When somebody turns up with your literary character’s name

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.

Bagshot Row on the Hobbiton Movie set – Sam Gamgee’s house

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


14 thoughts on “When somebody turns up with your literary character’s name

    1. Possibly the biggest risk is the one Tolkien collided with – inadvertently coming up with the same name. There may well be benefits to fantasy writers concocting such abominations as R’lin a’a czythrith(OK, well, I made that up, but you get the drift.)

  1. Then of course there are those who use real names out of fun or malice. As an instance pf the latter, there was the execrable Michael Crichton giving the name of an individual he had a disagreement with to a character who was a pedophile. Much more kindly, in his Mortal Engines young adult series, Philip Reeve elevated former collaborator Kjartan Poskitt to godhood – “By Poskitt!!!!”

    1. According to this: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/14/books/14cric.html?_r=0 the character Crichton named was also described as deeply under-endowed, thus making it difficult for Crichton to be sued because nobody wanted to say ‘yes, I am the person he referred to as having undersized gentleman apparatus.’ Of course, it would doubtless be also possible to sue over THAT allegation as well, but that would likely require the said evidence to be produced in court…

  2. I actually had someone contact me asking why I gave his name to one of my characters. I hastened to reassure him that I had simply made up the name. I believe this person was locally well known, but a total stranger to me. I guess he was just curious; in any case I never heard any more about it. (I don’t think he bought a copy of the book, however).

    1. It’s intriguing how that happens – I guess there are so many people that name combinations will always crop up. As we’ve discussed before, one of the usual ones, certainly in the real world generally, appears to be “Matthew Wright” 🙂

  3. Peter Kay probably thought he was on safe ground when he created a fire officer called Keith Lard to feature in his Bolton-based TV comedies That Peter Kay Thing and Phoenix Nights. Unfortunately there was a real fire officer in Bolton called Keith Laird, who let the first episode go, but sued when he reappeared in the second.

  4. With more than seven billion people in the world, it’s possible that no matter how outlandish you make your characters’ names (“Zebulane Pekalunis at your service, my dear Madame …”) there may be someone out there who can claim the moniker. So, what to do? I’m in favor of borrowing a frame from the movies and stating that — in case your reader isn’t aware they’re reading sci-fi — your book is a work of fiction.

    1. It’s a useful disclaimer to have, I think. In the 1970s, when New Zealand’s state-run TV station made our first ever soap opera, the writers trawled cemetery lists to make sure that the names they picked were of dead people, so nobody could complain. A bit ghoulish, and likely unnecessary – though NZ is a very small place even today and was a lot smaller then.

  5. Some years ago I needed a name for a family of rich, rather unscrupulous folks for a series I’m writing. Thought about it, picked one, didn’t think anything else about it other than, “problem solved.” Then one day I thought, what the heck, google the name. Turned out the name I picked from thin air belonged to a family that came over on the Mayflower, was prominent politically and socially, rich, etc. TOO good a fit, and by total accident! Needless to say I changed the name, regretfully, because I’d come to really see those folks as having that name!

    1. It’s funny how that happens – and if they do pick up on being ‘named’ they might wonder what comment the story was making on them. The last story I wrote, I deliberately used just first names with the exception of the lead character – all of them deliberately mis-spelt in some way. The lead character was actually a real person who I’d once known but with a different name… the inverse of the issue you mention.

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