Steve Liskow  

On Writing: The Name Game II: Characters

Modern stories are character-based.

If you write mystery, there's a good chance that you write a series, and that means you have a continuing character. People may even refer to your books by that character's name: James Bond, Jack Reacher, Stephanie Plum, the Hardy Boys (Would that series have survived if they'd been called the Sickly boys?).

Your character is your brand, so you have to give him, her, or them a memorable and evocative name for people to remember. Sometimes, I don't find the right name until I'm struggling with the fourth or fifth draft, and I may change it several times until I find the one that sticks. Ideally, the name captures the character's personality and suggests something about him or her.

Sometimes, you can be symbolic, like Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird or Faithful in The Pilgrim's Progress. For years, I've said the ultimate victim name, especially in a book about a con game, is Patsy. Allusions are a good shorthand, too, like naming a lover Romeo or a martyred character Jesus, Sebastian, or Joan. But symbolism and allusion get old or pretentious very quickly, and then you have to go for the more ordinary without succumbing to the mundane.

Maybe a lyrical or pretty name-I know, that's very subjective-or very unpleasant. Flannery O'Connor's character in "Good Country People" calls herself Hulga because she wants to sound ugly. The name almost rhymes with the adjective. And what does that tell us about her as a person? Many naming dictionaries for babies exist, and some of them sort the names by gender, language of origin, culture, or meaning. Look at sounds, too. What do they suggest?

Many heroic characters have short names with strong consonants. Shane, Sam Spade, Shell Scott (Shell suggests a bullet or armor, too). They often have strong consonant sounds, like Harry Bosch or Joe Pike or Carlotta Carlyle. Sara Paretsky's V.I.-Victoria Iphegenia-Warshawski gives us an interesting rhythm and a fully-realized symbolic and allusive name. Victory and a sacrifice in the same name. It's memorable. So is Sherlock Holmes, and Conan Doyle took the names from two real people he knew.

When I find the right name, I know how and why the character has it, too. The romance writer Taliesyn Holroyd in Who Wrote the Book of Death? is a man writing romance, and Taliesyn is an over the top romantic name. It's also originally King Arthur's male bard, so it suggests the gender, too. The woman half of the team is Beth Shepard, and she's a victim, so her last name suggests a sheep or (sacrificial) lamb. She uses bopeep as her e-mail address.

Zach Barnes was originally the PI in Who Wrote the Book of Death? When that book didn't sell, I gave his name to the PI in "Stranglehold" because I was trying to sell a series and liked the name better than the name I was using. Greg Nines has the same rhythm as Zach Barnes, but the consonants are softer. Megan Traine, the female lead in "Stranglehold" and the still unsold series, acts and looks like a Megan. She's smart, feisty, and gorgeous. Her name rhymes with the name of the real woman who inspired her, my high school classmate, a professional musician in Detroit.

I'm working on a novel now with a cop named Tracy Hendrix. His grandfather admired actor Spencer Tracy, and his father liked Jimi Hendrix enough to change the spelling of his own last name. Tracy's detective partner is Jimmy Byrne, so the rest of the cops call him "Trash," making the pair Trash and Byrne (Cue the rim-shot). The book deals with roller derby, and all the skaters use rink names that suggest their real occupation. For example, I have a physical therapist who calls herself Grace Anatomy and a divorce lawyer named Roxi Heartless.

Will those names be around for the final draft?

I don't know, but for now, I'm having a lot of fun.

How bad can that be?


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