Tuesday, March 10, 2015

One way to have some fun with character names

I’m one of those fiction writers who struggles with coming up with good character names, or should I say, I used to be one of those people.

The answer to my dilemma came to me “like a cold fist at the end of a wet kiss.” (Wish I could take credit for that bit of descriptive text but it comes from an old Firesign Theatre sketch.) I have perfectly useable names right at my fingertips: my friends!

It started back a number of novels ago in Cemetery of the Nameless. At first I didn’t want to throw actual people I knew into the mix as characters. I mean, what if they didn’t like who I made them? So in Cemetery, I used them for my sort of “Greek chorus” idea at the beginning of each chapter where various people make comments on the action going on in the story. It was a fun project, and the names of reporters, reviewers, and other musicians were all various people I knew. It worked out well for me, and the friends whose names I used loved it.

As further books were written and I got more comfortable with the idea, I began to name minor characters after people I knew. With my current novel release, Roses for a Diva, I jumped all the way into the pool. Nearly every one of the supporting characters are friends and people with whom I grew up.

If you’ve read that book, you’ll remember Leonardo Tallevi, the general manager of the Canadian Opera Company (a real entity). Lenny is a friend from way back and a great tenor sax player. I left off that last bit, but I did use something of the real person in my character. A Roman cop is another old friend, Steve Pucci. Drummer Tommy Giorgi turned up as the conductor for the Rome Opera, and Eddie Furci saved the day in Tosca.

Back in Toronto, the two detectives from the Toronto Police Services are former colleagues from my band teaching days and very good friends. I don’t even know if they’re aware I “borrowed” them. Somehow I don’t want to be the first to break the news.

Minor characters are fine, but I don’t think it would be fair to use a real person’s name – at least, real to me – for a main character in that it would be too restricting. Walk-ons are one thing, but protagonists and antagonists need depth (warts and all) to be believable, and I know what I’d wind up doing to a real person would probably lead to hurt feelings — if not law suits.

As for main characters, I rely on my wife to tell me what their names are.

So…problem solved for moi. And it’s a hoot to do. Does anyone else use a dodge like this?


Sybil Johnson said...

I've used the last names of some of my high school teachers for minor characters. A friend of mine named a minor character after me as a birthday present one year. That was quite fun!

Rick Blechta said...

Vicki Delany used a certain crime writer (who shall remain nameless) in a recent novel, come to think of it.

I toyed once with naming a rather nasty character after a bully from high school, and fortunately resisted the urge because I met him shortly after (after a 40-year gap) and he was then the one of the nicest people I've met in a long time and actually apologized for being such an idiot so many years before. My character would have never apologized!

Donis Casey said...

Since I write a historical series, I use names of actual relatives of mine from the days of yore--grandparents and great aunts and uncles. It saves me from making a faux pas like naming a 1915 teenager something like Madison or Tiffany

Rick Blechta said...

I know for a fact that every other child back in 1915 was named Madison or Tiffany, sometimes both. Why, I had two great aunts named Madison and three named Tiffany.

But then again, Donis, I also write fiction for a living...