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Is it legally OK that my character's name by coincidence matches someone's in real life, famous or not? (For example I am naming a character Aaron Hale.) The character's appearance and everything else is completely different. Probably a silly question but I can't find the answer anywhere so I'm kinda stuck.

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    You could straight-up write a real-life person into your book. I recently read a book involving Adam Baldwin, Chuck Norris, Joe Biden, and Barack Obama, to name a few, and it didn't paint all of them in a flattering light.
    – SethWhite
    Jul 7, 2017 at 21:47
  • I take it you haven't seen Office Space...
    – corsiKa
    Jul 7, 2017 at 23:03

8 Answers 8

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I have a friend whose name is Michael Jackson--to make things worse, he is African-American--and no one has sued him so far. But that is real life. When you a writing a story everyone would expect you to name your characters deliberately and expect no coincidences.

While legal implications of the problem are beyond my expertise, I would steer clear of the possible matches of such sort, because they will be perceived as intentional, but since it is virtually impossible to create a modern day name which is unused, a standard disclaimer "this is a work of fiction and all resemblances to real people, live of deceased, are purely coincidental." might be all you need.

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  • Ah dang, I need more sleep LOL I just posted an answer with the disclaimer you posted not seeing anyone else mentioning it. I deleted it now that I see you have it in as I didn't really do anything to add to what you mentioned about it.
    – ggiaquin16
    Jul 7, 2017 at 20:41
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    @ggiaquin Great minds think alike. :-)
    – Lew
    Jul 7, 2017 at 20:44
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    And there are some great variations, e.g. Douglas Adams' "...to any persons living, dead, or wandering the night in ghostly torment, is purely coincidental." (From memory; I may have altered the wording.)
    – Wildcard
    Jul 7, 2017 at 22:14
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How many Harry Potters do you think there are in the phone book? Or James Kirks? Literature would be full of some truly strange and wonderful names if no character could have a name borne by any real person.

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This is not a copyright issue. As others have mentioned, people can have all kinds of names.

However, it could become a character defamation issue. Suppose your "Aaron Hale" has obvious parallels with real Aaron Hale, and in addition to that, you gave some really bad traits to this character. Then prepare to get sued by the real Aaron Hale :)

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    Bizarre as it sounds, describing certain sufficiently weird and objectionable 'bad' traits might just reduce your risk of defamation suits in the first place. qv. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Small_penis_rule
    – origimbo
    Jul 8, 2017 at 3:25
  • @origimbo: I believe this is called "reverse psychology."
    – Tom Au
    Jul 9, 2017 at 8:30
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One of my favorite mystery writers kills off people who annoy her. Annoy her enough and you will end up the character who dies. Some have even auctioned off that right to be named after a character who dies.

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Legal questions aside ... Why would you want to? If you named a character in your story after some famous person, if you called him "Elon Musk" or "Eminem" or whatever, anyone reading your story is going to inevitable think of the famous person. If, in fact, your character has no connection to the famous person, this would just be confusing.

I'm sure there are many people who are famous in some circles, but you personally haven't heard of them, and if they have a common name, you might unintentionally use it.

There is, as far as I know, no law against using a famous person's name in a work of fiction. Big caveat though: If you portray the character as doing anything evil or disreputable, this could be construed as attempting to portray the real person as doing these things, which could be libel.

That said, there was a Jackie Chan movie, Shanghai Noon, about a Chinese person in the US in the 1800s where the (Chinese) hero is named Chon Wang, pronounced "John Wayne". (If the reference is too old for you, John Wayne was a very famous actor in cowboy moves in the 1950s and 1960s.) So yeah, it's been done.

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For just about every name, there are multiple people with it. Unless you use a completely made up name, there will be be real people with the same name as your character.

Now most of these real people with the same name will be rather different from each other. Your job is to make your character a different from each of these real people as any of them are from one another.

One of the advantages of using a common name such as John Smith is that unless you make your character almost exactly like one of the John Smiths, it will be hard to link your character to any one real person.

On the other hand, if you use an unusual name like Gavrilo Princip (a historical figure), even "broad" similarities might (wrongly) associate your character with a real one.

On a personal note, my first attempt at writing a novel at age nine, featured two women named Theresa Miller and Elizabeth Patterson in "A Telephone Call to Hollywood." Years later, I read in the news about a CEO named Theresa Patterson of a company called Frederick of Hollywood.

Another character I created at about the same time (late 1960s), was a blonde, 5' 4" French speaking woman named Marlene. I actually met such a person, decades later, in Geneva, Switzerland.

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If you choose to name your character after a real person, it is best to make sure that your character doesn't have similar characteristics/traits as that real person.

For instance, if you write something in your work that is potentially damning to the real person's character and some distinction could be made that your character is similar to that real person, you could get into trouble and that real person could claim your character was based on them and that what you wrote about could be defaming their character.

When creating a character, make sure that you make your character as unique as possible so no one else could claim your character is them. Make sure that when you are using your character, you don't use your character in situations that could be proven by news/media sources that may pertain to that real person. If your character has the name of a real person, it's always best to do a general search to see if that name pops up and what that name could be connected to. That's always been my best route to take in my writing.

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Names cannot be copyrighted, at least in the U.S. so as long as your character is distinct from their namesake, you are good to go. I share a name with a famous cowboy character who's name is also the title of the work he appears in. I was not named for the guy, but growing up, I got asked if I was named after the character. I wasn't (At least it was a cool character.).

Have the character make a passing reference to "Never heard that before" and move on.

That said, there are certain entertainment unions that have rules about having an original name, most notably the Screen Actor's Guild (SAG) has a rule that they cannot have names repeat on their rosters (I am unsure if the death of an actor clears the name off the list or not). Some very well known actors go by stage names because their real names are on the roster (or similar to another name on the roster) including Michael Keaton (born Michael John Douglas, similar to Michael Kirk Douglas and Mike Douglas.), Elizabeth Banks (Born Elizabeth Mitchell) and Michael J. Fox (Born Michael Andrew Fox. Michael Fox was on the list, and felt that his real name was going to get jokes of "Michael, a fox" hurled at him. The "J" doesn't stand for anything.). (Not all stage names are done for this reason in Hollywood. Nicholas Cage was born Nicholas Coppola, the nephew of the famous director Francis Ford Coppola. He changed his name to avoid accusations of Hollywood Nepotism being part of his success. Perhaps the most hilarious name change was that of Harpo Marx who in 1911 had his real name changed to Aurther Marx because he hated his birth name... Adolf Marx (Keep in mind, this was before the most famous "Adolf" was known to the world. Harpo just hated his given name and wanted to be rid of it because it was a terrible name.).)

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