Should you name Dickensian creeps after people you know?
August 27, 2009 10:34 AM   Subscribe

Someone I know named a loathsome character in his novel after me. Is this sort of not cool?

I have a very rare last name. There are only about ten of us left in the world. Eleven if you count the person I just discovered: a fictional character.

By a coincidence, I heard an NPR interview the other day in which an author said people hate it when they show up in other people's novels as minor characters. It violates our sense of being the main actor in life.

To me the problem was more that the dude named after me is explicitly described as a mentally ill, vindictive creep. I wanted to laugh and enjoy my cameo. But to be honest it felt like a dis, though I question whether it should annoy me.

Anyway, it made me wonder: Is there a point at which it's rude to name a character with no redeeming good qualities after people you know?
posted by anonymous to Media & Arts (47 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's not clear from your question: do you know the author?
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 10:36 AM on August 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


And furthermore does the character share only your last name or your first name as well? You will want to contact a moderator so that they can reply for your and preserve your anonymity.
posted by jedicus at 10:39 AM on August 27, 2009


Michael Crichton did the same I recall, but I don't know what recourse his "victim" Michael Crowley had to law.
posted by A189Nut at 10:39 AM on August 27, 2009


Tony Twist sued Todd McFarlane for naming a bad guy in Spawn after him, and won $15 million dollars.
posted by delmoi at 10:39 AM on August 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


I'd be more annoyed if I got the impression that the author was trying to insult me in some way. If the author just liked my name and thought it would stand out in the book, I'd be less bothered.

I guess their motive is the acid test.
posted by Solomon at 10:40 AM on August 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Does your last name sound like it should go with someone who can be described as a mentally ill, vindictive creep? I named one of my CD cases Robert because it was the most boring of the CD cases and Robert is a rather boring sounding name.

That being said, how mainstream is this book? Is there any chance of pulling it back?

But most of all, talk to the author and not us and see why that name was used. It might not have had a connection to you at all.
posted by theichibun at 10:46 AM on August 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


You say you know the person, do you get along?
If you are friends or whatever, it's probably a joke, and you should be honored that he is thinking of you in his work.

I've heard of authors naming smaller characters like pets or even locations after people, and often this is fine with them.

At the beginning of a book, there is usually a note claiming that all characters are fictional and likenesses are coincidental, etc.

Are you actually anything like this character or was it just your name that was used?

Is the book published? If not, and you have a problem with your name being used, say something. I bet he will gladly change it and give someone else the opportunity to appreciate seeing their name in print.

You don't seem to be asking what to do about it, you just want to know if it is rude? No, I don't think it should be considered rude, unless you take personal offense.
He can use my name if he wants, regardless of how shitty the character may be.
posted by Palerale at 10:47 AM on August 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Stephen Grant once killed me in a comic book. (Not my namesake on the cover)

Waaaaaaaay back when I frequented the COMIC message forum on the BBS message system RIME Grant asked anyone who wanted to be killed in a comic book to email him. "I" ended up as a corrupt cop in Batman killed by his equally corrupt partner.

I thought it was cool.
posted by Bonzai at 10:48 AM on August 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


Well, rudeness falls under the rules of etiquette, and this certainly qualifies as an insult. I suspect Miss Manners would answer this in her column by saying that doing this is in fact rude, and she might then hint that it is excusable if the person richly deserves such literary tweaking.

Hopefully, if published, the novel does not become a bestselling international enduring classic.
posted by longsleeves at 10:49 AM on August 27, 2009


I think it's rude if you know the author dislikes you. But it's a compliment if the author is your buddy and they think you have a kickass name.
posted by pwally at 10:49 AM on August 27, 2009 [5 favorites]


Insult or no insult, it's a pretty cool bag. You're in a book!
posted by beniamino at 10:58 AM on August 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yeah, without knowing your relationship to the author, it's hard to draw the conclusion, but unless you and the author already have a rocky relationship you shouldn't take it as an insult. I'm a writer myself, and I sometimes use the last names of people I know. I have never done so maliciously. Typically, I just think my friend has a cool last name that goes well with the character, and I don't try to pair the last name with the traits of the actual person.
posted by Bookhouse at 11:01 AM on August 27, 2009


I used too many commas up there.
posted by Bookhouse at 11:02 AM on August 27, 2009


It's rude as hell, and how you're feeling is perfectly natural; I'm sorry you're in the position that you're in.

People do this all the time. You might have legal recourse. As someone mention above, the late Michael Crichton did this to an editor of the New Republic named Michael Crowley, who wrote a great article about it that I can't seem to find on their site at the moment. I'd look it up, see what he had to say, maybe even email him.
posted by Damn That Television at 11:03 AM on August 27, 2009


I think it's rude if you know the author dislikes you. But it's a compliment if the author is your buddy and they think you have a kickass name.

