Fictitious Characters (2016 : Ganin)

(Full disclosure, a lot of these thoughts rose out of my current Comic Book Project, but I’ve attempted to make it relevant to those who don’t give a fig about comics)


Ever since 2013, fictitious characters have been making their way from the Subject Authority File into the Name Authority File. This has lead to a lot of arguing amongst catalogers.

These arguments tend to take 2 forms:

  1. Philosophical
  2. Practical

The first argument centers around the fact that fictional characters aren’t actually capable of creating intellectual works. If you’ve read the FRBR-LRM document, you’ll notice that it excludes fictional characters (and non human animals) from the Agent class on those grounds. The document acknowledges that no matter what is printed on a resource, no matter what ‘legal fiction’ a publisher is purporting — some real human person (or persons) created the resource in hand, and that needs to be reflected in our metadata for said resource.

I’m not necessarily disputing this particular point. I don’t particularly care in which file we record fictional characters (and as we move to linked-data world, the distinction may become less important or even vanish) — but I care a great deal about the second point of contention: the practical.

Regarding the practical, there are three specific things that I want to talk about:

  1. Recording “Fictitious character” in the AAP
  2. Recording the other chapter 9 attributes for fictitious people
  3. Differentiating realizations of fictional characters

Fictitiousness in the AAP

For the first, if you’ve spent any time on AUTOCAT (amongst other list servs) over the last few years, you’ve seen this debate. The RDA rules are very clear that you do not have to do record it in the AAP, many wish you would…

(bolding mine):

9.6 Other Designation Associated with the Person

Other designation associated with the person is a core element for a Christian saint, a spirit, a person named in a sacred scripture or an apocryphal book, a fictitious or legendary person, or a real non-human entity.    Recording Other Designations Associated with Persons
Record other designations associated with the person by applying these instructions, as applicable:
saints (see
spirits (see
persons named in sacred scriptures or apocryphal books (see
     fictitious and legendary persons (see
non-human entities (see
other designation (see
Record other designations associated with the person as separate elements, as parts of access points, or as both. For additional instructions on recording a designation as part of the authorized access point, see and Fictitious and Legendary Persons

For a fictitious or legendary person, record Fictitious character, Legendary character, or another appropriate designation.

So as you can see, if the person is fictional it is required that we record that information somewhere (as 9.6 states it is a core element). This is undisputed. The arguments break out about where, and unfortunately (in this cataloger’s opinion) RDA is too lenient.

As the rule at states, there are three options for recording the fictional aspect:

  1. Separate element (and in MARC this would be a 368 subfield c)
  2. Part of an access point (in MARC a 100 subfield c)
  3. Both

It is here that RDA and I part ways. Because it is not required that you add fictitious status in an AAP, some people don’t — the famously contentious example being Captain James T. Kirk.

Kirk, James T., 2233-2371

The reason this bugs me so much, and the reason I think it should always be recorded in the AAP when applicable, is that the point of an AAP is to help the patrons (and the catalogers) differentiate between the ludicrously massive number of names and identities.

“Is this the John Paul Jones who played bass in Led Zeppelin, or the Navy guy?”

“Is this Michael Myers who murders people on Halloween, or the Canadian actor?”

I imagine it like we’re playing a game of twenty questions with a patron, and each question we ask ought to narrow down the pool of potential matches until we’ve identified their person.

“What is the name of the person?”

“What are some significant dates associated with the person?”

“Is the person fictional or real?”

How could you ever think to ask the second question before the third?! Imagine the set of all people: living, dead, and fictional. Clarifying dates can slightly help narrow a choice, but asking a boolean like “fictional” immediately cuts either 107,602,707,791 people (according to Google’s knowledge graph, that’s the number of people ever existing) or…however many fictional people ever existed which I feel like is….more than that.

So anyway — that’s my argument for why RDA should be revised to require fictitiousness to be recorded in the AAP.

Recording Other Chapter 9 Attributes + Differentiating

These last two of the practical points are so tightly related, that I don’t think I can separately discuss them. Let’s dive in.

There are two sets of instructions in the Subject Headings Manual which make it clear that LC’s policy is for a single name heading to stand in for all iterations of that character.

From H 1610 Fictitious Characters Section 5. Assignment of headings (emphasis mine)

For individual plays or poems assign a subject heading only if the character has been borrowed by the author from another author or source and used in the creation of a new work. For subject cataloging purposes, the borrowed character’s identity is considered the same as that of the character created by the original author. Do not create a separate name heading for the borrowed character. Instead, assign the same heading that would have been assigned to the original work.

We also see in H 1790 Literature: Fiction Special provisions. Section 4. Character(s) (emphasis mine)

Note: Fictitious characters may be borrowed by an author from another author, or from another source, and used in the creation of a new work. Assign the same heading to works by the original creator of the character and to works in which the character has been borrowed.

