Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Name Game . . .

by Sean Chercover

The Mouse is two years old. Well, two and change. 27 months, if we must be specific. Most of the time, he calls me Da-da, or Dad. Da-da was fun, but I welcome the transition to Dad.

The surprising change is that, with increasing regularity, The Mouse is now also calling me Sean.

A couple of people have suggested that I correct him. But he is correct. My name is Sean, and he hears other people call me Sean, so why the hell shouldn’t he call me Sean?

I admit I am still slightly startled each time he does it. It’s just a little odd to hear my 2-year-old son calling me by my Christian name.

“Christian name.” You don’t hear that very often, these days.

Anyway, I find it interesting that other grown-ups are uneasy about it. Also interesting to note my own emotional reaction to the different names. When the Mouse calls me Sean, it feels different than when he calls me Dad, which in turn feels different than Da-da.

Do you think about this when naming your characters? Not only how the name feels and what it conveys, but also what nicknames the characters might call each other, and what those nicknames convey about the relationships between the characters.

Like everybody, I keep a few “Baby Name” books near my desk. But sometimes reading a list of names with notations of the “Welsh/Irish/Hebrew/Latvian” origins is not enough.

Occasionally I use names of real people. It’s fun to give a shout-out to people I know and love. Like many writers, I’ve donated character naming rights to be auctioned to raise money for a good cause, and I have a contest on my website, one of the prizes being a character named after the winner.

Then there are the names of characters from other books. Gravedigger Peace from Big City Bad Blood and Trigger City is a tip-of-the-hat to Chester Himes, one of my all-time favorite crime writers. His Grave Digger Jones was a corrupt and brutally violent Harlem cop. The resemblance between Gravedigger Peace and Grave Digger Jones doesn’t go much beyond the fact that they both have a pretty deep wellspring of rage, and they’ve both killed more than a few people, but I love using the name as a nod in his direction . . . and it fits my character who is, in fact, a grave digger.

Ray Dudgeon, my series protagonist, went through many names along the way. His penultimate name was Ray Dunbar. Dunbar Road is the street I grew up on. I didn’t like the name Dunbar, but I liked Ray, and I liked the way it sounded with a surname that started with D. I also like names that have independent meaning as words. Spade, Archer, Hammer, Reacher, Strange, Rain . . . all great names that tell us something about the character. So I started flipping through the letter D, in Webster’s dictionary.

Dudgeon fit my protagonist perfectly, both for its modern meaning and for the archaic meaning, most famously used by William Shakespeare in Macbeth. A few folks have commented that Ray’s name is a bit too clever, but the vast majority of people dig it. And I’ve had email correspondence with a number of real-life Dudgeons as a result, including a real Ray Dudgeon.

A totally unexpected benefit of using an unusual name.

I’d love to hear some of your favorite character names, and your method of naming the characters you create. So have at it.

BONUS: A signed, first-edition of Trigger City goes to the first person who tells us the archaic definition for Dudgeon (as mentioned in the Macbeth reference above).

ALSO: Libby mentioned this in the previous post, but in case you missed it. . . The amazing folks at Bleak House Books are giving away FREE books this holiday season. For real. You only pay for shipping. Check it out.

AND: For those of you who are buying gifts this holiday season, please consider buying and giving books.

25 comments:

Rob said...

The handle of a dagger, isn't it?

Barbara D'Amato said...

Made from digeon, probably boxwood.

I.J.Parker said...

Well, I could go downstairs and consult the OED, but I won't. Dudgeon is a good name for your protagonist.

My own problem is greater. I deal with Japanese names. Not any Japanese names, but those likely to have been used in the 11th century. And not any 11th century name, but the correct name type for a nobleman of a particular level, a noblewoman ditto, a commoner, a servant, an outcast, a monk, or a prostitute. Then I decide if an American reader would have pronunciation difficulties (almost unavoidable), and if the name is sufficiently similar to another in the novel (Japanese names tend to have interchangeable syllables). Only after all of that, do I decide if the name leaves an impression that fits the personality, and that's a fairly hazy concept at best.

Sean Chercover said...

Wow - that was fast! Congrats, Rob. Send me your mailing address (you can find an email link on my website - www.chercover.com) and I'll get your book right out to you.

Sean Chercover said...

I.J. - You've definitely convinced me never to write historical fiction set in 11th Century Japan. I do not envy you the task of naming your characters.

Kathryn Fox said...

In my next book, Bloodborn, I toy with nature vs nurture as a cause of violent behaviour. The antagonist criminal family is named Harbourn, which means 'polluted or dirty stream'. Fits the story perfectly.

Dudgeon reminds me how you say dungeon when you have a headcold. Either way, it sounds dark and mysterious:)

jnantz said...

See, I knew I should have stopped by the other day. I could have quoted you the line (just finished teaching Macbeth a few weeks ago).

Oh well. I think it's great coming up with names that fit the character. I named My first protag because I wanted him to exhibit raw, over-determination in everything he did. I couldn't think of anyone to better show this than "Rudy", but that didn't seem like a very tough cop name to me (I could be wrong), so I went with Dan. His partner calls him by his surname, and his wife calls him Danny, but the name just stuck with me.

My second protag is a female in a primarily male field--assassination--so I named her Dylan for the ambiguity, and she works under the moniker Gabriel.

Mark Combes said...

Has anyone ever used the name of one of their personal enemies in their work? A person you really detested? Did they die a gruesome death? Maybe you can guess that I have....

Dana King said...

I love coming up with names. The project I just finished dealt with organized crime in Chicago. That's right: The Outfit. I needed several Sicilian names that weren't already too connected with real hoods, so I went to a map of Sicily and used tonw names, a la Vito Corleone.

The upcoming project takes place in Western pennsylvania, where I grew up. So out came the high school year books, plus a few old family friends.

maryh said...

Sean isn't your Christian name. It's a very old Gaelic name. My sainted grandmother Margaret Mary Murphy, God rest her soul, said it meant something like, "eater of beans after the potatoes have frozen". Seriously, names resonate with writers (they do with me) and when it's a great choice the readers can sense a layer of realism. Well done, boyo!

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