Archive for May 25th, 2012
The next time you’re talking to a writer and get stuck for topics of conversation, here’s a tip: ask him where he gets the names of his characters. Not every name has an interesting meaning, of course, aside from the fact that it sounded good to the author at the time. But in my experience, most writers tend to invest a lot of thought and energy into coming up with character names, to the point where the names of even minor players have a long story behind them. In some ways, it’s not unlike choosing a name for a baby: you need to think of every possible scenario in which the name might backfire, whether because it calls up unwanted associations or lends itself too easily to a playground taunt. If it’s the name of a character in a novel, much less a series, you need to be particularly careful, because you’re going to be living with it for a long time. As a result, I generally spend a full day, maybe two, at the beginning of any novel project just coming up with names for ten or twelve important characters, which is much less fun than it sounds.
So what are the rules, if any? The critic James Wood has noted, quite fairly, that characters in a novel usually have different names, which is inherently unrealistic: “Whereas, in real life, doesn’t one always have at least three friends named John, and another three named Elizabeth?” Wood is perfectly right, of course, but even he would probably be the first to admit that this is an acceptable break from reality—like the fact that a character in a movie can always find a parking space when he needs one—that allows us to save time and confusion. Unless there’s a good reason why we should be uncertain as to which John or Elizabeth we’re reading about, it’s always wise to keep your characters’ names different and distinctive. In my own work, I try to avoid giving important characters names that start with the same letter, a rule that many other writers also seem to follow. (Now that I’m on my third novel with a shared cast of characters, this rule has become a real pain, but I still stick with it when I can.)
In the case of The Icon Thief, the names of the characters came about in all kinds of ways. Maddy and Ethan were a pair of characters who had been kicking around in my head for at least ten years, ever since I had the idea, way back in college, of writing a novel or screenplay that combined elements of two of the greatest of all American movies, Vertigo and The Searchers. The project was ridiculously ambitious, even for me, and I finally scrapped it, although not without emerging with two characters whose first names were taken from the leads of those films: Madeline Elster and Ethan Edwards. Alan Powell, as I’ve mentioned before, was named for Michael Powell, although his first name was Dennis for many drafts before I changed it to something that suited him better. And Ilya Severin was originally Ilya Kaverin, which I discarded, after spending more than two years living with that name, upon deciding that it was just too similar to that of a certain iconic character from The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
The rest of my characters have names that were chosen more or less at random. Rachel Wolfe, for instance, is just a name I like, combining the name of a close friend and an acquaintance in a way that strikes me as just right. John Reynard is a fun one: his first name is the most boring one imaginable, but his last name is that of a famously foxy trickster, which serves as a clue to some of his contradictions. Anzor Archvadze was one of the few plausibly Georgian names I could come up with that didn’t make my eyes cross, while Sharkovsky and Vasylenko were chosen for the sound, and Louis Barlow just looks like the name of an FBI assistant special agent in charge. And then we have the mysterious Alexey Lermontov, named, of course, for Anton Walbrook’s character in The Red Shoes. In my mind, he’s always been played by Walbrook, and I’d like to think that he gained something from the association, even if it’s just the slightest whisper of resonance from the character who, unforgettably, summed up the fate of the heroine in his ballet: “Oh, in the end, she dies.”