When You Name Your Fictional War Criminal After a Real Man by Accident

From The Literary Hub:

 When the name of my novel’s antihero popped up in my inbox one afternoon, I didn’t even pause for thought. I had just spent six long years with the man. Why wouldn’t he be emailing me? Even as I read the first few lines, I had no doubt this was my character writing to me. Perhaps my antihero didn’t like life out there and wanted to come back to the comfort of my imagination. Too much judgement. Too many conflicting opinions. Or maybe he wanted to complain about the story I had trapped him in—the loneliness of his exile, the loss of his childhood, all doomed to be lived out, again and again, each time the book was read.

In my own mind, the antihero I had created wasn’t fictional anymore, and neither was the imagined Bosnian town where my drama took place. I often tell students that writing is a kind of madness and the best writers are those who do not know they are mad. It’s a snappy line, but also dangerously true at times.

Novelists are used to characters intruding upon their thoughts. They insist on asking questions when you are trying to fall asleep. They whisper in your ear as you attempt to go about your day. But even so, characters don’t take on a physical form, sit down at a computer, and start sending messages to their creators halfway across the world.

Of course, the email was not from my character, but from a living, corporeal human being. And he was deeply unhappy about my use of his name in my debut novel. He had lived in Netherlands for the past two decades, not the pages of my book. He had become aware of his fictional counterpart only because his colleagues had googled him. Was it true? They asked. Was he a war criminal? Had he really been guilty of these terrible crimes? “Where there was smoke, there was fire,” the man wrote. And even though it was not yet on shelves, my book was already blackening his name. He said his wife and children would be in danger if the book even associated war crimes with his name.

. . . .

Fortunately, the book had not yet gone to print. After a panicked call to my editor, the name was changed—this time to an appellation so common it couldn’t possibly identify an individual.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

46 thoughts on “When You Name Your Fictional War Criminal After a Real Man by Accident”

  1. When a commenter on a writer’s site I frequent laughingly offered me his name to use when I worried about there being a real person with the name I had planned who might take offense at being cast as one of the villains, I asked him if he really meant it.

    He assured me it was fine with him (I have the emails), the villainous character is a negative internet columnist, not a war criminal, and I pointed out in my disclaimer that the real person had given me permission to use his name even though he was NOT the character).

    But it just occured to me I should do that for some of the other characters in the book, too.

    Thanks for the reminder.

    • This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons, places, things or events is purely coincidental.
      (Unless I hate da bum and I’m just getting even — but you won’t be able to prove it! 😛 )

  2. I would’ve thought that by now googling your character names would be routine. (Titles, too.) At least for characters with a negative role.

    Beyond that, there is a lot to be said for using common names; if you google the name and only one person pops up, you may want to change it. If 8 or 10 different ones show up you’ll be fine. (Or on the run from 10 hitmen.)

      • For the heck of it, I just did my leading character, a dozen or more without having to click any of the links — half in Texas, and between 50-65 years old.

          • I did offer Google the full “first-middle-last” name.

            Deities only know how many I’d get trying ‘same name spelled differently’ (heck, four way you can spell the Allen in my name! 😉 )

            • I took my hero (3 names) and googled him, and then one of the villains. Managed to find NO matches to either one (of course, that could change).

              Ah, but what will you do when your work becomes famous and some parents decide to gift their kiddie with the name? No way to future proof the whole thing.

              I mean, because Daenerys Targaryen Stormborn Jones is totally a thing…

    • That’s also why you stick to dead people. I named a demon villain after an ancient Greek general, Themistocles. No one who recognized the name would have thought I modeled the character for him. It was just a placeholder until I could get a real name for him; he was only a minor villain.

      The key is to make sure your character does not get “attached” to a name, cuz if they do you can’t change it so easily. Fortunately my Themistocles only appeared at the end and I would otherwise have mentally referred to him as Big Bad Guy Number 4.

  3. This raises an interesting question: What rights does anyone have to their name? Should an author have to worry about using an existing name?

    I was on a few product naming committees in years back. It seemed the marketing people were more concerned about the market implications of name duplication than the legal people were worried about exposure. As I remember it, if you were not intentionally and obviously trying to use the reputation of a name, legal would let us use a duplicate name, even if it were trademarked. I tried to sleep through naming committee meetings as much as possible, so I probably have that wrong, but I do clearly remember there was a lot less fuss from legal than I expected.

