.

This sort of name-dropping isn’t limited to celebrities, either, or to historical fiction. Writers of contemporary fiction often include references to celebrities, name brands, pop culture and current events. Such references, as long as they don’t distract from the story, help put the fictional characters’ lives and stories in context for the reader. They add dimension.

My own historical novel was inspired by the little-known U.S. Supreme Court case Prigg v. Pennsylvania and Margaret Morgan, the alleged run-away slave at the heart of the case. I hadn’t specifically set out to include famous people in my fictional rendering of Margaret’s story. During my research, however, I stumbled upon the fact that Charles Dickens had vacationed in the United States and visited Washington, D.C. the same year the pivotal court case took place, 1842. Then I learned Dickens wrote a book about his trip. I read American Notes  as part of my research, and Dickens’  thoughts and impressions on slavery ended up being an important plot point in my novel. It had to stay.

My research also uncovered that Edgar Allan Poe lived in Philadelphia (one of the main settings of my novel) during the same time my main character lived there. In fact, he later said the race riots he had witnessed in Philly during that time inspired some of his future macabre works. Oh boy! Believe me, I worked long and hard to somehow weave in that juicy historical tidbit. In the end, it just didn’t fit. It was intriguing, but it didn’t add to value to Margaret’s story. It was a true example of celebrity name-dropping. It had to go.

What are your thoughts? Do you like it when authors include famous people, current events or pop culture references in their books ? Does it add dimension to the story or does it feel superficial?




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18 thoughts on “Celebrity Name-Dropping in Novels

  1. I agree with Hallie, great topic.
    As a history buff, I love the kind of name-dropping you describe here. I think if done with some subtlety it can help readers like me gain a better sense of place and time with the work, and those not interested can blip right over.
    I’ll note this is also a running debate in creative non-fiction. I’m reading “In Patagonia” right now by Bruce Chatwin, and he has a long discussion of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which isn’t Chatwin’s story, but fits because he visits a cabin the two allegedly holed up in while on the lam. That said, my MFA instructors say in contemporary CNF you should avoid current cultural name-dropping because it will date the book for later readers.

  2. Thanks for your insights, Hallie and Patrick! Glad you like the topic.
    Patrick, I appreciate the additional insights regarding creative nonfiction, too. The difference between references to historical figures and contemporary figures is interesting. I suppose it’s because the contemporary ones must first stand the test of time to see if they will indeed remain “famous” or fall into obscurity after their proverbial 15 minutes of fame.

  3. Oh, yes, this is an excellent topic! I like your distinction between what historical figure’s appearance serves the novel and what is just name-dropping.
    There weren’t any famous cameos in my debut novel, but as I wrote my second novel, future president Rutherford Hayes popped into a scene.
    Hayes showed up because I set a scene in a Cincinnati gentlemen’s club (by which I mean the 19th century version that was really for gentlemen). During my research, I discovered some facts about Hayes and his membership in a similar club. I also found that Hayes had spent time as a young lawyer defending fugitive slaves in Cincinnati’s courts. Because this was directly relevant to the plot of the novel, I used it.

  4. Thanks, Rosslyn. The inclusion of Hayes in your forthcoming novel is a great example of how famous folks can add dimension to a story. And isn’t it fun when you stumble into such historical tidbits without specifically looking for them? Great stuff. I loved your debut, Fairer than Morning, and am looking forward to reading Sweeter than Birdsong in 2012.

  5. I enjoy real historical figures making an appearance if the author does a good job making them seem realistic. I do have a problem with real-life characters seeming too similar to the fictional characters in the story – when their actions, opinions and behavior in general seems mostly made up by the author rather than based in fact. One of the best historical novels I read that did a great job of blending real and fictional characters is “Johnny Tremain” by Esther Forbes.

  6. Great point, Elisabeth. I agree, Johnny Tremain is a great example for this topic and a great book in general. I just read it last year with my son. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

  7. I was one of those advance readers and loved the Charles Dickens references; so glad they stayed! I believe those kinds of details provide a nice breadcrumb trail for current readers and future readers -helping root the setting and ground the reader in the book’s time period. Agreed, if it sounds forced, it should go. But I like those occasional markers that remind me I’m reading something in the 80s, instead of 2011, for instance – references to music, historical events, people in the news. I mean: that IS reality. These things go on in our everyday lives while we live our lives, so why shouldn’t they be mentioned in our fiction?
    But name dropping for your own advantage – let’s say, using Oprah’s name to get brownie points so she’ll endorse your book … Nah. No way. Too cheesy :-).

  8. First of all, referring to a Charles Dickens reference as “celebrity name dropping” just sounds hilarious. I can see how blending historical/famous figures in a novel might be superficial, but only if it’s not done well. I love to be surprised with characters that have a real life point of reference. I really subscribe to the theory that there are no rules in fiction even with historical figures. The more inventive, the better…for me. Current events and pop culture are a little more vulnerable for coming off as a cheap throw in, but I dig those references too if it seems organic to the story.
    Really great topic!

  9. Melissa, thank for the continued encouragement! I think your example of the Oprah reference is spot on, the perfect illustration of what not to do and why.
    Sarah, nice to have you stop by. I agree with you completely that there really are no “rules” when it comes to fiction, other than it has to feel right. Of course, every reader reacts differently to different things. So it has to feel right to the author, first and foremost, then we must let the chips fall where they may. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  10. I loved your including Dickens in All Different Kinds of Free. It was vital to have outside commentary to what was going on, and who better to do that than someone who was respected then and now?

  11. Mary Ann

    Jessica, from a “reader’s” perspective, after reading your blog, I realized that is exactly what makes a book good to read. You are able to identify with the time & place of the books setting. I also enjoy reading the “comments” from the many authors.

  12. Starr and Mary Ann, thanks so much for reading my book and stopping by my website. I appreciate the feedback and encouragement. It’s great to get some more readers’ insight and perspective in the conversation.

  13. This is a great question and I’m glad I followed a link from Twitter over to here!
    I’m a writer who is leery of bringing real historical figures into her fiction for this very reason. I generally write fictional characters and I worry about name-dropping. The responses here have been interesting! Bringing in someone real may indeed help a reader latch on to a place or time they previously felt wobbly in. And, if it’s a place or time the reader is very familiar with, an expected cameo may make the reader feel in-the-know.
    Of course, though, it ultimately depends on the story you are writing and whether or not you can make the historical figure pertinent to the plot. I’ve definitely seen this in historical fiction. If it is realistic for the main characters to come in contact with the historical celebrity, then go for it!

  14. Jessica, I’m glad you followed the link from Twitter, too! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree that it depends on the story and whether it “fits” or feels forced. But when it happens serendipitously (as it did for me and as is sounds like it did for Rosslyn Elliott in her comment above) and it fits, then it’s a lot of fun!

  15. I actually really enjoy it when famous people (real or fictional) are added to books — it adds a realistic dimension to the book. And it also brings in a curiosity aspect: it’s fun to think about famous people in different contexts than we’ve known them before….bringing a realistic dimension not only to the book but also to the famous person/character!

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