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I drafted a book two years ago that I'm now polishing to publish. When I drafted it, for speed's sake, I named one of my primary characters after an old school friend who I'm still in contact with on Facebook. The character's personality isn't him (though he does look a lot like him), I've just used his name. Let's call him Bob Snow.

I don't know whether this happens to other writers out there, but after living with this character through several drafts, he has thoroughly become Bob Snow.

I've tried, over and over, to rename him to Jim Snow, Bob Potts, any number of iterations and new names, but none of them fit because he has become a real person to me. It feels like your best mate saying, I've changed my name by deed poll and you need to call me FlameBoy from now on.

Every beta reader has LOVED this character, he's a really good guy, so there are no issues with defamation. And I'm sure, if I asked Bob's permission, he would probably be flattered. It's a thriller series with 3 books in the offing, so Bob will show up a lot.

Are there possible bumps down the road that I can't see?

Has anyone else faced such a dilemma?

FOR CLARIFICATION (AFTER SOME COMMENTS BELOW): "Let's call him Bob Snow." seems to be causing some confusion. His name isn't Bob Snow, I just used that as an example to keep his real name out of this post. For clarity: I don't just want to use his first name. If that were the case, I wouldn't worry. I want to use his full name.

The character is a Muslim, Indian man. That complicates things because, I can't just change his surname to any Indian surname, it has to be, specifically, an Indian, Muslim surname that fits perfectly with his first name, otherwise I could have backlash from readers asking why he has a Muslim first name and a Christian surname.

Without this added complication, a world of name combinations would be open to me. But, my options are partially limited.

  • Your question is a bit unclear, what kind of bumps are you afraid of? What could possibly go wrong because of giving a character a specific name? – Bella Swan Mar 7 at 10:30
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    Too off-topic for an answer, but an internet search should also be a formal part of naming a character – with an eye for where else the name has been used (politicians, actors, other fiction) and how easily someone could find your book knowing the character's name but not the book title. – wetcircuit Mar 7 at 12:10
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    @wetcircuit as in, you think it's an advantage if people could find my book knowing the character's name but not the book title? His name gets 96 results on Google, mostly because he's "famous" in the small circle of underwater photographers. – GGx - Reinstate Monica Cellio Mar 7 at 13:49
  • @BellaSwan I have no idea what bumps I could encounter by naming a character after a real person (defamation if I accidentally say something out of turn about him - though I don't plan on doing that), hence asking the question. I'm wondering if other writers will say, "I named a character after my best mate and it all went horribly wrong when XYZ happened." I can't see XYZ in the road ahead, so I'm turning to more experienced writers who may have hit bumps that I can't even imagine at this point. – GGx - Reinstate Monica Cellio Mar 7 at 13:52
  • This question qualifies for our contest, in case you want to enter. – Monica Cellio Mar 7 at 15:11
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From a literary standpoint, having to change a character name is kind of an hard choice to make.

Names, rare or common as they may be, tend to stick to the character. You have gotten used to "Bob Snow", any other thing will seem downright strange.

As testimonied by Taserface in Guardians of the Galaxy vol.2:

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I'm not qualified to give you legal advice on the matter - IANAL applies - but the best option would seem ask your friend for permission. You may want to have him give you written permission, e.g. in an email.

Also, consider how much the name is uncommon. There are a million of John Smiths, but far fewer Robert Downey Jrs. The more peculiar the name, the more it will be tied to your friend image; the more you may want to change it to be on the safe side.

To be fair, even if it seems uncomfortable now, a character name is mostly a matter of habit. Switching from Bob Snow to Jim Snow can seem impossible now, but it will fit with the character, in time.

After all, Frodo Baggins was called Bingo Baggins in earlier drafts for Tolkien's the Lord of the Rings.