    An author certainly could and should worry about using a real person’s name out of courtesy, but is this an area of serious exposure? My guess is that those “not based on any person…” type statements are more marketing devices than protection. Don’t you put them in to urge readers to try to guess which characters ARE based on real persons?

    Not asking for legal advice, just asking when legal advice might be needed.

    • I’m thinking exposure is very low even if you’re Tuckerizing somebody you know personally in a very bad light.
      Some random stranger?
      Not much legal exposure. They can hardly claim defamation if you don’t even know them.

      On the product side it depends on the company and the country. Apple has a long history of stomping on other companies’ trademarks (Apple Music, Cisco) and getting away with it whereas Microsoft had to rename their Cloud Storage service from SkyDrive to OneDrive because of the Murdocks’ satellite broadcaster. Luck of the draw, courtwise, I guess.

  4. For most of my life, ‘Lexi’ has been such an unusual name that most people didn’t know it was a name – “Lindsay, did you say?” – and I’d explain it was short for Alexandra. I never met another Lexi, or encountered one in fiction. I rather liked that.

    Now, dammit, Lexi is suddenly a popular US fictional heroine’s name – and what’s worse, she’s always some ditsy cupcake-loving amateur sleuth…

    Grrr. (This comment may be a bit off-topic, but it’s heartfelt.)

        • But, Lexi, wouldn’t that be too close to your real person? 😀

          On topic, my pen name on first search turned up about three million people. I don’t actually trust that, though. It’s a name I made up when I was about eight, and intended to change my real name to. According to Facebook, there are about half a million people with my own name. And my mother thought she was being clever, and no one would ever have the same name!

          I don’t know why the author in the OP got upset and changed the name. People have the same name, even something we wouldn’t consider all that common in the US. As long as she wasn’t being mean and putting all her hate onto someone real that she knew by writing about them in a book, I doubt she’d have any real problems. Outside of possibly defending against some nut with a law suit.

          I don’t even search character names anymore. Why? From what I’ve seen, I’m hardly smarter than any mother anywhere when it comes to giving out names, so it’s highly unlikely I’m going to get something a few thousand people don’t have already.

      • I have an old trunk story where a girl is nicknamed Lex. Originally it was the result of my mishearing the name of a Star Trek character. But when I decided to resurrect the story and take it more seriously I made it a portmanteau of two Persian names, since they suited what I knew of the character. She is “attached” to the nickname in my mind and I can’t change it.

        But she is beautiful, smart, and kicks all kinds of ass. No swords in this story, just rayguns 🙂

  5. Safest thing to do is to name your villain after your editor. If she doesn’t like it she can change it. If she doesn’t change it, she can’t complain.

  6. I could have sworn that the former neighbors of an X-Files writer’s parents sued (or threatened to sue) when that writer named a violent inbreeding family after them on the disturbing episode “Home.” And while I found a mention of where the name came from, I haven’t been able to find anything about a suit. Maybe I made that part up? Either way, it seems to me that one should probably be careful with that sort of thing.

  7. My husband ran into this problem: he named main villain after a friend in South Africa. It wasn’t until he sent it out to beta readers that they notified him that there is a public figure named Gloria Allred here in the USA who’s very litigious, and he might want to choose another name…

    (He honestly had no idea who that was.)

  8. This is a list of Disclaimers I have assembled over the years to act as seeds for my own.

    Lord Dunsany vol1

    This is a work of fiction. The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to real people or events is purely coincidental.


    John Pietz 2008 – unknown

    This is a work of fiction. Except for certain historical figures, any resemblance to persons living or dead is pure coincidence.


    Wiki page

    All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.


    Kurt Vonnegut – Breakfast of Champions

    All persons, living and dead, are purely coincidental, and should not be construed.


    The Three Stooges – You Nazty Spy

    Any resemblance between the characters in this picture and any persons, living or dead, is a miracle.


    Carrie Ryan – The Forest of Hands and Teeth

    This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.



    The characters and incidents portrayed are entirely fictional.


    Stable form

    This is a work of fiction.

    Variation 1

    This is a work of fiction, you are real.


    Stephen King – Different Seasons.



    Arthur C. Clarke – Childhood’s End



    This is the Parenthetical disclaimer that I use. HA!

