It’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.”... 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...
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______.”
I have to admit, I've been shameless about naming characters after people I know, so if I ever finish something I could be in trouble. Fortunately, my habit seems different from this in three ways.
1. I've never used full names, just mixed and matched first and last names.
2. 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 completely made up or named after fictional or historical characters. No one is going to care if a character is named after a common-sounding name from the Mayflower. And if any of my co-workers or friends of friends object to having parts of their names used, it would be fairly easy to change the three or four mentions of those characters to something else.
3. I've never been in danger of being published. Closest I've come to even finishing fiction since college is my experiment with NaNoWriMo. I don't really feel bad about not making that goal - November was busy in general, and of course, I got interrupted - but I do wish I'd done more since then. I've written about three pages since the end of November. My characters have literally and figuratively been stuck in a boring meeting.
The good news is, I think I've finally figured out how to get it moving, how to get from where they are to where I want them to be. Knock on wood.
Although, uh oh, this made me think of Googling my main character's name, and there might be only one person by that name in the country. Not as common as I thought.