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    thank you, these are good points, particularly about written permission, and prevalence. He's Indian and it's a common name there, but he's "famous" in the underwater photography world so he dominates Google when you search on his name. I know what you mean about Frodo, changing it is by far the easier option, but I've lived with his new name for a year of editing and every time I read it, it still feel downright strange. It is completely ingrained - hence asking the question. Thanks again! – GGx - Reinstate Monica Cellio Mar 7 at 13:33
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    @GGX You may want to speak to a lawyer about this before going to your friend. Consider that asking for written permission to use his name is also admitting that you named the character after him (you also mentioned the character "looks like him" - in cover artwork?) IANAL, but that might open a door for him to ask for a cut of the royalties. Whatever written agreement you get with your friend, you might want to ensure it defines how much (if anything) he's entitled to, just in case your book becomes an international best seller. – Steve-O Mar 7 at 14:40
  • @Steve-O heavens, I hadn't even thought of that. And of course it's going to be an international best seller! Ha ha! As for looking like him ... not in artwork, no, he'll never be on a cover, he's not a protagonist, purely in character descriptions. Thanks - I'll post on the law stack and see what comes back. – GGx - Reinstate Monica Cellio Mar 7 at 14:49
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    @GGx He's only the top result on Google until your book takes off and everyone is Googling your characters instead. – corsiKa Mar 8 at 5:07
  • @corsiKa ahhh, the stuff of dreams, eh? It's a lovely thought, thank you! – GGx - Reinstate Monica Cellio Mar 8 at 8:10
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I don't think reader's necessarily like characters for their names. It is true that the poetry of some names seem to imply more altruistic, or harmless, or villainous intent. Frodo Baggins just doesn't sound like a villain, neither does Galadriel, but the Balrog sounds threatening, and Grima (aka Wormtongue, but that is a little on-the-nose) does not sound like a love interest.

But that said, I think there are an infinite number of names that will ring true and will fit for your hero and what you wish to convey. "Snow" as a poetic concept evokes purity, as do many other naturally bright white objects, including about 50 white flowers. In the 1800s Europe a wreath or string of white orange blossoms was once a very common part of a (wealthy) bride's wedding outfit, as a symbol of her purity; if they weren't in season they were made of silk.

"Bob" is a very common name, and a nickname for the more formal "Robert," so "Bob Snow" is evoking a common, casual person that is nonetheless very pure of heart. That doesn't mean they can't be special or heroic, it just means they don't present themselves to the world that way. So if they are special, they are also being non-pretentious and friendly by inviting others to call them "Bob," instead of, say, "Kingslayer".

Perhaps that personality matches your character.

To return to my opening, name choice is important, but you have alternatives, once you recognize the poetry involved. I don't think readers will care, the character's name is just a hint (which you can preserve with a different name), it is the character's actions that truly define them for the reader, and what those actions imply about the character's inner life and thinking (which may also be exposed by your writing) is why they love that character. Or in the case of a villain, hate them.

I think it is a mistake to name a character after somebody you know. It puts restrictions on you for future adventures. What if you need to kill Bob Snow? What if you need to turn him to the dark side? What if he has to do something repellent to save the world? What will your friend think about that? Will you have arguments about what "Bob Snow" would or wouldn't do? Will you always have to write "Bob Snow" in a way that meets with the approval of your friend? Even if you get permanent permission from him for all future works, all of the above is still possible, lest you create resentment in your friend for portraying "him" in a bad light. He may identify with your character.

I'd find a different name. Use your imagination, that is a writer's job.

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    Amadeus, your points are helpful as always. His name isn't really Bob Snow, hence saying, "Let's call him Bob Snow." I didn't want to put his name in here. You are right on all points, and I have used my imagination to come up with an alternative that, I totally agree, readers won't have a problem with at all. However, I have a problem with it. It feels downright strange to me to call him by anything else. His name does have this beautiful alliteration that sounds kind and honest, fitting his character like a glove. – GGx - Reinstate Monica Cellio Mar 7 at 13:43
  • Fortunately, he isn't my protagonist and won't go on a journey of change. He'll remain staunch and true throughout the entire series, so while this is a very, very good point that you make, I can't see that becoming a problem in this instance. I would never want to change him. All good things to think about though. Thanks. – GGx - Reinstate Monica Cellio Mar 7 at 13:44
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Ask Bob for his approval. This is the easiest and fastest way to clear this up.

