Friday, April 3, 2015

Creating Novel Characters

by Jean Henry Mead

Some of us are tempted to create characters based on people we know. And that's fine as long as you don’t describe them accurately. Your relatives probably won’t sue if they discover themselves in your books, but others might.

To successfully sue, a plaintiff must prove that your fictional character is negatively based on her, and has injured her emotionally, financially or socially. It’s safer to write about a public figure or someone deceased, although their relatives can sue for defaming them posthumously. To avoid lawsuits, disguise characters in ways to make them unrecognizable. That includes physical appearances as well as mannerisms. By combining the traits of one person with another, you'll have a unique character.

How much disguise is necessary? No hard and fast rules exist but merely changing a person’s name will not keep you out of court. The only safe way to avoid litigation is to change the character’s name, sex, age, occupation and appearance. In other words, create an original character.

Fleshing out characters so that they become real to readers is as important as giving them appropriate names. But you have to be careful what you name your villains because someone with the same name may take offense and claim to have been libeled. So give villains simple names such as Bob Smith, Joe Brown or Pat Wilson. If you’re unsure, there are websites such as "How Many of Me?" which list how many people have a certain name. I also check with various people finders online to make sure that no one has the name when I decide on an unusual one. I was surprised to learn that out of more than 320,000,000 people in this country, no one else has my name.

Character names are important because they conger up images in a reader’s mind. You wouldn’t name a contemporary character Ebenezer any more than you would call a Roman Emperor Mike. In my first mystery/suspense novel, A Village Shattered, I called one of my contemporary characters Elisibub because his southern parents named him after his great-grandfather, a Civil War captain. Everyone called him “Bub.”

Writers can find appropriate names for their characters by reading the newspaper, baby name books or the phone book. I once knew a humorous western writer, Stanley Locke, who chose Ormly Gumfudgin as his pen name. I’ve also known people with unusual names like Fayfern Dinkle, Damond Binkley, Wakley Peacock and Sissie Muddle, but I wouldn’t dream of using them in a novel. Like my own name, they’re one of a kind, but that doesn't stop me from tweaking them a little and coming up with Wilber Birdsnest, Damer Winkle and Fannie Dinkley. I like to include humor in my work, including my nonfiction books.

Male protagonists with names such as Daniel, Michael, George and David seem to instill confidence in the reader that they are capable of accomplishing their goals or overcoming a problem before the novel's conclusion. Female characters have an even wider range of names and writers have been known to create some unusual ones. I prefer short, common names such as Dana, Sarah, Kerrie and Rosita, all characters in my latest novel, Murder at the Mansion. It’s only when I choose surnames that I'm creative.


Bill Kirton said...

Interesting reflections as usual, Jean. I have to say that there's no risk of me being sued for basing a character on a real person because I just can't do it. I tried once but the real person kept getting in the way. He stopped my character doing things he wanted to do so, in the end, the character escaped and became himself.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I understand, Bill. I wrote about a humorous character in my first novel, Escape, a Wyoming Historical novel, and later met his great niece, whom I was afraid would sue me for portraying her uncle as an alcoholic horsethief, which he was. I also wrote about Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch, after many years of research, and found the experience enjoyable because I learned so many unpublished facts about them.

Bill Kirton said...

I remember enjoying reading it, Jean.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Thanks, Bill. I've enjoyed your work a well.

Jackie King said...

Thanks Jean, for this excellent post on characterization. Very helpful.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Thanks for the kind words, Jackie.