View Full Version : Naming & Surnames - determining right and wrong

March 2nd, 2016, 01:33 AM
When choosing names for characters - what is discussed when it passes through legal for most publishers/production companies?

I've heard where characters must be renamed in a script for legal reasons. And assume it is the same or a similar situation for novels.

What type of connection do they go by? What factors determine what can be used?

We've all met people having either surnames or first names that are used in stories.

If a writer meets someone in person, having a last name that he simply likes and then later puts in print as a characters name - could be asked to change it?

When an author is asked "what is the name based on" - what if you answer it was pulled off the side of a truck or a sign somewhere?

March 2nd, 2016, 04:55 AM
Those issues arise if the character who is given the name resembles the real character in so many crucial ways that it seems as if the story is indirectly referring to him or her, or if it is a corporation or a business-it. Such factors as the writer's motive for choosing the name, his relationship to the person or organization bearing the name, how the use of the name might affect the person's livelihood or the organization's reputation all have a bearing on the matter. I believe it might come under the legal category of libel where a besmirching of a person's reputation is done via the written word.

For example, there is a doctor in NYC who makes a livelihood from castrating men who request castration. If I were to wrote a novel about the subject and use a character who resembles him in many ways such as location, age, physical appearance and then cap it off by using a very similar surname to the doctor's, then he might indeed have just cause to feel targeted and to accuse me of endangering his livelihood via libel.

So that's one factor to keep in mind when choosing surnames or company nsames for our fiction.

Riis Marshall
March 2nd, 2016, 02:05 PM
Hello Throughy

Welcome to the greatest writers' forum in the world.

Yours is a good question and one that comes up often here at WF.

I think Radrook's discussion is relevant but I have a couple of things to add - keeping in mind I'm no legal expert in these matters.

According to discussions I've had with a lawyer, I can call my character anything I want and unless the name is precisely that of a real person, I'm safe from prosecution for libel. So if I want to call my Labour MP Blony Tair, that's okay. And if Robert Harris wants to create two characters in The Ghost that resemble Cheri and Tony Blair in every respect but name, that's okay too. But I think you might be in trouble with the law if, as Radrook suggests, you made up a lookalike name and created a character that is nearly identical to the real-life person.

The answer, I believe, is to concentrate on telling your best story and let your publisher's legal team sort it out.

What I do when trying to create names for my characters is to throw in a middle name that results in zero pages in a Google search. So I created a character named 'Wendell Whitworth' and found plenty of pages referring me to real people. However, when I search for 'Wendell Wellington Whitworth' Google returns zero pages. Problem solved although I will likely never use ol' Wendell's middle name other than when I introduce him.

I hope this helps. You will probably hear from many more here.

All the best with your writing.

Warmest regards

Terry D
March 2nd, 2016, 02:31 PM
If the name you choose is totally coincidental, say a longshoreman named John Wayne, you are fine. The only thing publishers will worry about are the laws regarding libel, which are only a concern when you are actually using that person as a character. I can write a horror story about a vampire named Barrack Obama and it is perfectly legal (unless that person has gone to the extent of copyrighting their name). The biggest risk you run is making readers think of the real life person instead of your carefully crafted character. I wouldn't create a detective and name him Brad Pitt (although I could) just because I want my readers thinking about my character, not Brad Pitt.

March 2nd, 2016, 04:43 PM
- All great stuff. Thank you.

writer's...relationship to the person or organization bearing the name...

So when writers meet others in person, this type of relation may play somewhat?...

I do keep name lists, but meet other people with interesting names as well.

Some may have been acquired before or after any in-person meeting...

Speaking only of surnames here. I would not use a first and last name together of someone I know or have met.