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On the Subject of Names

  For as long as I’ve been writing fiction, I’ve always had problems with coming up with character names. Now, sure, that opens me up to countless other problems that I have that people would love to throw my way, but I guess the bigger point is that character names can become synonymous with the work in question. So, in a way, a bad character name can effectively hijack any attempt at being taken seriously. Action movies from the 80's and video games, while not having a monopoly on stupid names for their heroes and villains, certainly musters up quite a few with such highlights as John Matrix, Jack Slate, Max Payne, and Marion “Cobra” Cobretti.

  Now, this is usually about trying to establish a character who is so tough that it is immediately reflected in their name. And I guess this is where the whole thing breaks down for me. I know that there are some people who are irredeemably stupid, but I’d like to think that those who name their children something preposterous like ‘Biff Wangdanger’ are not prophetic. I mean, I suppose it is arguable that Max Payne’s father had high hopes for his child (or just really hated him) and therefore saddled him with a name straight out of a B-movie, but it rings more of an angsty teen going to the local Social Security building on his eighteenth birthday and changing his name to something he thinks will magically make him cool.

  Another reason that this is a bad idea is how utterly interchangeable this makes your protagonists. And I’m not just talking about how we have two separate video games set in separate universes where the only difference in the hero’s name is exchanging an ‘x’ for a ‘c’ – that would be Red Faction: Guerilla and one of the many tumors peeled off of the Call of Duty franchise. I’m talking about the generic grizzled dude with a macho name is completely forgettable outside of their dumbass name. They only seem to exist to hold weaponry, scowl and roar, and shuffle in the general direction of the enemy. This is best illustrated in that masterpiece of the science-fiction genre, Space Mutiny:

  At the same time, though, you don’t want something ultimately forgettable. To be fair, a well-written character doesn’t need a unique name to make them stand out – Jim and Selena from 28 Days Later are really the only two protagonists from a zombie film I remember with greater clarity than ‘that blonde one’ and ‘the dipshit.’ But it stands to say that a decent name will be a better anchor for your audience than naming them something dumb.

  And this is where I always have problems. As much as I would like to be able to spontaneously generate first and last names that fit well together and sound like they are a part of the world around them, I always have a fear of giving my creations a complex. I would just hate giving an adult the name of ‘Byron Thunderpunch’ knowing that he grew up an asthmatic nerd with an entire battalion of imaginary friends. And I’d hate to imagine the abuse heaped upon ‘Tara Rex’ at the police academy. Maybe this ties into my generalized fear and hatred of children and the responsibility involved, but the name is always the most difficult part.

  This is pretty much the reason why I usually end up stealing my friends’ names and mix-and-matching them. And, in some cases, doing an outright copy-and-paste job because I am creatively bankrupt in that particular area. Not only is it a good way to fill in the gaps, but I also get to give handwaves to people that I like and find to be quite pleasant company.

  This also does extend to famous people, namely because I am a consumer of pop culture and inspiration strikes at odd times. Further, I particularly go for characters that I find to be highly entertaining rather than the people portraying them. For instance, the actor in Project Northwoods – Weston Marsh – is named after the main character from the show Burn Notice, Michael Weston. The two have very little in common outside the name – it’s just meant as a nod to something I enjoy.

  Speaking of Project Northwoods, those who have paid attention up to this point probably have noticed the main character’s name – Arthur Lowtax. Rather than making a political statement or some such tomfoolery, the last name was originally a placeholder. I wrote the first draft of the play the novel was based on in the fall of 2005. Proving to be as inept at naming back then as I am now, I just used the nickname of the owner of my favorite website, Something Awful, as the protagonist’s last name and figured I would change it later.

  Well, I never quite got around to doing that.

  Like a lot of fiction, Project Northwoods took on a mind of its own after awhile. And, as anyone who has written and edited something for so long can probably tell you, sometimes the seemingly insignificant details become the most inflexible. Something as inconsequential as a character name couldn’t be changed without it feeling like it changed a fundamental aspect of the reality I had created. Arthur’s name was every bit as set in stone as the overarching plot, an unmoving and necessary component atom of the story being told.

  Now, naturally, this is completely silly. If the only thing holding your universe together is a person’s name, you should probably go back to the drawing board. But the thing is that the psychotic part of an author’s brain will flick on and declare that these are real people, and you know them by these very specific names and changing them would just ruin everything.

  Another part of it, too, was the fact that Richard Kyanka and his website were instrumental in my development from teenaged misanthrope to adult misanthrope. In my final year of high school, a lot of my close friends had graduated and I had done a pretty spectacular job of alienating anyone else. Something Awful provided a lot of comfort – it was great to know that there were people that had a similar dark sense of humor and hobbies. When I revisited the topic of changing the name, a part of me wanted it to stand as testament to the guy who partially shaped the way I saw the world.

  But that matter is closed as of now.

  I hope nobody was too attached the Arthur’s last name, but it has been changed in the official manuscript. This wasn’t at anyone’s behest except my own. I still really respect Richard ‘Lowtax’ Kyanka and the website he created – both the standard content and its community have provided a lot of entertainment over the years. It was also where I got to read the early work of Zack Parsons, an amazingly gifted and ambitious author. But at the end of the day, no one else on earth is Lowtax – and that is the way it should be. He built his name, and from where I’m sitting now, it comes off as disingenuous to use it, even as a reference to someone much cooler than myself.

  I guess the best way to finish this up is by highlighting an anecdote from the year that the original Project Northwoods was performed (that would be 2006). As a precursor to an interview with Mike Nelson, star of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Richard explained that the show was one of two things that helped him get through high school (the other being drugs). And despite being created by a self-proclaimed Mike fanboy, Something Awful wasn’t named ‘Full-Nelson’ or ‘Mystery Science Theater 2999.’ Rich’s nickname wasn’t ‘MikeRulez2000.’ Both the man and the website went in its own direction, and although it wouldn’t have really hurt anything to have had a blatant reference to MST or Mike, it really was its own thing. Even his reviews of terrible movies were done in his own way. And, to keep this cycle going further, in the interview itself Mike references Monty Python’s Flying Circus as a source of entertainment in his formative years (I’m assuming twelve is a part of the formative years). Yet his style of comedy isn’t slavishly devoted to the Python-esque.

  And that’s what this is. Project Northwoods is its own thing and Arthur is his own man. It’s sad to see the change, but I wouldn’t want to draw connections where there aren’t any. I also wouldn’t want my own work to be overshadowed. It may not be that Northwoods will change the world. But I want it to have the chance to do so of its own accord.

Purchase Project Northwoods at Amazon.com.   Purchase Washed Hands at Amazon.com   Purchase Improbables at Amazon.com.

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