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    Thanks Mike, if nobody on here comes up with obvious problems as to why I can't do it, I'll just get his written permission and go with it. He's such a lovely character -- every one of my female readers has said they're a little in love with him -- so I think (hope) he'll be flattered by his fictional self! – GGx - Reinstate Monica Cellio Mar 7 at 13:46
  • Sounds like a plan. Good luck with it @GGx – MikeRoger Mar 7 at 15:08
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The other answers talk about how you can approach keeping the name, if you choose to do so. I'll chime in by saying the alternative isn't as bad as it seems.

I have used my imagination to come up with an alternative that, I totally agree, readers won't have a problem with at all. However, I have a problem with it. It feels downright strange to me to call him by anything else.

I've actually been in Bob's position before where my friend wrote a character based off of me. I was fine with it, but in the editing stage she changed the name anyway. It was weird for us at first, like you say, but readers were still able to identify with the character having only ever known the new name.

A few years out and three books in, the character has fully taken on a personality of their own and the name change doesn't feel as weird anymore. My friend and I remember the original name and that shared secret is good enough for us.

So if you do opt to change the name, yes it'll feel weird right away, but down the road you'll get accustomed to it. And it freed up my friend to do horrible and tragic things to that character as the story warranted.

  • Thanks Troyen, I really appreciate hearing how it played out in real life - that's what I was hoping for, writers who have actually been through the experience, for good or bad. I think, in future, I'll stop using friends' names in drafts. I do it out of laziness and speed, thinking, I'll come up with a better name later. I didn't anticipate how hard one would stick. I know I should think about my readers - they are the only important people in this scenario - I just wish I could get comfortable with another name. I will seriously consider the change based on your experience. – GGx - Reinstate Monica Cellio Mar 8 at 8:16
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There was a classic Hungarian writer (I forgot which one, my guess is Móricz), who liked someone's name, and wanted to use it for one of his characters. That was a negative one though, so he chose to "licence" it from the guy.

In this case, you should simply ask your friend, I'm sure he would agree, as he plays a positive role. There is a chance he might feel uncomfortable, in that case just change it!

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    Thanks Nyos, I'll look into the background on that. So far, nobody has suggested any really negative effects of doing it, so I probably will just be getting permission. – GGx - Reinstate Monica Cellio Mar 8 at 8:12
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When it comes down to names, this is a tricky subject. I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice, but while you probably could get away with using his name, you probably shouldn't (without written permission). If people find out who you are (assuming you use a nom de plume) and that you know a Bob Snow in real life, then if your work becomes popular, you can expect him to get harassed by YOUR fans which, flattering or not, would be extremely annoying especially when people see he is nothing like your fictional character and get annoyed at him for not meeting their expectations.

Without his express written permission, this may open you up for various lawsuits including the unlawful usage of his likeness. By getting his permission in writing, however, you should be absolved of most risks so long as you don't do anything that could actively cause negative effects on the real Bob Snow and his reputation.


That said, I'd personally recommend changing the name. It doesn't need to be a large change either.

"Bob" could become "Rob", "Robert", "Robin", "Bobert", "Bobo", "Bubbles", and so many other things while still keeping the core sound.

"Snow" could become "White", "Frost", "Flake", "Glace" (as in "glacier"), and so forth.

While I get "Bob Snow" was a stand-in substitute, instead of trying to change the name DRASTICALLY, just change it to something that is still similar, just different.

  • Sora, thank you - I hadn't thought of that either! This was exactly why I posted the question, I knew there would be potential bumps I hadn't considered. Fans can be a little crazy, it's true!! – GGx - Reinstate Monica Cellio Mar 8 at 15:57

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