Don’t Use Real Names in Your Writing!

I know that it’s very tempting to use real people in your books, and if it’s veiled well enough, there’s no  problem with it. But when you include real names of friends, family, or fans that you want to reward…don’t…just don’t

Most of the time it’s not veiled, and this is where the problem is.

Recently a fellow writer used my name without permission. They did not ask, I did not consent. They just went ahead and did it. I’m very uncomfortable with this. Your name is your first face to the world. It is a part of your identity. To have it used so flippantly is an insult, especially without permission.

Here are the problems with using someone’s name:

  1. By using a real person, you are no long in control of your character. Because you’re now linked to a real person, you’re under pressure to write the character in a certain way. You no longer have complete control of your character and their development, because of pressure to “get the character accurate.” Are you really willing to give up creative control because you weren’t clever enough to name the character on your own? Even if the person asks, you can still change the name so that they’re identity isn’t linked to the character. This gives you back some, but not all, control.
  2. You risk your friendship by portraying a person a certain way. What if they’re not happy with how you write them? It happens. I’m not saying that it always happens, but it does. Especially if you so without consent. You are rewriting their identity for the world.
  3. Character names are very important, and often make a great literary device. What does the name Huckleberry Finn tell you, even before you read? How about when paired with a name like Tom Sawyer? What about Daisy Fay Buchanan? What about Valentine Michael Smith (or Michael Valentine Smith, the constant reversal reinforces that he is human but also the Man From Mars)? By substituting a real name, you’re losing a chance to give a character extra depth.
  4. It’s often a cheap, shameless plug to get other people to read/promote your book.
  5. Petty writers will do this as vengeance against someone. That’s about as dick a move as you can get. Michael Crichton made a critic of his work a child rapist in one novel, reinforcing that he’s the king of assholes.

I admit, I have done this before. In my first novel, Song of Simon, my roommate asked me to put him in the book. I did, but I warned him that I altered his name, and made the character nothing like him. I wanted separation. Another friend asked as well, and I made her almost unrecognizable, so that she is the only one that knows.

In The Watchmage of Old New York, Jonas was originally patterned after my brother Scott. But this connection only existed in my head. Scott was the initial seed, but Jonas grew to be very different from him. Ten drafts of a book will do that. Because I didn’t use his name or description, there’s no connection. It also helps that my brother doesn’t read.

I never used their names. Names are public and private. Names are identity. Names have power, and you have no right to take that power.

Here’s an alternative: If you really want to let friends and family into the book, let them design a concept for a character. Don’t give up control of character growth, but let them plant the seed. I’ve done this for bit characters, and my friends haven’t complained to me…yet.

But I’m sure that eventually someone will. Especially if you use their real name. Don’t do it.

doge in space card redux

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2 thoughts on “Don’t Use Real Names in Your Writing!

    • A friend of mine wrote a semi-autobiographical novel based on her abusive marriage because her ex was slandering her on and off social media. She changed the names, but included screen shots of threatening emails and a picture of the shiv he made to kill her with (he was an ex-con, so had experience with this stuff. Even after all of that, and though the asshole deserves it, she still did her best to veil their identities.

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