This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is coincidence.
Sound familiar? How about this? "Life imitates art."
The question of coincidence has been a plot point in at least one popular movie. In Basic Instinct, Sharon Stone's character is a wealthy heiress and author. When her parents and a lover die in circumstances very similar to murder scenes from her books, detectives are suspicious. The coincidence might be incriminating evidence.
Coincidence in fiction is a real concern, or there wouldn't be a reason for the above paraphrased blurb.
As writers, the need to pen "fresh, original" material craved by editors and agents, but even when we think our ideas are exciting and new, that may not be the case. I mentioned Dawn's run-in with the Crystal Skull problem in my Cliches and Icons post. Sometimes writers create situations in their minds that have already happened, will happen in the future, or become part of pop culture. Ever heard the adage about putting a monkey in a room with a typewriter and eventually he'll (or she'll) write an entire novel? Yeah, it's kinda like that. If you can dream it up and type it, it's probably something that actually happened somewhere, sometime, or is in someone else's novel.
But coincidence in fiction isn't just about names or a sequence of events. Sometimes things can take an almost prophetic turn.
I wrote an early draft of Draxis many years ago. As fate or bad luck or forces of irony would have it, my main character's name is Katrina and there's a reference to her in an ancient legend as "The Wind of Change." Lo and behold, years later the name Katrina comes up for a developing hurricane in the Atlantic, and this terrible storm proceeds to devastate New Orleans and much of the Gulf coast. People die or endure terrible hardship, and an entire region is left a water-logged wasteland. Suddenly, critiquers who had no problem with my character's name the week before became incensed that I would invoke such terrible memories by using it. I thought a long time on what to do. I resisted changing her name; I felt it suited her character. My decision was to--pardon the inappropriate pun--weather the storm. A friend pointed out that no would would have taken exception to a character named Andrew or Camille, but those had also been devastating class five hurricanes. Time passes and painful memories fade. It was only the timing that made my character's name controversial. I kept her name Katrina. I haven't had a negative comment for over a year. Public sensitivity ebbs and flows.
Names can be a touchy subject. No one quibbles if your character is named Mary, John or Thomas. Come up with something more exotic and chances are someone else did first. I changed the names of two of my characters multiple times before I was satisfied with Ryn, my staunch, manipulative admiral in P2PC, and Timmar, my Jeckyl-and-Hydesque assassin in Draxis. As it turned out, both of my "original" names were character names in novels I later read. So much for originality. Since I'm an avid reader of both authors' work, I worried about this quite a bit. I emailed them to express my concerns (dismay) over the coincidence and wondered if I should (*sigh*) change the character names, yet again. Both had a similar response. [paraphrased] Don't worry about it. This is far from a rare occurrence in fiction.
Yup, coincidence happens.
I haven't changed the names (again) to date, but I may in the future. This will be a good question to ask an editor when the books reach this stage. As writers, we have to think of our work like clay. A WIP is exactly that, a work in progress. It can be reshaped, tweaked, and manipulated at any point in the editing/marketing process. Nothing we write is carved in granite.