Character’s name dilemma: what would you do?

The surname for one of my novel’s protagonists has recently become strongly associated (for many people, at least) with things I find reprehensible. Actually, reprehensible may be too mild a word…

I fought for years against all pressure to change this character’s name, though, back before this problem even existed. (Before the thing that inspired this problem existed.) Way back when, I was usually just told to change the spelling. Maybe that would be sufficient, except the spelling is important. It always has been. I don’t want to back down now. This character’s name is part of who he is. (He has resisted changing his name even when it would be, perhaps, safer for him to do so. When your name is all you have, you kinda want to hold on to it, right?) On the other hand, it would kill me if someone saw a novel  featuring this character and declared, Oh, this guy’s personality is obviously such-and-such — you can tell  just by his name.

Would you change a character’s name to avoid unintended association with something you didn’t like? (After all, it’s just a fictional person’s name — I can always just make up something new, or get rid of this character entirely if he’s too closely linked to the name I’ve given him.) Or would you stick to your guns and accept the inevitable unpleasant consequences?

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About Thomas Weaver

I’m a writer and editor who got into professional editing almost by accident years ago when a friend from university needed someone to copyedit his screenplay about giant stompy robots (mecha). Having discovered that I greatly enjoy this kind of work, I’ve been putting my uncanny knack for grammar and punctuation, along with an eclectic mental collection of facts, to good use ever since as a Wielder of the Red Pen of Doom. I'm physically disabled, and for the past several years, I’ve lived with my smugly good-looking twin Paul, who writes military science fiction and refuses to talk about his military service because he can’t. Sometimes Paul and I collaborate on stories, and sometimes I just edit whatever he writes. It's worked out rather well so far. My list of non-writing-related jobs from the past includes librarian, art model, high school teacher, science lab gofer… Although I have no spouse or offspring to tell you about, I do have six cats. (The preferred term is "Insane Cat Gentleman.") I currently spend my time blogging, reading, editing, and fending off cats who like my desk better than my twin’s.
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17 Responses to Character’s name dilemma: what would you do?

  1. I would change it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Can you elaborate on that?
      What would be your reason for changing it, as opposed to keeping it as-is?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I guess I’d ask myself if it were my personal vanity that makes me want to keep the name. If so, I’d change it. Readers who never met the character before won’t care what the name is. Some names are chosen for deliberate effect. Those are tougher to change, but if the new circumstance casts the effect in the wrong direction, I’d change it.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Rose F says:

    If it’s associated with a sex scandal or something, I would change it and alter the background accordingly. My characters have minds of their own and don’t do what I want them to all the time, but you are talking about a fictional person. Changing the name won’t mean the character loses his identity unless you say it does. I had to change the name of an important fixture in one of my stories because the name “Cullen” became…well…sparkly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The unpleasant association is only with another work of fiction.

      I have never done a Google search for real people with this character’s full name, but I’m absolutely certain they exist, as neither the first nor last name is in any way unusual. (That’s kinda the point.)

      Like

      • Rose F says:

        Well, if it’s only a connection for another work of fiction, then I guess it’s a question of how popular the other thing is. I use to be a lot more than to keep my characters names in fact, but then had to give up typing and I started using dictation software. Sometimes it’s not worth the headache.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. rachelloon says:

    Personally, I only ever change names as a last resort–if I find out the name didn’t actually exist in the time I’m writing or something like that; unless the name never really felt right in the first place, otherwise I can’t help but think of them by their original name. Not knowing exactly what you mean makes my advice-giving abilities limited (that and my lack of advice-giving abilities in general), but I’m tempted to say that a provocative name might increase a reader’s desire to get to know the character, to see how far he lives or doesn’t live up to it, or to find out if there’s an interesting story behind the name. What was it that that US Army private Adolf Hitler said during WW2, after all? “Ask the other guy to change /his/ [name].”? 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I once changed an important character’s name for similar reasons. I took a long time to find the new name, but when I did, the character embraced it as if it had always been his. I understand the loyalty and the perfect name and how that becomes tied up with identity. However, the associations, if negative, could pop a reader out of the story and impact the reader’s ability to connect. Or the reader may wonder why the author chose that name with its negative connotations. All of these detract from the reality/immersion in the story. I guess my recommendation is to search for that other perfect name and change it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I think the name should change. If your character’s name is Anthony Weiner, people will think of him as the kind of person who tweets pictures of his privates, regardless of what you write. Readers may even imagine his appearance and voice as matching the other person.

    But, I’m one of those people who will write an entire story with abbreviations like “MB” for mafia boss, then go back and replace the names later.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. The hardest thing I ever did was to change my main character’s name after the first draft! You write a whole story with one person and then change her name!

    Why? Because my writing partner pointed out the character’s name was too close to MINE. Not in general, but in the shortened, nickname version – my mother used to call me that. I didn’t like when my mother did it, but that was long ago. I don’t know why.

    Then, when I changed her name, I had to change her LAST name – because of something similar to your reason: the last name was too close to a famous character in a horror novel from a big-name author, when I used it with the new FIRST name.

    Ay, ay, ay – sometimes you just can’t win.

    Now it’s all settled, and my blog readers know her only by her name, and even my daughter understands why I picked the last name, it doesn’t matter much. There will be no further changes. I think.

    I also maintain a list of characters and characters’ initials. I think very hard when I add a new character. I don’t want the same initials OR similar names. If I already have ‘Judith,’ no character will be Jules, Julio, or Judy. If I catch myself having done something like that, I change the more minor of the characters asap.

    I feel your pain – but the end results may require that you take the hit.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Alex Hurst says:

    You have to do what works for the story. I had one character undergo a GENDER change in a new reiteration of a story, because it worked better that way. Names change a lot, too… but, if you think it’s really that important, then it’s essential to the story, so no, don’t change it.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Mei-Mei says:

    I would find it extremely difficult to change a name once I’d set on it. I think I mentioned once before, I named a character Tesla 15 years ago before I knew who Tesla was, but now I can’t change her name because she’s Tesla.
    At the same time, though, aren’t we supposed to “kill our darlings” to make the story better? 😉 And if it were a matter of getting my book published or something, I’m sure I’d make myself change it.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I would change it. You’d be getting rid of a potentially damaging situation for your story, and who knows? Maybe a new name will open up new, beneficial writing opportunities. Changing some characters’ names in my first novel did that for me. Here’s a post about my character-naming dilemmas: http://wp.me/p30cCH-24

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I’d change the name unless you have some highly compelling reason why THAT name and no other will do the job for the character. Stick and stones may break my bones, but names will keep hurting me long after the bones have knitted.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Hannah G says:

    I’d probably change it. You have a limited amount of control over the reader’s impressions and associations… If you KNOW they’re going to think of something you don’t want them to think of, change the name. Exercise the control you do have to keep the focus on your story, not somebody else’s.

    Of course, if you can use the reference to deepen the story rather than detract from it, by all means do so.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Pingback: Commentition Joyful June 2015 | I Read Encyclopedias for Fun

  13. Sheron says:

    I’ve had to change several names of my characters. An editor said no to a character named Shepherd, pointing out that he was a famous character in Firefly. What? I did make the change and found another name that worked.

    Actually, in my lifetime, my own name has varied depending on the situation. I used the nickname Sherry as a child, but thought it too frivolous for a serious stockbroker, so it became my birth name, Sheron. My husband then changed it again…and I survived. So If it benefits the story and you can find an alternate name, I would change it while you can. The character may thank you. For once you’re published, then you’re set in stone with only regrets or relief.

    Liked by 1 person

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