1. john murphy

    john murphy Member

    Sep 27, 2011
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    Use of real names as characters?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by john murphy, Nov 1, 2012.

    What is the general view of using names of real, living people as characters?

    I've written a military sci-fi novel. I have several characters that are not central to the story, but are key players in their respective scenes.

    The names I've chosen are of public figures that I admire and respect. They are all respectable roles. More importantly, I am not borrowing upon their public personna. For example, I do not have Mayor Bloomburg of New York City as a character. I do, however, borrow the name of a well known university professor and author that I admire tremendously, and give it to a character that is entirely dissimilar in their position.

    For example (and I'm making this name up), I have chosen a Columbia University professor, Alecia Jones who has written many books about culture (not really). One of my characters is a very intelligent young woman, a military recruit in the future, which I have named Alecia Jones. I imbue this character with qualities I admire in the real person. That is, she's kind of a role model, and the naming is a tribute to someone real that I respect and is important in society.

    I never explain nor allude to this as I feel certain readers would never make a connection, since my reader is not likely to know the people I admire and why. If they do recognize a name, it is common enough that readers are not likely say, "Hey! Does he mean the baseball legend, Jim Smith?"

    Again, all the characters are respectable and admirable. If the real person were to discover such a connection, they are more likely to be flattered. Hell, I would be if someone chose my name for a super-hero (although, the last time I checked, there are over 26,000 people in the US with my same name).

    Is this taboo, or is it common?
  2. GoldenGhost

    GoldenGhost Contributing Member

    Jan 11, 2012
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    Well, there are tons of writers who base their characters off real people. Hemingway was one of them, and he voiced the practicality often.

    I think if you change the names, there's nothing to be worried about. There are a few things I think are worth considering, however...

    Hemingway himself has said that it helps create a sense of realism, for you know the character intimately, know how they would react. If you even put them in a real setting, everything gets enhanced.

    He used to say something akin to: The places and people are real, the events are fiction.

    And even then, he has also stated that some of the events in his stories actually happened, too.

    The otherside is, you limit yourself from being surprised.

    Using real people is, in a way, the same thing as creating a character profile. You have these qualities, flaws, attributes, and emotional spectrums you've put down to paper, or in your case, know to a certain extent first hand. Then, when you place them in the story and have them act, they do so accordingly.

    But, when you create a character, without set limitations, their emotional spectrum, the actions, the reactions, are undiscovered, and the possibility becomes limitless. Sometimes, you won't know their reaction right away. Sometimes, you may react for them, make them do things you want them to do, or say things that seem to fit the story. That is, until you allow them their room to breathe, and then, they'll speak to you.

    They may say things like, "No, I don't want to do that. She hurt my feelings. I want her to feel the same pain," or, "Alright, I'll ride off the cliff, but I'd rather roll out of the car first."

    I think you get my point.

    I've done both, and have had fun either way.

    That's not to say real characters/people can't surprise you. They can, for sure.

    But don't you like knowing that anything could happen?

    Personally, I like the mystery.
  3. agentkirb

    agentkirb Contributing Member

    Jul 18, 2009
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    I think the OP is saying he's doing the opposite. He's taking just the name and making their personality different.

    I don't think there are any legal ramifications here because a name is a name. I think you start running into legal trouble if you gave them the exact job/history they have to the point where you can identify the character with the real person... but don't quote me on this.

    The only issue is does it detract from your story. Well, it really depends IMO. If you had Mayor Bloomberg as a character, even if he wasn't the mayor in your story but the manager of the local fast food joint... it might detract from the story because I know I'd be reading the story thinking "you . But if you feel like naming someone that's a little less famous, then again you probably will be fine.
  4. mammamaia

    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

    Nov 21, 2006
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    Coquille, Oregon
    "I think if you change the names, there's nothing to be worried about."

    "But if you feel like naming someone that's a little less famous, then again you probably will be fine."

    ...neither of those suppositions are entirely true, so it's not a good idea to be advising on legal matters when you haven't the proper experience and background to give valid advice...

    ...a writer CAN be sued for using a name that is widely identified with a specific famous person, if the character so named commits acts, or otherwise behaves in ways that defame the real person... same goes for basing a character on a real person so well that s/he can be recognized even if the name has been changed... and it won't matter if they win, or not, because they can probably afford the legal costs more easily than you can...

    ...in all matters like this, one should consult a literary/libel-specializing attorney, not well-meaning fellow members of a writing site... and yes, that includes me!

    love and hugs, maia
  5. svartalfheim

    svartalfheim Member

    Oct 28, 2012
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    I personally wouldn't use someones name, maybe use them as a reference, but not to the point where you can associate your character to the real life person. Albeit, no matter what name you use, if they are common enough chances are they are someones name, its just if you place them in the same environment and then give them the same personality and visual features, that's heading to troubled water. I'm not a professional and I certainly don't know much about the law, I just personally wouldn't feel comfortable using a real person in my story, as a reference maybe but then they wont have the same name or in the same location.

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