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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About Rebecca Makkai

Rebecca Makkai is the author of the novel THE BORROWER (Viking, 2011) and numerous short stories, four of which have been anthologized in THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES series. Her second novel, THE HUNDRED-YEAR HOUSE, will be out in the summer of 2014. She teaches at Lake Forest College, Sierra Nevada College, and StoryStudio Chicago, and is the recipient of a 2014 Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her website is http://www.rebeccamakkai.com, and she tweets at @rebeccamakkai.
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20 Responses to When Characters Attack

  1. Madison says:

    Loved this :) I can sympathize with wanting to reply to spam messages – sometimes they are almost too hilarious to ignore/delete! It’s also curious to think that I have been “stealing” all this time, but I don’t disagree with the term at all (and it actually makes me feel a little more badass).

    • I think all we need to do is add strategic line breaks to those spam messages, and they’ll become instant poems. And I always smile at how often the spammers reference their cousins. (“My cousin is turn me on to this most accurate blog site.”) Whatever Malaysian city produces all these messages must be full of lovely cousins, sharing useful websites with each other.

  2. So, if I can get a million writers to use my name and pay me twenty-three hundredths of a cent, how much would I get?

    Very cute essay. Keep up the good work. I can’t wait to read the next novel. You are welcome to come back to the Cape of Dreams while on your book tour.

    • The funny thing is I’ve heard of the inverse, too: Authors auctioning off naming rights in a novel for charity. (e.g., If you donate $200, the restaurant where the guy proposes will be named after you.) But I like your plan. That’s around 2,500 dollars, if my math is right! (Minus the travel expenses involved in hunting down a million authors…)

  3. This post is both scary and hilarious! I loved it. It reminds me of the character Michael Bolton in the movie “Office Space.” When asked why he doesn’t go by Mike, he says, “Why should I change? He’s the one who sucks.”

  4. Rebecca Meacham says:

    I love this post, and it terrifies me, too. My novel-in-progress is about a real event, and two of the three plotlines center around real people with real names, long dead. One imagined life is a mildly unflattering to the person, and I thought that family tree had ended, but just discovered yesterday that no, there are great-grandchildren out there. What to do? Your post is the dose of courage I need to move forward with the story I want to tell (but I promise, I won’t quote you in any future depositions…) Thanks for writing it.

    • Rebecca, That’s the kind of thing in-house lawyers at publishing houses (at least the big ones) can help you navigate, too. I think it’s always so much better to worry about those things after the book is done… We have enough to worry about with just getting the words on the page! Good luck with your project. (I want to know who it’s about now!)

  5. John says:

    Interesting. I mentioned to some online blog friends whom I know casually I was planning on writing a novel based on all of them. Everyone is totally reimagined; names based on their online personas. One, a lawyer, wrote back, “I foresee you being the subject of a class action lawsuit, should you write a novel based on us. Jussayin’.”

    • John, That’s the difference, really: If you “base” a novel on someone real and still living (especially if you’ve stated this in writing), you’re setting yourself up for trouble. Names are a different story. If we had to come up with recognizable names that no human shared, all literary characters would be named things like Mohammed Ramirez O’Leary.

  6. Rebecca Downey says:

    http://www.olchefski.com/

    Hi. Enjoyed your article. I am attaching the website of another Olchefski, only spelled differently, but I’m sure they’re all related some how. I heading back into my latest novel to look at all of the names. Too late for the first book which is just being published. Yikes!

    • Oh, that’s wild… It looks like she’s from St. Paul, too! (And don’t you dare look up the names from the first book if it’s too late to change them — you’re much better off not knowing if your hero shares a name with a Kardashian boyfriend!)

  7. John says:

    People base novels on people they are known to have known all the time. Devil Wears Prada for example…I never hear of anything. Only when the name and depiction coincide.

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  9. Cyrus says:

    Interesting. I’ve been shameless about naming characters after people I know, but it seems different from this in three ways: (a) never full names, just mixing and matching first and last names, (b) the more important to the story the character is, the less important the person has been to me, and vice versa, and the biggest characters’ names are named after fictional or historical characters or completely made up, and (c) I’ve never been in danger of being published. (Closest I’ve come to even finishing fiction since college is over 80 pages written during National Novel Writing Month, but I didn’t make the deadline for several reasons, and that story has progressed at a crawl since then.) I hope I some day get to the point where this is a problem for me.

    • Cyrus,
      I think the hard part is that almost all of us work for so long under conditions of total anonymity — writing things that don’t get finished, or won’t get published — that it’s a really touch paradigm shift to realize you’re actually writing for the public, that people could have a problem with something you’ve said or borrowed. I’ve been publishing for nine years now, and I still, every time, have a moment of “Hold up. Oh my god, my DAD is going to see this!”

  10. Edward says:

    Only slightly tangentially related, but I just happen to be reading Stephen Fry’s Moab is my Washpot, in which he writes, “Like many writers I tend to use local place names as fictional surnames and the surnames of people I know as fictional place names.” He also relates how very put out he was when a Monty Python sketch named a character after the same Norfolk village that he himself had used for a character name years before.

    • I love it. I might do a post at some point about my obsession with baby name books (which is a little less weird now than when I was 17…). I have a bunch, and I always think I’m going to use them for picking names, but then I always end up writing at Starbucks. I can’t count the number of times I’ve looked frantically around Starbucks for a name, seen the Kenya poster, and gone, “Hey, I’ll name her Kendra!” One day I’ll release a story collection where every single character is named Kendra Venti Pike.

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