I'm writing a crime/mystery YA novel and found that I accidentally gave my main character first and middle names from Mr. Darcy (the one from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice). My character's name is Fitzwilliam Darcy Claude Milton-Devereux, but for a large portion of the book, I first introduce him as Fitzwilliam Darcy Devereux. I've considered omitting either Fitzwilliam or Darcy from the name, but I've also wondered if it's possible to keep the name all the same without any issues, etc. You know what I mean. Thanks in advance for your help!
When using the name of a famous character, you want to consider two things.
1-Will people accuse you of stealing it?
Pride and Prejudice is from 1813, so copyright is no problem, but the book is famous. Will people who know the book take one look at this name and accuse you of stealing it?
Remember, there’s a difference between a reference and straight up copying. If I give my character the last name “Skywalker”, I might run into some issues but I can at least have some plausible deniability. “I’m just a Star Wars fan. It’s a reference. I’m not copying.”
Now let’s say that I name my character “Anakin Skywalker”. Can I still use the “it’s just a reference” argument now? I could, but it wouldn’t hold nearly as much weight. That’s a name which is very unique to the Star Wars franchise. Rather than coming up with my own unique name, all I’ve done is take a name someone else came up with and passed it off as my own.
Personally, I think it’s always good to come up with a unique name, but what if you really have a reference that you would love to implement? That’s where the second section comes into play.
2-What is the purpose of naming the character this?
Why are you referencing this particular work? Does it say something about the character or is it completely inconsequential?
If I name my character “Allison Wonderland”, then that’s a pretty clear reference to “Alice in Wonderland”, but what does that actually say about the character? Is she kind of goofy, strange, and almost like a Mad Hatter character, or is she sly and mysterious like the Cheshire Cat? Did her parents name her that because they happened to be fans of the series?
Names have meaning, so explicitly referencing a famous work should, at the very least, make sense. If my character is named “Kitty Cheshire”, she had better be someone who loves cats, has a great smile, and disappears faster than anyone realizes where she went. Every last facet of her character doesn’t have to rely on her name, but there should be a connection, otherwise, why name her that and not something else? If she’s a dog person, why name her Kitty when you could just name her Jane? Having a character named Kitty who hates cats and loves dogs only works if its used as irony.
My point is that when you are intentionally referencing the name of a character well-known in fiction, it should have a purpose. The character should have a strong enough relationship to the person they are referencing so that it justifies their name. When a character is named Zeus, the reader will expect them to have lightning powers. Naming a character Zeus and giving him fire powers makes the name kind of pointless.
So, should you choose to name your character after this person, make sure they have some deeper connection to justify having similar names.
Keep in mind: Pride and Prejudice was written in 1813. That's a little more than two hundred years in the past. No one's going to be 'offended' by this. Also, not as many people as you might think read the classics, and of those who do, only a fraction will notice the overlap of names. I wouldn't worry about it at all!
There are two issues to consider.
Trademark and copyright. Can someone sue you for stealing their character's name? In the case of "Pride and Prejudice", as others have pointed out, the copyright has long since expired, so this is not an issue in this example.
Reader reaction. Are readers going to say, "Oh brother, what a lazy author, he just steals a character from another writer"? If I read a book with a character named "Darth Vader", I would almost certainly think the writer was being lazy and trying to just steal all the connotations that come with that name from the movies.
In some contexts, it MIGHT be effective as an allusion to the original. Like if you had a story about a robot who comes to life and you named him "Frankenstein", readers might well interpret that as an allusion to the famous novel and not as stealing from it.
If your character has little connection to the original, it would likely just be confusing. I would not write a soft, pleasant romance where the mild-mannered man that the heroine falls in love with is named "Rambo".
All told, I would say don't copy someone else's character's name unless you have a very good reason and you are very sure that you know what you're doing, and how readers are likely to interpret it.
Yes. Why might that not be OK?
Since I've met several women named Wendy - an invention of JM Barrie in Peter Pan - nothing more should need to be said.
KRyan's example is clearly legitimate and remember, what happens in life needs no explanation; it just is.
What happens in fiction always needs explaining; else, why would an author take the time or space?
Naming a character Galadriel, with or without a hippie-and-Tolkien-fan mother, in and of itself means what, exactly?