Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Game of the Name

By Bryan Gruley

My first novel came out last March. But I knew what the protagonist’s name would be more than twenty-five years ago.

Honest.

At signings and book clubs, readers frequently ask, “Where do you get the names of your characters?” Maybe the better question is, “Where do you get the characters for your names?”

I have read about authors (Howard Norman, author of The Bird Artist, a murder mystery disguised as a literary novel, comes to mind) who painstakingly construct their characters, writing down detailed notes about each before committing them to the narrative at hand.

Maybe I’m too lazy or just too day-job-strapped, but I don’t do much if any of that. To some extent, I rely on the names I decide to use to lead me to those detailed descriptions, which I then keep, mostly, in my head.

Indeed, the names of most of my main characters came to me before I knew how the characters would look, sound, or behave. Some of them—the personas, that is--derived from names I’ve encountered in my life or my job (note, incidentally, that I feel compelled to separate those two).

The surname for Pine County Sheriff Dingus Aho, for instance, was inspired by an old man I wrote about on the front page of The Wall Street Journal. Toivo Aho organized an annual outhouse-on-skis race in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

“Aho,” I was told then, is a rather common Finnish name. I stole it. “Dingus,” which I’ve heard is German and Scottish, just came to me, and I attached the two. I was aware that they probably didn’t go together well, and perhaps that’s why Dingus, despite being the sheriff, is a man who stands a bit outside the inner circle of his town, looking in.

Some of my readers might think Jack Blackburn is so named because of the blackness of his deeds. Not so. “Jack” came from a coach I knew from afar—a fine coach and man, so far as I knew—and “Blackburn” just came to me, maybe because of the interior rhyme. In fact, late in the novel I considered whether to change the name for fear that some might think it too heavy-handed. But I stuck with it, and I’m glad I did.

For less-crucial names attached to incidental places and establishments in and around the town of Starvation Lake, I frequently borrowed the names of pals. Thinnes Park is named for an old Kalamazoo friend who loves softball. The Detroit law firm Eagan, MacDonald & Browne is named for Eegs, Mac and Brownee, some of my oldest and best friends in Detroit. Enright’s is named for Fr. Jim “Punch” Enright, one of my high school coaches. (Come to think of it, I can’t believe I’ve never personally encountered a bar named Enright’s. A Google search reveals Enright’s Thirst Parlor in Rochester, N.Y., where, “You won't be alone if you stop in for a drink at 10 a.m. on a Saturday.” Good to know.)

I have lots of fun thinking up or borrowing or outright stealing names (as I did with the name of the town, which comes from the name of a lake near my family’s cottage in northern lower Michigan). Two names in my next novel—Philo Beech and Parmelee Gilbert—were pilfered directly from a non-fiction anthology of Michigan murders.

But I don’t mean to suggest that naming names is haphazard or gratuitous. As Marcus intimated in his latest blog, characters can help define the plot. I’ll take that a step further--or would that be backward?--and say I think names can define characters.

Soupy Campbell? He must be a dissolute former hockey star. Elvis Bontrager, of course, equals local soapbox blowhard. Darlene Esper shapes a shapely and elusive beauty who keeps her true thoughts as but a whisper to herself. Clayton Perlmutter is a scalawag you could almost love. Francis Dufresne sounds harmless, which in a mystery often connotes danger.

My next book was inspired by a line that came to me in the middle of the night: They found her hanging in the shoe tree at the edge of Starvation Lake. Within seconds, I knew her name: Gracie. Not Grace, but Gracie. She is, as a friend put it, a wrecked woman. “Gracie” puts a more sympathetic face on her, but “Grace” alone would be altogether too dignified for her troubled past.

As for my first-person narrator, Gus Carpenter might suggest someone who builds things, someone who’s good with their hands. I had no such notions in mind.
When I was working at the Kalamazoo Gazette in the early 1980s, I heard a tale about a story that had graced the Gazette front page years before. The article profiled a local man who’d won medals for his war heroism as a Green Beret. Readers loved the story.

A few days later, the Green Beret told the Gazette that he’d made the whole thing up. He’d never been a hero or won any medals. But I presumed that he wished he’d been a hero. And I decided then and there that I would name the main character in my first novel after him: Augustus Carpenter.

How do you name your fictional people, places and things?

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