When Characters Attack

scorpionIt’s eerie to open your email and find a message from one of your characters. It’s downright surreal when he threatens to sue you.

A few years ago, I published a story in Tin House which (for reasons that should be clear later) I’ll refer to here just as “Peter T_____, Falling Apart.” The story had five different working titles, but it was when I lent it the name of a main character that the piece finally came together for me. As always, I Googled the name. Not to ensure there were no real Peter T______s in the world—it’s very hard to find reasonable names that no one’s ever had—but so I wouldn’t make the mistake of naming him after some football player known to everyone but me. (Years ago, working on a Romanian musician character, I’d scoured online lists of Romanian names till I found the perfect one. My husband cracked up reading the draft and explained that, for any reader over 35, calling a musician Zamfir was the equivalent of calling him Kenny G.) When I searched for Peter T_____, all I found was a doctor in Seattle and a graduate student. No ‘70s basketball star, no one a Kardashian had dated. So I moved forward.

Shortly after the story appeared, I received a lovely email from a young man in Portland, Oregon named Peter T_____ (one letter off from my character, but pronounced the same). His friend had spotted the story in Tin House, and Peter wanted to know how I’d come up with the name. He added, “I’ve never been part of the ‘all persons fictitious disclaimer,’ but now I feel like I can check another item off from my lifetime to-do list!” We exchanged a few more notes, and I sent him a signed copy of my novel, which he actually (bless him!) read.

And then last summer, another note in my inbox from Peter T_____. I was so happy to hear again from this very pleasant Portland resident that I didn’t notice the difference: This Peter’s surname was spelled exactly the same as my fictional Peter’s. In a story, I’d tone down the following for believability; but what follows is the verbatim email: “i thoought when you write a novel all people whom have that name should be notified before writing a novel for the people won;t sue you for infringe ments on said name. and also royalties there are three of us left with the name peter t______.”

So the poor guy had Googled himself, and, instead of links to his small business, up had popped some literary fiction about a gay actor in Chicago. (The story had been anthologized by this point, and unfortunately the Google algorithm had decided my imaginary Peter was a more relevant search result than the real guy.) I almost understood his logic: If I can’t open a restaurant and call it Burger King, why can I sell a story using this man’s name, a name that is also the name of his business?

I wanted, very badly, to write him back. (I have the same urge to answer all the spam that comes to my website. “I am so glad this is information you are search many month for! No, I will not buy your discount Uggs.”) But my agent told me I shouldn’t engage. My mother found his Facebook profile and was alarmed that the background photo was just one large gun. One of my friends questioned what it meant that there were only three of them left. What had happened to the others? Had he taken them out for infringing on his name?

And so I did nothing. Actually, I did the math. I calculated what I’d owe each person named David Smith  if I wrote a story called “David Smith Sails the Seas,” presuming I sold it for $200 (probably no “royalties” on this short story, unless, you know, both Oprah and Miramax came calling) and presuming there are about 73,000 David Smiths living in the world. Subtracting 15% for my agent, and saving nothing for myself, I would owe each of those men twenty-three hundredths of a cent. And I’m just saying: shredding pennies is muscle work.

It can’t be pleasant to have your name and searchability hijacked (pity the world’s second most popular Justin Bieber), especially by someone fictional. I thought with compassion of the Bridget Joneses of the world, the Charlotte Simmonses, the entire Everythingravagedeverythingburned family.

Sometimes I feel the writer approaches the world a bit vampirically. We steal and draculaeavesdrop, we enter into certain situations and friendships just so we can write about them. We’re takers. And here I was, thoughtlessly taking someone’s name. (Even if he was a jerk. Even if I’d pay to see him laughed out of a lawyer’s office.)

Then my friend John Reimringer cheered me up. He told me that seeking a Polish surname for a character in his novel Vestments, he’d borrowed his neighbor’s, Olchefske. After the book was published, he got an email from a woman across the city, asking where he’d gotten the name. It’s rare, it turns out, an unusual spelling. And it turned out that the woman and his neighbor were long-lost cousins. John put them in touch, and thus the two branches of the Olchefske family of St. Paul were reunited.

Okay, so we take and take and take. We mooch and we leach and betray. But only to give something back. If we’re very lucky, one reader out there will pick up a story and recognize herself. If not her soul, if not her secrets, maybe just her name. And maybe that will be enough to absolve us. If we don’t get sued first.

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