Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Naming Names

Selecting character names is not especially hard for me.

I’m not one to manufacture a name to represent some deep emotional chord, i.e. Gale Storm or Sam Spade or Ratso Rizzo. I’ve never been much for that sort of obvious tag on my characters.

Mostly, I use first names only. For some reason I find it a bit prissy referring to characters by their full names, even though I do create full names (and family history) for all of them. By only using their first name, it’s more intimate. Personable. As if I’m relating a story about people you already know.

For my more personal writing (see any of my published short fiction) I pick a name of someone I know. I do that because I think my friends might get a kick out of seeing their name in a print (as if anyone is going to read anything I write?). I also do that because it’s an easy “cheat” for me to form a mental picture of my character’s physical appearance.

Maggie and Me in London
So, if I choose the name “Maggie” for my female lead, then I can immediately picture my Polish friend and her smile and hair and the way she talks or walks. It’s like an instant projection from nothing to shape. However, that is where I stop … or where fiction takes over for reality. I never assign actual personal traits from my friends to characters using their names. If anything, especially in my short stories, I mix and match. I may use the name Maggie, and thus the way she looks, but then make that character a chain smoker (something the real Maggie would never do) or I’ll borrow an observation from another person in my life and add it in to the mix. Very Dr. Frankenstein, I know.

In a way, I suppose someone might be insulted by all this. I mean, if I saw my name used in a novel written by someone I knew, and recognized obvious physical similarities, but then found out that this character “based on me!” was some sort of retard, perv, liar, and ass … yeah, I could see me wondering what the hell.

However, it’s not like that. Writers borrow real life scenes and words and events all the time. Yet, in our minds, we change the details, we manipulate certain key points, all to move towards whatever emotional goal we’re aiming for.

I guess it’s all in the perspective. As a writer, I use my own experiences freely. I see nothing wrong in it – I’m not doing it for some sort of payback. These real events create real stories, and that's important to me.

I realize I’m not exploring anything new here. Writers have dealt with this problem for centuries. Capote had a lifelong difficulty with this issue, breaking apart many friendships. Phillip Roth also struggled with friends’ and family’s reaction to some of his novels. In fact, Roth grew so disgusted he created Nathan Zuckerman, just to sort through all his internal bullshit while writing about it at the same time.

Well, all this rambling is because I’ve decided on my character names for The Empty Everything. I have 16 characters, of which 10 are main voices or point of views. Oddly enough, the idea for the names all came together at once, while I was researching another aspect of the novel. While in the past I’ve never put much stock in my name choices, in this case the names definitely means something. They are all linked under a common idea. It harmonizes with the overall theme. The names add a sudden depth, something I was struggling with a bit.

It’s really something when suddenly all these random pieces come flying together. Amazing how the brain makes those quantum leaps from chaos to order.

As of today, I’m almost there. The actual writing process begins soon enough.

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