If you will be in the Boston area on July 6, please stop by Borders Back Bay, 511 Boylston Street, at 12:30 pm. Career advisor and radio host Mel Robbins will interview me as part of her Live at Borders: Advice for Living program.
Dear Dr. O'Doherty,
I gave the characters in my novel names that seemed right for them, and now that it has been published
people are mad at me. One of my friends thinks a dog in the story has a name too much like her dog's name. One of them told me I had stolen something that was personal and hers because one minor character has her late mother's first name, and this has truly damaged our friendship. Yet, another friend reminded me that I had forgotten my promise made a very long time ago to include her name in some way if my novel were ever published. She had eagerly turned every page hoping to find her name tucked into the story in one way oranother, only to reach the last page in disappointment. What's a novelist to do?
-- No Name, Please
Dear No Name:
Cognitive psychologists have documented the "cocktail party phenomenon," the near-universal ability to filter out competing stimuli in order to register the mention of our own name or other personally significant information. This was apparently our cave dwelling ancestors' version of Google, and it remains a useful tool for discovering that everyone hates your new haircut, that your roommate is sleeping with your boyfriend, and other information you are assumed to be too far away or distracted to overhear.
The mechanism doesn't work perfectly, and, as self-referential creatures, we are more likely to make "false positive" errors than "false negative" ones--that is, we're more prone to interpret ambiguous information as pertaining to us than to dismiss actual references to us as coincidence. We're also, as a group, more likely to interpret ambiguous information in the most negative light possible.
I haven't read any studies on this, but I imagine that this phenomenon operates even more intensely when we already have a personal connection to the setting. For example, I'm more likely to tune in when someone mentions "Sue" at a friend's party than when I hear it in Times Square.
Your friends' assumption that you have appropriated their personal information is thus natural and expectable, though, of course, it is uncomfortable for you. Even if you were to scour your next work for personal associations and purge from it any reference to anyone you have ever known (which would be a terrible idea because of course you draw on your fund of experience to write your novels), it wouldn't work. Somebody somewhere would find, or create, a connection, and would take offense.
Try explaining to these friends that your intent was to create a complete fictional world--but that to do this, a writer needs to use any and all available resources (short of libel or plagiarism, but obviously that is not the issue here). It might help to liken the process to the way a painter might incorporate a friend's feet or facial contours in a depiction of an imaginative or historical scene, or a choreographer might make use of a loved one's familiar hand gesture in a dance. These are not references to the actual individual; they are attributes the artist recognizes as useful to the work in some way and adopts without regard to their real-life origins. If your friends are not artists themselves, this may be difficult to comprehend at first, but with goodwill and patience on both sides things should settle down.
Your promise to include your old friend's name, on the other hand, created the expectation of insider status, of a shared in-joke. Of course she was disappointed--it's as if you had promised to single her out at a party or to stand on a corner of Times Square and call her name, and then stood her up. I urge you to rectify this omission in your next novel. A promise is a promise, even if it's made in kindergarten.
Susan O'Doherty, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with a New York City-based practice. A fiction writer herself, she specializes in issues affecting writers and other creative artists. Her book, Getting Unstuck Without Coming Unglued: A Woman's Guide to Unblocking Creativity, has been shipped and will be available in bookstores later this month. Send your questions to her at Dr.Sue at mindspring dot com