Seconding this. It's possible that the author thinks his characterization of the fictional you is so beyond-the-pale, over-the-top nasty that he just thought, "oh, there's no possible way anyone could I think I really think this is true of Anon."

Something like that happened to me and a couple other of my friends once -- we all know someone who writes for MAD Magazine, and for one issue he used a bunch of our names in a piece called "The 25 Least Influential People In Show Business." It was a series of two-line profiles of people like "the guy who cleans the spit out of Larry King's Microphone" or "Sigfried and Roy's animals' official pooper-scooper". (He used my name for "a performance artist whose masterwork was a critique of Iran-Contra", if memory serves.) The depictions of the fictional "us" were just so ridiculous we didn't think he meant for them to be taken seriously, and just laughed.

It's possible this is all your friend thought, that you just had a cool name and the character was so completely unlike you that no one would get confused.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:04 AM on August 27, 2009


Paul Neil Milne Johnstone had a problem with it and got the author to change it. Or at least one assumes so, as the character named after him in a throwaway gag in the Hitchhiker's Guide was changed to "Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings" in later editions.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 11:05 AM on August 27, 2009


Bonzai, I think *asking* for it is different than unexpectedly finding yourself an unsavory character.

OP - how do you know the author? Are you friends? Enemies? Do you have any reason to think the author meant it personally? Is this somehow going to affect you negatively?

Whether or not it's rude really depends on the context. If one of my good friends wrote me into a book as a vindictive creep, I'd probably think it was funny because they would probably have *wanted* me to think it was funny. If it were someone with whom I didn't have a good relationship, then yeah. I guess it *would* be rude, but mostly just childish.

My ex-boyfriend was written into a novel by another one of his exes, and his character was killed off brutally. *I* think it's hilarious because, well, he probably deserved it. But he seemed to enjoy it in a sick way because it meant she still thought about him. For that reason - and also because it's childish - I would never do the same.
posted by katillathehun at 11:06 AM on August 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


The author is not your friend. You shouldn't hang around assholes like that.
posted by hal_c_on at 11:09 AM on August 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


You might want to consult with an attorney if you are mad enough to consider suing. Litigation is not always a good solution to problems. But, depending on the full facts and the law of your jurisdiction, there may be some actionable issues here. I'm not giving you legal advice, and I am not your lawyer, but you may want to consult with a lawyer.

You may also want to read about the case where Troy Dyer sued the writers, etc. of the movie Reality Bites for making a character with his name (Dyer had gone to film school with the writer, as I recall).

Again, I'm not your lawyer, and I'm not giving you legal advice. But it may be worth talking to a lawyer about this to actually get some legal advice.
posted by The World Famous at 11:10 AM on August 27, 2009


I don't know if this is plausible, not knowing your last name, but could it be a coincidence?

My husband has an equally rare last name, but it was also randomly chosen by a gangta rapper who picked it because it also happens to be the same as a certain noun pluralised with a z instead of an s.

The other question is whether character bears any resemblance to you - age, gender, physical features. Crichton's case was so obviously meant to be the real person (same age, same history, same job), but in other cases the name may be the only resemblance. If there is no other connection, no one will connect this character to you or think of you when they read it. I never think of Michael Crighton (whose work I have no interest in and whose position on global warming I find laughable) when I'm watching one of my favourite tv shows.
posted by jb at 11:16 AM on August 27, 2009


If this is intentionally connecting a bad character to you, then yes it's rude and "not cool." One shouldn't do it. Uh, you knew that, right? What is this question really about?
posted by grobstein at 11:23 AM on August 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


I think some of us are reading the question differently than others. I'm reading this:

I have a very rare last name. There are only about ten of us left in the world. Eleven if you count the person I just discovered: a fictional character.


to mean that the character and you share only a last name, not a full name. Others seem to be reading it as if you share a full name. If the latter is the case, I'd modify my answer to: not cool. If the former is correct, suggestions of suing are way off base. Perhaps Anon could send an email to Jessamyn to clarify?
posted by Bookhouse at 11:24 AM on August 27, 2009


Are you thought to be mentally ill, vindictive or creepy? If yes, even in moderation, then I'd say it's an insult.

If not, then I'd guess it's just because he liked the way your name sounds.
posted by jacquilynne at 11:32 AM on August 27, 2009


I'm curious as to whether the book has been published yet or not. Did you read your name in the book itself, purchased from the store? Or did the author give you the soon-to-be-published manuscript to peruse? If it hasn't been published yet, you should act soon to try and get your name removed. If it has been published, I guess you could sue or something. But otherwise, what are you thinking of doing? Writing a letter of complaint to the author? Trying to come to terms with it on your own so it doesn't bug you so much?

