Question on names in plays / TV / etc

I was reading this thread and got to wondering: how careful do playwrights / producers / authors / etc have to be when naming characters?

Consider the case when a nasty character in the work has the same or very similar name as someone whose name IRL is unusual or even unique. Imagine calling some villain Winston Spencer Churchill! What if there had been correspondence between the named person and the author?

Well, they do that disclaimer — this is a work of fiction, any similarity between these characters and real individuals is completely coincidental, etc.

I’m sure authors and playwrights do take some care when inventing names, because an important part of crafting a character would be to ensure his name has the right associations for the reader.

Well, there’s this bit of trivia from A Day at the Races:

well, I remember in my high school Reading & Writing Fiction class, there was a rule that we could not use the first or last names of anybody in the class in our stories. There was a class roster list (with about 25 names) passed out so that we could doublecheck.

Since I can’t settle this, I’ll just share two stories.

I’ve heard of a few cases like that. A retired hockey player named Tony Twist (great name!) successfully sued Todd McFarlane for naming a Spawn character after Twist - but that’s not exactly the same as a character coincidentally having the name as a real-life person. Twist is also a public figure and his suit claimed that McFarlane was profiting from his image.

The writers of the Simpsons named Armin Tamzarian after a real person - a lawyer who worked for the show, I think - and there were legal issues there. I think they needed the real Tamzarian to sign a waiver so they could use the name.

Considering the number of names in fiction and the number of names in the world - and especially considering so many made-up names tend to be “non-offensive” white bread names - you have to assume that the overlap is significant.

Because it is so likely that a name you pick out of the air will be the real name of some person somewhere - the news just had a story about a 78-year-old man named Harry Potter who keep getting phone calls from kids - authors have a great deal of protection under ordinary circumstances.

There are a few areas in which problems may arise. One is where a real person is used in such a way that anybody reasonably acquainted with the name can make the connection. That link doesn’t show it, but there were many more correspondences between the real Tony Twist and the comic Tony Twist and also with Todd McFarland who is not at all coincidentally a big hockey fan. He made Twist a villain, going almost out of his way to create a problem. This is a highly unusual case therefore.

A second is the use of any prominent figure in California, which has a law unlike that in any other state giving celebrities control over their images.

BTW, the brilliant Sheila Kuehl played the brainy Zelda on the Dobie Gillis Show before taking a law degree and becoming a state senator.

The third problem stems from knowingly using names of people as villains. That’s hard to justify if it can be shown that the artist knew the name ahead of time. I believe a defamation charge could be a remedy.

Except in California if the new bill goes through, it is impossible to libel the dead. And the accidental putting together of a first and last time without any awareness that such a combo occurred in the real world will get almost anyone out of a jam, unless you happen to name the Antichrist Bernard Francis Law or anything close to that and try to claim it was sheer coincidence that a Catholic Cardinal just happens to have the same name.

As with many things, therefore, being a deliberate asshole will likely catch up to you in a most unpleasant way. Being unlucky will give rise to more of a short apology. Being lucky means that nobody will ever notice or care.

Most interesting!