Legend has it that J R R Tolkien – famous for his ability to coin character names from his own invented languages – once fielded a letter from someone named Sam Gamgee.
It wasn’t too surprising in a way: he was a philologist and while his Elvish was largely built around Welsh and Finnish, his Hobbit names were intentionally evocative of a specific ruralised England, with names to suit – including some that, it turned out, were real, Gamgee and Buckland among them.
That problem of having someone ‘out there’ with the same name as your invented character is a problem every fiction author has to tackle.
The risk, of course, is of lawsuit. It may not be a high risk – maybe somebody doesn’t care that they’ve got the same name as a well-known fictional character (“I’m Penelope Creighton-Ward” or “Good morning, m’lady, I’m Aloysius Parker”). But somebody might.
It’s why movies carry disclaimers about no intentional resemblance to real people. I believe that back in the 1970s, when New Zealand’s first long-run ‘soap opera’ – Close to Home – was made, the writers were determined to avoid problems and used the names of dead people they’d obtained from cemetery lists. New Zealand was a very small place back then. Actually, it’s a small place today, but hey…
Ultimately the decision has to be up to the writer. There is no right answer here. But that’s why fictional characters sometimes have very peculiar names. Years ago I read a ‘techno thriller’ in which the US Secretary of State – portrayed as an extremely unlikeable character – was someone named Eve Trachea. The mind boggles about the other possibilities: a President named, perhaps, Roger Spleen or a Secretary of Defence named Belinda Patella. In a story, doubtless, in which US forces fight the bad guys in the Isles of Langerhans.
So what happens when you use the names of real people? You’re writing non-fiction. Or maybe your historical novel just HAS to have Winston Churchill in it, or someone.
More on that soon.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016