An interesting discussion over the second cup of breakfast coffee this morning.
I’m reading a Tess Gerritsen I found in the supermarket – not that I make too much of a habit of buying books in the supermarket, but they’re the second best place to buy backlist. I’m allergic to Amazon and the bookshops I frequent lack the shelf space for entire oeuvres. And I only recently discovered Ms Gerritsen. Oh, I knew she existed – I just hadn’t read her.
Anyway – I’m reading this Tess Gerritsen which, it turns out, was first published in 1999. And the protagonist’s name is – wait for it – Emma Watson.
The question that arose was this: if the Harry Potter phenomenon had already been under way when she wrote that book (it wasn’t – the first film was in 2001) would she a) have given the character that name in the first place, and b) been allowed to keep it if she had?
The answer has to be no in both cases or either, if for no other reason than that a name that carries so much baggage which is completely unrelated to the book will surely be a distraction to the reader.
And there are other, potentially more pressing reasons.
When I was publishing, I used to advise my authors to Google the names of their main characters, just in case there was any reason not to use them. Like, we might get sued. This probably wasn’t a serious possibility 99.9% of the time – but love it, hate it or laugh at it, the litigious society is an unfortunate fact of life. It only needed one fictional serial killer to bear the same name, however inadvertently, as someone a little, um, over-sensitive, and lawyers might have been exchanging letters before you could say High Court. And it’s OK saying all publicity is good – but if the end product of the resulting media coverage was a large bill for damages, the cost could have outweighed the benefit by a margin too large to swallow.
I keep thinking I should slide in an ‘allegedly’ there, just to make sure I’m covered.
There was only ever a problem on one occasion, and that didn’t involve lawyers, for which I still thank whoever’s up there whenever I think about it. It turned out that the character in question was in the same line of work (no, not serial killing, but it could have been tricky) as a real person of the same name – and we didn’t find out until a whole lot of advance information about the book had already gone out. We managed to pull most of it back, and it all happened a few years ago now, so I don’t think any harm was done, but I’m telling you, the sweat stood out on my forehead for a few days.
Trouble is, people are protective about their names. In one of my many lives I run workshops on writing fiction, one of which focuses on developing characters. I’m often asked if it’s OK to base fictional characters on real people, maybe family or friends; the supplementary question is invariably, what are the chances that they’ll recognize themselves? This is my answer: I’ve written a lot of short fiction in my time, and much of it got into print; many – OK, most – of my characters had elements of people I know.
And no real person has ever identified him- or herself. On the other hand, a couple of times a character had the same first name as a friend or family member, though I took great care not to use similar personality or appearance traits. Yet each time I had to work hard to convince the real person that the character wasn’t based on him or her.
Love it or hate it, the label your parents laid on you is yours. Never mind that there are six other Lynne Patricks listed on LinkedIn and who knows how many on Facebook: my name is part of my identity. And I think I’d rather not find it attached to a fictional serial killer, however great the book. Though I probably wouldn’t sue.