A first-time reader e-mailed to ask if Christian Lang, the female protagonist in Nightbred, was named after the male protagonist of that very popular, allegedly Twilight fanfic-based, book that everyone but me has read. While it's true they have the same first name, I used it first, beginning in 2006 when Chris first appeared as a character in Dark Need, book three of the original Darkyn series. Not that it matters to anyone but me, but she's also named for one of my nieces. I'm quite glad that when I created her character I didn't also decide to use Gray, a family surname, for my Chris.
This type of creative collision happens infrequently, but when it does it can create a lot of stress for the writer. I'm fortunate that I have public creative provenance on my use of the name; no one can argue with a published book with an earlier copyright date. But what if I was a writer who had yet to be published, and what if I had used Gray instead of Lang? Is that okay?
Before I answer that, let's talk about the legalities surrounding the commercial use of names. According to the United States Patent and Trademark Office, a trademark is "a word, phrase, symbol or design, or a combination of words, phrases, symbols or designs, that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods of one party from those of others." Names can be trademarked to protect a brand and to prevent others from using them, and I believe (and I'm not an attorney, so don't quote me on this) that is the only way you make any name you create exclusively yours.
You've probably heard that copyright protects anything you write from the moment you create it, and it does, with an important but. Copyright protection applies to the entire work, not individual names or titles used in the work (as stated in this Copyright Basics .pdf from the U.S. Copyright Office, which breaks down the federal law in simple language.)
Creative collisions in the Publishing industry aren't quite as black and white as trademarks and copyright. Most ethical publishers try to avoid or prevent creative collisions, especially among in-house authors. This happened to me when I titled my third Kyndred novel Winterfire, which by complete coincidence was the same title author Jo Beverly used for a historical novel that was being reprinted within the same year. My editor let me know about the collision, at which point I contacted the author myself to let her know about it. She was very gracious and had no objection to me using the same title, and no doubt there would have been zero shelf confusion. I prefer to use original titles for my work, however, so in the end I decided to change it to Frostfire to eliminate the collision.
I've heard tales of editors encouraging writers to lift names or titles from authors who work for other houses, and I wanted to comment on this, too. I've worked for a lot of publishers, and I've never once had any of my editors tell me to do that, but it's possible that it happens among the less ethical. It's not fair, and it's unpleasant when it happens to you, but it's not illegal. Bottom line, there is nothing we can do about it, so my advice is to stop worrying about things you can't control or change, and always try to be original with your work.
Which brings us to how the writer should deal with being on the downside of a creative collision. Let's go back to my little creative collision of Christian Lang with that other Christian. This time we'll pretend I'm an unpublished writer who has been tinkering with my manuscript Nightbred for some time now. For the sake of argument, let's also imagine I named my character Christian Gray when I started working on the story back in 2006, and have only just now discovered the existence of the book I haven't read with the more notorious Christian. I love my character's name and I can't think of them as anyone else. What do I do?
If I were me (which I am) I'd change the name. Oh, in a heartbeat, without a second thought. For one thing, I don't think I'm going to get my Christian Gray past any ethical editor I submit to; they're going to assume that a) I'm trying to hitch my story wagon to a very popular novel, b) I'm clueless as to what's going on in the market or c) I have no imagination. That's definitely a concern as we want to show editors we are original versus knockoff artists, but it's not my primary motive to make the change.
No matter how much it hurts, I'd rather retrain my brain to think of the character by a different name than have my work even accidentally associated by any reader with that other Christian and that other author. This is where you get to the core of who you are as a writer. I'm seriously invested in being original, so I'm willing to sacrifice just about anything to protect my work and to keep it free of any creative collisions.
Finally, when you get into a situation like this, think about what's most important to you. I know how attached we get to characters; to us their names aren't simply words on a page. We bring them to life, we get to know them, and we live with them in our heads for months and even years at a time. Often they can seem as real to us as a member of the family or close friend. The resistance to change is natural; you'd never rename your brother or your Dad or your best pal. But remember what Shakespeare said about roses? Whatever you call them, their beautiful fragrance doesn't change. Same goes for your character. Take it from me, a writer who still occasionally thinks of her two most popular characters as Vanessa and Jacques-Sebastien (and if you're scratching your head, that's what I originally named Alexandra Keller and Michael Cyprien.)