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The Naming of Names

June 24th, 2006 8 comments

by Jeffrey Thomas

Okay, you’re sitting there writing your novel, going full steam ahead, the action unfolding smoothly, and your police detective protagonist lets himself into the coroner’s office to have a look at the latest victim’s weirdly mutilated corpse. You’re brought up short. Not with concern over how to describe the body or fashion the coroner’s dialogue – you’ve seen enough episodes of CSI to write a sequel to GRAY’S ANATOMY – but by the question of what name to give the coroner.

Hmm. Crap. Literatus Interruptus.

If you’re me, the first thing you do is start mentally skimming through the names of coworkers you haven’t already used (I never use given and surname together, though). Writer and publisher friends, too. If there’s a book within easy grasp, without having to waste further time by getting up from my desk, I’ll grab that and look for promising real life names to alchemize into the fictional. But things can get complicated. If this is a futuristic and otherworldly location, I might have to invent an alien’s name that hasn’t already been used in one of the numerous STAR TREK incarnations.

Come to think of it, what did you decide to name the protagonist? He’s a cop, so let me guess…his first name is Nick? Jack? Please don’t tell me that since it’s a vampire story, and he’s a quarter vampire on his mother’s side (but fighting his darker inclinations), his last name is Bloodbone. Jack Nightguy. Tony Dracolini. Is he a quarter werewolf on his mother’s side (but fighting his darker inclinations)? Then please don’t tell me he’s Harry Dogget. Lou Garou. You know what I’m sayin’? Okay, I admit, I’ll give my characters names that are puns, or which have a secret or not-so-secret meaning, but sometimes the names writers slap on their protagonists give me fits. If your cop is a quarter demon on his mother’s side (but fighting his…yawn), please don’t name him Stan Hellbender. Mike Hellguy. Only Hellboy can have hell in his name – got that?

Like I said, I do choose names that relate to the characters’ personas or the story’s themes, but I try to keep things a bit more subliminal. The novel I’ve just completed for Solaris Books, DEADSTOCK, has a plot that involves cloning, shapeshifting, bio-enginered life forms – consequently, the question of identity in the midst of all this. So I have one character named Janice (sounds like two-faced Janus) Poole (as in Narcissus’ “pool”). There’s Mira (sounds like “mirror”) Cello. And she’s sad and mellow as a cello. There are the blandly-named clones Mr. Doe (as in John), Mr. Jones and, because Mr. Smith was taken for THE MATRIX, Mr. Smithee (as in the ubiquitous but anonymous movie director, Alan Smithee). However, one pun is not intentional. The novel deals with bio-engineered livestock (nicknamed “deadstock”), but the protagonist Jeremy Stake is not meant to sound like “steak.” I had his name before I had the plot in place. Yeah, the surname Stake has a little bit of that Jack Nightguy feel, but I hope his given name Jeremy softens the effect a bit.

Jeremy Stake’s love interest, by the way, is a beautiful alien woman named Thi Gonh. (Gonh as in “gone,” as in they are not together any more.) But Thi is the middle name of my wife Hong, and Gonh is Hong spelled sideways. Oh so brilliant I am. (Or do I mean, lazy?)

The protagonist of Neal Stephenson’s SNOW CRASH is named Hiro Protagonist. That’s a hilarious pun, but – not to diss a book and author I’ve never read – I don’t know if I could get into a story with a pun that spoofy. Still, it may very well work brilliantly within the book’s scheme and style, precisely because of that in-your-face spoofiness. Another character in the novel, I understand, is Y.T. (For “Yours Truly”). I guess I should see what this is all about, one of these days; the book certainly sounds fascinating and complex.

When I first read RED DRAGON (one of my very favorite novels), and the character of Francis Dolarhyde was introduced, I remember thinking, “Please let this guy be a red herring…he can’t be the REAL bad guy!” Not with his over-the-top behavior (I think he was wearing tinfoil balled up in his ears, or something, in the first scene) and not with a name like Dolarhyde (conjuring up both formaldehyde and Dr. Jekyll’s alter-ego). But soon enough, I was sold on this character big-time, and his name was his name. Period. (And what of Hannibal the Cannibal? How con-veeeenient. He couldn’t be Roger the Cannibal? But it’s Thomas Harris. He makes it work.)

My favorite character name filled with meaning is Winston Smith, from Orwell’s 1984. Winston, as in the charismatic Winston Churchill. But Smith quickly brings us back to the anonymous Everyman, thus showing us the dichotomy of Winston Smith’s initially rebellious but easily broken human spirit. Stephen King’s remarkably gifted Johnny Smith works well in THE DEAD ZONE, for the same ironic reasons.

Many times I give characters “ethnic” names because I like to mix characters of varied ethnicity into my stories; the real world isn’t all white bread and will be even less so in the future. But as people of different races and cultures intermarry, maybe their names will blend and lose their original homogenity, too. Therefore, in a story set in my world of Punktown I might have a guy with the last name MacDiaz, indicating a conscious fusing of two names of different origins – this fusing going beyond the hyphenated surnames some women take on when they marry, or unmarried parents sometimes give their kids. In this case, “Mac” sounds Scottish and “Diaz” sounds Spanish. The future of names…something else to consider.

Then there are stories in which authors make themselves, in a metafictional sense, the main character. (Maybe this is the ultimate form of laziness in selecting a character’s name! Sheesh!) Bret Easton Ellis is the protagonist of LUNAR PARK, Bruce Campbell the protagonist of MAKE LOVE THE BRUCE CAMPBELL WAY, Jeff VanderMeer (though he refers to his doppleganger as “X”) the protagonist of his novella THE STRANGE CASE OF X, and so on. In my book LETTERS FROM HADES, the protagonist whose journal comprises the novel flippantly gives himself the pseudonym Dan Alighieri (after Dante Alighieri), but originally I had him reveal his true name as…Jeffrey Thomas. A friend of mine advised that this would take people out of the story too much. However, in a sort-of sequel on the way called BEAUTIFUL HELL, I go back to revealing that Jeffrey Thomas is his actual name. In addition, the new protagonist who is writing the manuscript of BEAUTIFUL HELL is named Frank Lyre – as in angels strumming lyres, but also as in “frank liar.” Who am I to say Hiro Protagonist is over-the-top?

All symbolic or embedded meaning aside, it’s ultimately about the cadence of the name, its resonance, that mysterious Factor Z that makes you want to relish its taste on the mental tongue. Vito Corleone. Bilbo Baggins. Lolita. Ahh…bittersweet Lolita.

The names of fictional characters stay with us when we’ve forgotten the names of classmates and coworkers and obscure presidents. This is important stuff, here. I’ve sometimes agonized over the names of characters more so than over the naming of my son (Colin – because it’s a name reflecting his Celtic roots, and because I admire the writer Colin Wilson). Name your imaginary children well, my friends…so that one day, he or she may linger in the mind with Macbeth. With Quasimodo. With Jack Nightguy and his tormented kin (but they’re fighting their darker inclinations…really).

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