Tuesday, July 6, 2010

What's in a Name?

By Chester Campbell

Our live-in grandson, just turning thirteen, has been taking Taekwondo since he was in the first grade. Last year he got his probationary black belt. Louie G. Aregis, Jr., the sixth degree black belt owner and chief instructor at the school, is a four-time winner of Instructor of the Year for the Choong Sil Taekwondo Federation. His wife, a fifth degree black belt, is an avid mystery reader. Aregis had been bugging me for some time to be a character in one of my books. He wanted to be a bad guy.

When I started work on A Sporting Murder, my fifth Greg McKenzie mystery, I decided to put him in. Since the name is rather unusual, I did some Google searches on it and found there were several versions of it, including Arigis, Ariges, and Aritzia. Some genealogical info on the web indicated Louie Aregis' grandfather came over from Greece in the early 1900s. I used a similar scenario for my character's father, though it took place toward the middle of the century.

To give a little variety, I threw in an Italian mother. She came from Miami, with roots in Sicily. That provided some interesting possibilities. The father got in early on the Disney World project, and Louie was born in Orlando.

Except for the link to the Greco-Turkish border area, the character bears no resemblance to the real Louie Aregis. But he's not one of the good guys. That's all I'll say about that.

My only other experience with using names of real people for characters came with writing of The Marathon Murders. With that one I ran a contest before I wrote it, with the grand prize being your name used in the book. The winner was Wayne Fought, a faithful reader along the Alabama Gulf Coast. In that case, I just used his name and completely invented the character, a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agent. Wayne came to buy the book when I signed near his home, and we shot a photo that appears on my website.

Of course, the major character naming issue comes with the protagonists, particularly in a series. You're going to be living with them for a long time (hopefully), so you need a good solid background. Greg McKenzie came from several qualifications. I wanted someone with a Scottish background, a former Air Force officer, a senior citizen, and married to a wife he's in love with. I didn't want to use my own surname, so I chose McKenzie. In Scotland, it appears as both McKenzie and MacKenzie.

For my second series, I thought the name Chance offered a good mystery connotation. It could refer to a gamble or to the random luck of the draw. For a first name, I picked out Sidney and then got the brainstorm of having his mother name him for the the nineteenth century Southern poet, Sidney Lanier. I had already created some background before looking into Lanier more deeply. I found they shared a love of music and a military history.

Choosing names can be as simple as looking for something in the phone book or as complicated as tailoring it to a character's background. It's a fun exercise, though, and offers the writer an interesting challenge. Have you run into any characters with signs of complex naming lately?


Anonymous said...

I don't have a problem coming up with names for my own characters. They just appear.

Names I have problems with in other people's books are familiar names,such as names of people on the DorothyL list. In contests, they often win the right to become a character in somebody's book, but a name I know pulls me right out of the story.

Pat Browning

Jean Henry Mead said...

Names are important. I always look up characters' names in the people finder and alter them slightly if I find only one or two people with that name. Some people may take offense even if they share a name with your protagonist.

Jaden Terrell said...

I have a nice collection of baby name books and one that includes surnames from different cultures. Comes in handy.

I try to make sure the meaning and sound of the name I choose match--or at least don't contradict--the character it will belong to.