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 find themselves in your novels, but others might.
To successfully sue, a plaintiff must prove that your fictional character is negatively based on her, and that your depiction 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 your 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? There aren’t any hard and fast rules 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. On the other hand, wouldn’t it be better to create an entirely new character?
Creating enough characters to inhabit a novel is easier if the writer is a people watcher. A good imagination is also a plus when you flesh out your characters so they're real to your readers. That's also true of names. 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. To avoid this, give your villains simple names such as Bob Smith, Joe Brown or Pat Wilson. If you’re unsure, there’s a website, “How Many of Me?” which lists how many people have a certain name. I also check with various people finders online to make sure no one has the name when I decide on an unusual one. I was surprised to learn that out of more than 312,000,000 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. Sometimes you can get away with stretching the rules. In my first mystery/suspense novel, A Village Shattered, I named one of my contemporary characters Elisibub because his southern parents named him for his great-grandfather, a Civil War captain. So everyone calls him “Bub.”
Writers can create some wonderful names for their characters by reading newspapers or the phonebook. I knew a western writer, Stanley Locke, who chose Ormly Gumfudgin as his pen name. I’ve also known people with unusual names such as Fayfern Dinkle, Damery Binkle, Wakley Peacock and Sissie Muddle, but I wouldn’t dream of using them in a novel. Like my 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 insert humor in my work, including my nonfiction books.
Male protagonists with names like Daniel, Michael, George and David seem to instill confidence in the reader that they will accomplish their goals or overcome a problem before the book’s conclusion. Female characters have an ever wider range of names and writers have been known to create some unusual ones. I prefer short, common names such as Dana, Sarah, James and Carole, which are characters in my latest novel. It’s only when I choose surnames that I'm creative.