I’m glad I’m not Gregoire Delacourt – and can you name real people in your novel?

I’m glad I’m not Gregoire Delacourt, just now

It seems Scarlett Johansson was named in his latest novel, La Premiere chose q’on regarde. I haven’t read the novel. There are amoeba on Saturn that speak French better than I do. But apparently it revolves around a woman who looks like – and is mistaken – for her. And Johansson, it is reported, objects. As in, there are lawyers involved.

Hmmn...who shall I name in this one?

Hmmn…who shall I name in this one?

So can writers get away with naming real people in their novel? The actual answer from me is ‘I am not a lawyer, go and see one’.

However, as a writer I’ve had to make myself familiar with the principles, and bearing in mind that these do NOT constitute legal advice and should NOT be relied upon, I’m happy to share them.

There are, indeed, legal complications in naming real people in fiction.

But as I understand it, a lot depends on purpose. Apparently if a public figure such as a movie star is named, incidentally in passing, there is not a lot they can do about it.

If, on the other hand, the book pivots around them in some way – well, apparently, it’s possible to act on it.

Occasionally, an author names a real person by way of apparent revenge, as when Michael Crichton supposedly fictionalised a critic in a thoroughly unflattering way.

The usual issue facing authors using real names is defamation. And certainly in New Zealand, defamation law does not require proof of intent. The danger? You create an utterly unsympathetic character, lob a name at them – and find out post-fact that there’s a real person of the same name out there who objects. It’s possible. That’s why movies usually have disclaimers about characters not resembling any living or dead person.

It’s why it’s usually better to give your characters names like – well, how about ‘Ftumch’.

(Ten points  for anybody who can spot the reference…anybody…?)

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

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11 comments on “I’m glad I’m not Gregoire Delacourt – and can you name real people in your novel?

  1. Episode three of the Young Ones… called ‘Boring’. Ftumch is a devil. :)
    Thanks for the interesting read. My book series names some real characters, but they died centuries ago. Apostle John, Polycarp, Bucolus, Antipas, Domitian… Don’t think they will send lawyers after me but I am careful in research.

  2. Yes! You get 10 points! :-) One of my favourite series. Did to comedy what punk did to rock music. I still make ‘Neil’ quotes on occasion (‘Oh no, man, even the LENTILS hate me.’)

    The issue of naming real people is probably more a problem with non-fiction – apparently it’s possible to get insurance against being sued, expensively. Not a full protection, of course. I think novellists get caught, too, with characters who are just *too* much like someone – and changing the name isn’t going to help.

    • I would be hard-pressed to find ‘real people’ in my fiction series… but no doubt a lot are a mixture of all the people I have met in my life.

      When I wrote non-fiction, it was computer manuals and Microsoft apps. I took my own screenshots because even using clip-art was dicey at one time.

  3. Christi says:

    This is a tricky subject. I prefer not to name anyone famous (beyond in passing) but not for the reasons you mentioned. I don’t want to name real celebrities because their names carry different emotional baggage for every reader (some may love them, and some may hate them). I’d like to create the emotional atmosphere from scratch, so to speak, without having outside influences to muck up the meaning. Great post!

    • I hadn’t thought of that – the way celebrities mean different things to readers. Very true! And, indeed, that’ll skew the careful planning of the writer.

      Must admit, one of my pet dislikes is the way some authors also drop ‘brand names’ into their stories – in one sense it creates an instant sense of character, assuming that the character follows the stereotype of the marketers; but in another it’s a bit pretentious. Few readers – and most authors – are likely to be able to afford a complete brand-name kit.

  4. kokkieh says:

    This reminds me of the incident where Leonardo Dicaprio sued an Italian ice cream shop owner named Dicaprio for calling his shop Dicaprio’s. As I remember it Leonardo won the lawsuit.

    Regarding the Scarlet Johansson matter: sure, his novel pivots around his character being mistaken for her. But she is not a character in his story. The story isn’t about her. She’s a celebrity. She’s a public figure. Are we now not allowed to refer to public figures in contemporary novels?

    Regarding the general issue of names: We discussed it extensively during a writing course I did last year and the consensus was that no one has sole ownership to a name. How many Matthew Wrights are there only in NZ according to your about page? As long as the name you use is not of a person who can prove that they know you (in case the character is one of the less nice ones) I don’t see how anyone can have grounds to complain. I am seeing more and more books, however, with the same disclaimer they use in movies.

    I pick my names randomly from a baby name book (and some I make up – fantasy allows for that).

    • According to the Chief Electoral Officer, who I rang up and asked, there were 42 Matthew Wrights on the electoral roll in New Zealand, in 2011.

      Of these, one writes poetry and blogs it (and isn’t me), one writes railway books – just like I do – but isn’t me, and another tweets. That’s quite apart from the UK TV celebrity and many others with the same name worldwide. As one of them told me, it isn’t so much a common name as ‘popular’. :-)

      I think it would be quite hard for someone with an ordinary and common name to complain that “they” were the subject of a novelist’s characterisation, purely because the name was the same. But in this litigious day and age, that disclaimer is getting more useful than ever…

  5. Lemuel says:

    Good point regarding defamation law not requiring intent. I’ve sat a couple of papers on Media Law which touched on defamation. One example case I remember was a UK publication that was sued for publishing a photograph of a jockey dismounting from his horse.

    The photograph was legit, no editing and no caption suggesting anything wayward but because of the composition of the photograph it looked like the jockey was committing a lewd act. It didn’t matter that there was no intent to portray the jockey in that way as long as he could prove that it had a substantial impact on his reputation and earning potential.

    New Zealand isn’t as litigious as some other countries which means that people can sometimes be a little too complacent, but we aren’t immune to it and it only takes one court case to lead to financial ruin. Wise post!

    • Very true! I was taught a very similar ‘cautionary tale for journos’ involving a village paper cub reporter and an innocent caption of a man and woman at a horse trial. Problem was, they weren’t married or even together, and the woman sued because the picture implied they were, bringing her husband into disrepute. She won.

      British case precedent lately also gives authors opportunity to sue reviewers – who are usually protected by ‘honest opinion’. But not always. The problem for us pleb writers, when confronted by the ad hominem territorial assertion that usually constitutes book reviewing in this country, is the cost of pursuing a case… :-(

  6. When someone has an interesting first name I think I’d like to use, I usually say something. No one has turned me down yet. I keep a folder of names – boys & girls first names, a long list of last names; pet names; even a list of sci-fi/fantasy names. I read through the credits to see if a name peaks my fancy. A co-worker gave me a name – Rebecca Davenport. She said it sounded like a heroine’s name in a love story. It is pretty, and I put it in my folder, but wasn’t sure I’d ever use it. It reminded me too much of ‘Gone with the Wind’. Surprisingly, I ran into the person with that very name only a few months later.
    My first book is titled Dana’s Dilemma. Dana was not that common of a name when I started. Dana’s Dilemma is also an exceedingly sharp bend on a race course. I was truly surprised to learn that.
    I usually let the characters name themselves. I may start out with a name and have to change it after the character argues with me about it. I have one scene in which the girl want to meet at Jeff’s, a local bar. I don’t want to use the name Jeff, so I’ve not gone any further with the story. It’s a minor part in the book, so, why is the name driving me buggy?

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