Thursday, January 17, 2013

What’s In a Name?

Character names take me right out of a lot of popular crime fiction. I don’t know any women named Taylor or Alexandra or men named Maxim or Baldwin; I don’t think I’d want to. I grew up and tend to hang with people named Andy and Larry and Mary and Linda.

Same with surnames. Popular fiction has so many WASPy names a paper cut could send you into anaphylactic shock. I grew up with people named Rychlinksi and Kurpakis and Policcichio and Dzanaj. Robert Langdon means dick to me.

Character names are important. Elmore Leonard tells a story of a character in a story set in New Orleans. He gave the guy a French name and couldn’t find anything for him to say. Leonard changed the character’s name (something Irish, I think) and said he couldn’t shut him up.

The story of Tim Hallinan’s upcoming Junior bender novel, The Fame Thief, revolves around Wanda Altschuler, from Scranton, Pennsylvania. That’s a good, Scranton-sounding name. She ended up in LA trying to be an actress and changed her name to the far more exotic and celebrity-like Dolores La Marr, which probably conjures up an entirely different image from the woman who was Wanda Altschuler. (Which is, of course, among the reasons actors change their names. That’s why a lot of them become actors, so they won’t have to be who they are.)

I spend a lot of time on names. For some reason, I decided Will Hickox in Wild Bill was from the Scranton area. (Probably why learning about Ms. Altschuler got me to thinking along this line.) When I wanted a genuine sounding Scranton name for Will’s maternal grandfather, I hit Wikipedia for famous people from the Scranton-Wilkes Barre area. “Biden” didn’t have the ring I wanted, but Volodymyr Palahniuk was perfect. I already had the first name—Willard, “Big Will”—but the original surname of actor Jack Palance fit perfectly.

When I needed a shit-ton of Italian names for the mobsters in Wild Bill—preferably Sicilian—I pulled up Google maps and went to Sicily, where towns named Enna and Agrigento and Ragusa and Caccamo served better than anything I could make up.

My current series is set in a small town very similar to where I grew up, so my high school year book and RSS feeds from the local paper provide Western Pennsylvania placesetters like Napierkowski and Neuschwander and Wierzbicki. (I meant to add a pronunciation key to Worst Enemies when I formatted it for Kindle, and will ask Stark House to correct my oversight when Grind Joint comes out next year.) Names like those not only help to personalize and even describe the character, taken as a group they can become part of the setting. I don’t need to spend any time reminding readers where we are when a conversation takes place between Stush Napierkowski and Rick Neuschwander.

What about you? Do names matter in the books you read? In the books you write? Why, or why not? Writers, how do you come up with them?


Charlieopera said...

Some eye-talian surnames are from guys I knew as a kid (friends, etc.) ... some are outright Googled ... I think Leonard is right; if the name isn't right, neither will his dialogue be right (at least not in the writer's mind).

Good to see you back on the blogging circuit.

col2910 said...

I can take an instant dislike to a character if the name puts me off, but unfortunately this doesn't apply just apply to fiction, but real-life also, I guess I'm shallow.

I never want to read about or meet in real-life anyone called Justin, and not just because they've probably only got a 1 inch dick

pattinase (abbott) said...

I often have to rename characters because I realize they don't seem like a Heather to me after a while. Also important is that someone 50 is not going to be named Taylor. And someone 18 is not going to be named Susan. Not for another generation at least.

Nicholas Bruner said...

I've definitely had trouble with characters that I misnamed at first, only to find they started cooperating once I found the right moniker.

By the way, there's a Website giving the 10 most common last names in a given county that's pretty helpful. I used it last year when I was finishing my book set in the Arkansas Ozarks and wanted some authentic Scots-Irish last names. Also has other demographic data.