    This is a work of fiction*, you are real.

    All the characters and events portrayed in this work are imaginary. [You think this story’s about you, don’t you, don’t you. That’s ’cause you’re so vain…] The opinions expressed in this work are not those of the writers. [What, you think we believe this stuff? Get real.]

    *Between Truth and Lies is what actually[really, really, really] happened.

      • Now doubling down with a prose example:

        “Erica,” said Johnathan, “You can not publish that article in the newspaper.”

        “What, why,” said Erica, “Wait, Johnathan. You think this story’s about you. Don’t you. Don’t you. Oh, Johnathan, you’re so vain.”

        “Don’t be cruel, Erica” said Johnathan. “Once upon a time, before I gave up smiling, I hated the moonlight. Clamors of the night that poets find beguiling, seemed flat as the moonlight. With no one to stay up for, I went to sleep at ten. Life was a bitter cup for the saddest of all men.

        “Blue moon, Erica,” said Johnathan, “saw me standing alone, without a dream in my heart, without a love of my own, and now you betray me.”


        I ask again. I’m honestly curious. What lyrics. At what level are common phrases suddenly forbidden once they are used in a song. There are three different songs referenced in the prose above. Some of the phrases are mixed, some are brief, some are long. At what point is using the phrases considered too much.


        Carly Simon – You’re So Vain

        She’s having fun with that video. I wonder who she’s singing about. HA!

        Elvis Presley – Don’t Be Cruel

        The whole song is strangely appropriate to the discussion between Erica and Johnathan.

        Rod Stewart – Blue Moon (from One Night Only!)

        The middle background singer is hot!

        • That passage, in a story, gets a free pass as pure parody. Put it in a musical and it gets touchy.

          Context matters in fair use.

    • I’d be tempted to write:

      “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. If any of this story resembles your life, your life is seriously awesome and we should hang out for a while.

      But I’ve been assuming the formulations have been successfully tested in court, and I don’t want to risk testing a deviation. When he was alive my philosophy was that if one can’t afford Johnny Cochran, one should stay out of trouble. I still have that philosophy, I just don’t have a name to swap in his place 🙂

  9. And then there’s Larry Correia. People pay decent money to a charity he names for him to use their name in his books. You might be a hero, a villain, or a Joe Buckley. You might get mentioned once or be a main character.

    You pays your money, and you takes your chances.

    As I recall from his last post, he has to cut off the donations because he gets too many names.

      • Eh, he enjoys it. Baen authors have been known to laugh (a lot) when he walks up to an author who’s just signed onto Baen, sticks out a hand in greeting, and says “Hi, I’m Joe Buckley. How are you going to kill me?”

        …The real kicker wasn’t when Baen got a submission letter asking if they had to kill Joe Buckley in order to be published, it was when Joe Buckley first ran into an indie milscifi book wherein he’d been killed. The author, when contacted, confessed they didn’t know he was a real person; they just thought it was a standard MilSF trope.

      • Actually, Ryk Spoor did well by him in BOUNDARY and the sequels. He even got the girl. And a very fine girl he got.

        Of course, he got blown up, crashed landed twice, and had to ride with one of the worst drivers on earth, but he lived.

        Good story, btw.
        I’ve been known to recommend it. 😉

        • It’s free on Kindle. I clicked. Even though I’m supposed to be whittling down my very long to-read list. It looks like a fun ride and I could use the laughs.

    • *Sighs wistfully*

      It must be nice to have a sufficiently unusual name! If someone named a character for me, no one would ever know. *Sniff* *sniff* 😛

      • According to google there are five people in the us with my real first and last name, one other with the same middle initial, and only me with first, full middle, and last. I don’t know how I feel about it, except I will always use a pen name to publish.

  10. I admire the author for immediately helping the guy out by changing the name. We’ve seen so many “special snowflake” authors lately that when I read the headline, I expected another screed talking about how the author had the right to use whatever name his or her muse required and the real human should just accept it. I was very happy to see that this author was willing to give up a name he’s lived with for 6 years because it might have real-world implications for someone.

  11. Not sure I understand the part about how googling a name brings up a character in a yet-unpublished novel. It’s not like it would have a wikipedia entry.
    Did the guy perhaps find himself mentioned in an author blog-post where the author mentions the names of his characters? The author never explained that particular detail.

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