Literary Doppelgängers

Feb 27 2013 @ 4:00pm

How does an author decide on a character’s name without stealing someone’s in real life? Having been contacted angrily by a person with the same name as a character in one of her books, Rebecca Makkai considers the conundrum:

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?

Wondering if authors steal too much from real life, she is comforted by another writer’s experience:

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.