I'm not quite sure how to answer your question of "is it not cool to name villains after people you know." Obviously, if said people are upset about it and the author never checked with them beforehand, then it is not cool. If you are asking whether it is illegal, that is a whole 'nother ball of wax.
posted by np312 at 11:44 AM on August 27, 2009


follow-up from the OP
- I knew this guy, thought we were friends, though the relationship was rocky a few years ago.

- just the last name was used.

- my feeling was that, as some posters have indicated, it would have been fine if we were best friends, but that I would have appreciated a 'dude, don't take this personally but I thought your name was suitable for a dangerous person' note.
posted by jessamyn at 11:51 AM on August 27, 2009


I guess it all depends on how well you know him and how well you get along. When I'm stuck for a name, I'll pick one up anywhere. I look at my bookshelves, or flip through the newspaper- as soon as I find a name that sounds okay, in it goes.

With my friends, I put their names in deliberately (kinda like a HI MA!) and I do try to make sure their namesakes aren't obnoxious. It's just someone I know of, and I take one name (not their whole name,) they could turn out to be anything.

I know it sounds mealy, but in the second situation, I'm not naming the character after you. I'm just using your name to name a character.

So, if it's a friend, just say "Um, kinda weird." If it's an acquaintance, realize the character is not meant to represent you. If it's an enemy... sue 'em!
posted by headspace at 11:53 AM on August 27, 2009


Everything is fodder for a writer. When naming characters, which is surprisingly hard, authors typically cast a very wide net and pull in anything that fits.

In other words, it truly isn't about you. He needed to a name a character, flipped through his mental Rolodex, and pulled out the one that sounded best for his creation.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:00 PM on August 27, 2009


one more OP note: "I meant to say we had sort of patched things up but didn't necessarily know each other very well or talk to each other much. On the Sims scale of friendship, not a 20 but definitely not 100. So given that, I wondered whether a "dude, btw I used your name" notice would have been expected."
posted by jessamyn at 12:03 PM on August 27, 2009


When producing a movie, you have to get clearances for any number things -- music, people walking by on the street, posters, logos, etc. One of those things are the names of your characters. If the name you want to use is used by fewer than X number of people (I don't know how many -- my guess is a dozen or so), you need to get clearance from every single one of them, or take the risk that one of them won't like how you've portrayed "them" and risk being sued.

I assume it's true of books as well, but I don't know.
posted by crickets at 12:04 PM on August 27, 2009


Tony Twist sued Todd McFarlane for naming a bad guy in Spawn after him, and won $15 million dollars.

But, depending on the full facts and the law of your jurisdiction, there may be some actionable issues here.

The issue here that's relevant to the OP is that MacFarlane had a prior history and interaction with Twist in the NHL (MacFarlane is/was a part owner of an NHL team); used Twist's physical likeness in the comic; and admitted the full nature of the "homage" prior to the lawsuit.

Also, MacFarland has a shitload of money to go after.

In the end, the OP will have an extremely hard time if he/she chose to go after this in the courts, as apparently the appropriation is of the last name only, not the likeness, and has no other identifying information. It's likely that you wouldn't find an attorney that would take this without stiff fees upfront.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:10 PM on August 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


When producing a movie, you have to get clearances for any number things -- music, people walking by on the street, posters, logos, etc. One of those things are the names of your characters. If the name you want to use is used by fewer than X number of people (I don't know how many -- my guess is a dozen or so), you need to get clearance from every single one of them, or take the risk that one of them won't like how you've portrayed "them" and risk being sued.

But that's not because it's illegal to use the name, it's just defensive legal work. The fear of getting sued is so strong for some people/companies that they'll do anything to prevent it, even if the suit itself would be thrown out of court almost immediately.

As a legal matter, the author has almost certainly done nothing wrong. As an etiquette/friendship matter, he may have.
posted by katemonster at 12:15 PM on August 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


"I meant to say we had sort of patched things up but didn't necessarily know each other very well or talk to each other much. On the Sims scale of friendship, not a 20 but definitely not 100. So given that, I wondered whether a "dude, btw I used your name" notice would have been expected."

If you're that estranged, it's possible he may not even be conscious of how he thought up that name in the first place. Sometimes we know things and forget that we know them, and then we think we thought them up all by ourselves. For example, ask George Harrison (well, technically you can't, but anyway) about how he "made up" the tune to "My Sweet Lord."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:18 PM on August 27, 2009


Last update from the OP: "Thanks for all the interesting libel advice--though I'm not so much interested in the courts as I am the etiquette in this situation out of a '90s Woody Allen movie.