So this is pretty clear, right? A single heading/record for a fictitious character is meant to stand in for all incarnations of that character.

Well if that’s the case, then we need to stop recording some of the other chapter 9 attributes in those records. Take 9.3 “Date associated with a person”


  • William Shatner portrayed Captain Kirk in the original Star Trek tv series/films.
  • This Captain Kirk was born on March 22nd, 2233 in Iowa.
  • Chris Pine is currently portraying Captain Kirk in a series of movies and this Captain Kirk was born January 4th, 2371 in space.


Captain Kirk’s authority record in the NAF contains the following:

  • 046 $f 2233-03-22 $g 2371 $2 edtf
  • 370 $a Riverside (Iowa)

So I ask you this — if the authority record is really supposed to represent all versions of the character, then why are we fixing it with respect to birthplace and dates. Those are malleable attributes which may change from iteration to iteration.

Two more examples:

  • You’re going to find the heading “Holmes, Sherlock” on DVDs of and books about Moffat’s Sherlock. But that heading has an associated 046 of 1854. (Moffat’s Sherlock is obviously
  • ‘Spider-Man (Fictitious character)’ is applied to movies of Raimi’s or Webb’s Spider-Man. Yet the associated authority record has an 046 of 1962-08. (Never mind the fact that that’s not even the birthdate for Ditko/Lee’s Spider-Man, it’s the first issuance of the character in a comic!)

I can hear you now:

“Netanel, maybe the authority records should be recorded with data from the ‘original iteration’ of the character”

To which I say —

MUAHAHAHA, you fell right into my trap!


Catherine and I were talking about fictional characters in RDA (as we do) and she said something which blew my mind:

are fictional characters, in a sense, “works” that can have different expressions?


I hereby submit a “Work” record and two “Expressions” of Captain Kirk (most important bits highlighted)
100 1 $a Kirk, James T., $c (Fictitious character)
368 $d Captain
368 $c Fictitious characters $2 lcsh
372 $a Space flight $2 lcsh
374 $a Space travelers $a Astronauts $2 lcsh
374 $a Space ship captain
378 $q James Tiberius
500 1 $i Derivative (person): $a Kirk, James T., $c (Fictitious character : Roddenberry)
500 1 $i Derivative (person): $a Kirk, James T., $c (Fictitious character : Abrams)

046 $f 2233-03-22 $g 2371 $2 edtf
100 1 $a Kirk, James T., $c (Fictitious character : Roddenberry)
368 $d Captain
368 $c Fictitious characters $2 lcsh
368 $c Roddenberry
370 $a Riverside (Iowa)
372 $a Space flight $2 lcsh
374 $a Space travelers $a Astronauts $2 lcsh
374 $a Space ship captain
375 $a male
378 $q James Tiberius
376 $a Representative expression
500 1 $i Based on (person): Kirk, James T., $c (Fictitious character)
500 1 $i Created by: Roddenberry, Gene

046 $f 2233-01-04 $2 edtf
100 1 $a Kirk, James T., $c (Fictitious character : Abrams)
368 $d Captain
368 $c Fictitious characters $2 lcsh
368 $c Abrams
370 $a Medical shuttle 37 (Imaginary shuttle)
372 $a Space flight $2 lcsh
374 $a Space travelers $a Astronauts $2 lcsh
374 $a Space ship captain
375 $a male
378 $q James Tiberius
500 1 $i Based on (person): $a Kirk, James T., $c (Fictitious character)
500 1 $i Adapted by: Abrams, J. J. (Jeffrey Jacob), 1966-

I’m not saying this is perfect. Far from it, it’s a glimmer of an idea.

What I’m proposing though is that a “Work” record for a fictional character would maintain only the barest of bones, the ones that will carry over for every iteration, the ones which, if they changed, would necessitate the creation of a new work akin to the existing WEMI model.

I also added a made-up-field for the representative expression (a concept not fully codified but introduced in the FRBR-LRM document) because I do want to indicate that the Roddenberry Kirk is the first Kirk. (same reasoning for ‘created by’ versus ‘adapted by’)


What’s the freakin’ point?

I know, right? This is an awful lot of digital ink spilt for an idea (or a rumination) which will never be implemented and isn’t even necessarily well thought-out.


Fictional characters which have been transformed through media and time are studied by scholars, and the laypeeps alike. Why not help them find either the specific one they’re looking for, or a broader book about several of them?

I just don’t think that the following two resources really are equivalently about the same person and deserve the same heading of “Holmes, Sherlock”

  • The Lure and Intrigue of Sherlock Holmes : from Doyle to Rathbone, from Moffat to Miller
  • Sherlocked up with Watson : 15 highly erotic BDSM tales about Stephen Moffat’s Sherlock and Watson



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