Most writers have done it at some point in their careers. Fan-fic writers do it quite often. Most authors will even admit to doing it if asked and pressed for an honest answer. I’m talking, of course, about Tuckerization, the practice of naming characters in fictional works after real-life persons. The practice is named for early American science-fiction author, fan, and fanzine editor Wilson Tucker, who earned a reputation for basing minor characters in his stories and novels on his friends and colleagues in the literary community.
Write Who You Know
In the majority of instances of Tuckerization, the namesake is someone the author either knows personally or with whom he or she is at least acquainted. This is what differentiates Tuckerization from simple homage. For instance, in the 1968 novel Black Easter by James Blish, the author named his story’s sorcerer Theron Ware as an homage to the titular character of Harold Frederic’s novel The Damnation of Theron Ware, which was published in 1896. Because of the thematic overlap of the two stories, this is a classic example of homage.
By contrast, the second and subsequent seasons of the CW television series iZombie feature an FBI missing-persons investigator named Dale Bozzio. Not only is this a Tuckerization, because Dale Bozzio is a real person, it’s also a wonderful in-joke for fans of early 1980s pop music: the real Dale Bozzio was the lead singer of new-wave band Missing Persons.
Now and then, I name and model a character after someone I know simply to save time: it’s easier to work from memory than to concoct a whole new person from scratch for what might amount to no more than a single appearance.
Honor vs. Revenge
There are as many reasons for Tuckerizations as there are authors who have committed them. I do it sometimes merely as a nod to my friends or peers. At other times it might be an act of subtle revenge, depending upon how the namesake character is defined in the story.
I’ve Tuckerized someone I know in nearly every work of prose fiction I’ve ever written. The one for which I take the most flak was my decision to include the name of my wife (at that time, my girlfriend) on a list of casualties in my first Star Trek novel, Wildfire. Her character was dead before anyone had a chance to meet her. I’ve since protested in my defense that if I had known for certain at the time that I was going to marry her, I might not have killed her off.
I once named an incompetent twit of a character after a work supervisor I despised (with some adjustments to give myself plausible deniability) and I delivered that character to a gruesome, pointless demise. I’ve christened a space station with a name derived from a friend’s nickname, split another friend’s surname into two pieces as a name for an alien, and committed my share of anagrammatical Tuckerization (e.g., veteran Star Trek writer-producer Ronald D. Moore became, in my Star Trek Destiny trilogy, the Caeliar leader Ordemo Nordal).
In my more than two dozen published Star Trek novels, one would find the names of many of the New York publishing community’s more prominent editors, authors, art directors, publishers, and agents. For the most part I do it as a token of affection or respect for my peers, because I’ve noticed that many of them get a kick out of seeing themselves cast into unexpected roles in the Star Trek universe. Who wouldn’t want to wake up to the surprise that he or she is a starship captain? Or a member of Kirk’s crew?
The Dark Side of the Name-Drop
Not everybody likes Tuckerization, though. Some industry professionals think it debases a work by sullying it with an in-joke. Others have voiced the valid concern that many readers have come to recognize the names of industry professionals thanks to interactions on social media, and that seeing those names in a fictional context might serve to jolt them out of a story by confronting them with evidence of its artifice. These are valid concerns, to be certain.
In my new World War II epic fantasy novel The Midnight Front, I tried to strike a balance between outright Tuckerization and semi-Tuckerizing, which is a practice that comes closer to homage. I named a few characters explicitly after people I know, but I limited most of my hat-tips to friends and peers in this book to surnames only. Sharp-eyed readers might wonder about the science-fiction and fantasy pedigrees of such characters as Sergeant Sykes, Corporal Brett, Colonel Abraham Corey, Warrant Officer Gallo, and Sergeant Ward.
The thing to remember about this kind of homage is that the subtler it is, the better. Tuckerization is a strong flavor to mix into your narrative stew. A little goes a long way, so sprinkle in those names that are famous or familiar with care.