And yes I have to admit that my last name is kind of cool, so maybe that's all it is. But what did cross my mind was the Michael Crichton thing where he depicted the New Republic's Michael Crowley as a child rapist."
posted by jessamyn at 12:28 PM on August 27, 2009


Is your name Bob Hitler or something? Kinda makes me wonder how many Hitlers are out there.
posted by newfers at 12:52 PM on August 27, 2009


In other words, it truly isn't about you. He needed to a name a character, flipped through his mental Rolodex, and pulled out the one that sounded best for his creation.

This. If it's the last name only I really wouldn't take it personally. It's a lot harder than you think making up names all the time, and if you have a cool last name then a writer is going to want to use it. I guess it's possible he was doing it to say "fuck you." And if you're bothered by it, you're bothered by it. But mostly we're just looking for names that work.
posted by Bookhouse at 12:57 PM on August 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


If you're a 20/100, he probably just needed a name and yours sounded good. Writers are vultures- I spent most of yesterday in tears reading through this post- and I still stopped to have the bone-picking thought that having twin characters named 100 Degrees and 24 Hours would be amazing.
posted by headspace at 1:07 PM on August 27, 2009


just the last name was used.

That pretty much clears it up for me. He thought you had a cool last name. He used it. It's not about you at all, and there's really no need for him to give you a heads up. It may be rare, but it's just a surname that is not exclusive to you, and nobody out there is going to think upon reading it, "Holy crap. This character is based on [OP]! I had no idea [OP] was so unstable!" It's fine. Forget it and move on.
posted by katillathehun at 1:09 PM on August 27, 2009


Really, some one is calling you names and your asking us what you should do?

Do not sue, send the author a letter asking if you have beef, if this relationship is important to you. Otherwise, what does it matter what this person thinks of you?
posted by munchbunch at 1:12 PM on August 27, 2009


just the last name was used.

I will bet you almost anything that he really just thought your name sounded cool.
posted by hermitosis at 1:16 PM on August 27, 2009


I think if you have an unusual name it's not inconceivable for writer acquaintances to think, "hey, what a great name for a character" and not have it mean anything about you. He also may not realize how rare it is.

Other options are that he meant it as an outright dis, or he thinks you'll think it's funny and he misinterpreted your sense of humor.

Either way, if I were you, I'd take it as a huge compliment. Even if he didn't mean it as one.
posted by lampoil at 1:36 PM on August 27, 2009


True story from grad school, Professor A had a relationship with a student. Somehow, that student ended up married to Professor B. In an early draft of Professor A's next book, there was a barnyard metaphor. The pig was named after the student. (I'm not sure if it ever made it to the printed edition.)

I share this example, because that student is still happily married to Professor B. She probably thought it was an intentionally hurtful choice and then moved on with her life. As should you.
posted by 26.2 at 1:54 PM on August 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Maybe it's uncool (meaning irrelevant) to tell this tale here, but I think there could be a lesson in here somewhere. I wrote a novel in college and used a bunch of names (first and last, but not paired) from people I knew in high school. I did it primarily because any random
name I chose tended to sound fake to my ear, while a name belonging to someone I knew had a ring of truth. At one point, when needing to name an irritating, crotchety older woman, I used the last name of my first high school boyfriend. For the sake of this tale, I'll call her Mrs. Frezenhoffer (see: how totally fake does that sound!?) Ten years later, I encountered the boyfriend at our class reunion. We had not seen each other in 10 years, but hit it off, and...now, Metafilter, I am Mrs. Frezenhoffer. Irritating, crotchety, old me.
posted by dreamphone at 4:35 PM on August 27, 2009 [10 favorites]


Seems to me like there's a difference between:

"a character is NAMED AFTER ME"

and

"a character has the SAME NAME AS ME"

regardless of the uniqueness of your name and your aquaintance with the character's creator.
posted by tristeza at 4:37 PM on August 27, 2009


It's rude, sure. It might be unintentionally rude ("Gosh, I didn't know that there were so few Fingerspitzengefuehls in the world! I just thought it was a cool name!") or purposefully rude, but yeah, it's rude.

Is it actionable? Only if anyone would think that this is a depiction of you. Given that the only thing the character shares with you is a last name, albeit a rare last name, I'm not seeing it. The thing with the Tony Twist and Michael Crowley incidents is that it was very clear that those specific individuals were meant to be identified with the characters.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:38 PM on August 27, 2009


Yeah, I think he probably just thought the name was cool. It's HARD coming up with names. Since yours is so unique, I wouldn't put it past the magpie nature of a writer to have stored it away somewhere.

Anyway, if he was trying to piss you off, he probably would have sent you an autographed copy of the book.
posted by sugarfish at 5:58 PM on August 27, 2009


You could always remind the writer that very few people will ever read his/her book. Send him/her a picture of the book on the remainder pile, too.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:26 PM on August 27, 2009


Critic Greg Feely apparently gets his name used a lot (in the case of The Filth it's apprently entirely coincidental though)
posted by Artw at 11:49 AM on August 28, 2009


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