Monday, August 27, 2012

Kris Farmen: A Character by Any Other Name

My new novel, Turn Again, is about to be released upon the world. This is less a time for contemplative reflection of a job well done (I hope) than an occasion to lie awake at night staring at the ceiling in the two-am dusk, full of trepidation. The process of producing a book is often referred to in the biz as “birthing,” and with good reason. It’s the mental equivalent of labor and childbirth. Says the man who will never be pregnant and dilated upon the table in a horrid floral hospital gown. But the artistic mind seizes the most convenient metaphor during these moments of self-doubt and clings to it like a cat perched on an air mattress in a swimming pool.

Among the items in my bag of worries is the rather mundane task of choosing names for one’s characters. It can be a vexing problem, particularly in light of the punters’ habit of sidling up to you and asking if maybe a particular character is based upon so-and-so, because they have the same name. Or perhaps—they ask with either a knowing sidelong look or wide-eyed earnestness—is the character based on them?

This is a downright nightmarish scenario, not the least because you never know if they want it to be true or not. The last thing you want is to piss off your constituency, in the idiom of politicians. For the record, I have yet to base a fictional character on anybody I know, and I doubt I ever will. For one thing, it’s a good way to wreck a friendship. It’s also a pretty good way to get sued for libel. 

With non-fiction, it has long been a rule of mine that I will mention a friend in an essay or non-fiction history piece when the occasion demands, but I won’t use their real names. This is just as much for their sake as for mine. Alaska is, after all, a very small place, and the last thing you want is to subject your friends to a lifetime of ribbing over some innocuous little incident that you put into a magazine story so you could make a few bucks. Instead of, say, working a real job like they do. So when I do this, I always give them an alias. To protect the guilty.   

The stakes can be a bit higher when you’re publishing a book. The bad guy (such as he is) in Turn Again shares a first name with both a former boss of mine who ranks as one of the better bosses from my various day jobs, and also with a magazine editor who has been very good to me over the years. I wasn’t thinking of either of these guys when I named the character, I just picked the first name that popped into my head. Granted, it’s a very common name, but there is the nagging anxiety that they’ll take it as some kind of commentary on our relationship. Fortunately, both of them are smart enough to figure out that the name is just a coincidence. I hope.

The obvious strategy is to choose names that aren’t shared by anyone you know, but this is easier said than done. Consider all the people you’ve ever met in the course of your life. Each of them had a name, and you can easily drive yourself batty trying to find a vacant one. I tend to go with really oddball and outdated names when I need a pseudonym. One buddy who crops up occasionally in my essays is listed as “Walt,” while another is “Lew.” Fiction gets harder because you need more names, and all the good ones are taken. At moments like this, there is a distinct temptation to follow Douglas Adams’ and, to a lesser extent, Annie Proulx’s method of endowing their characters with gibberish names like Bob Dollar, Quoyle, or Zaphod Beeblebrox. That last one, admittedly, might not go so well in a book like Turn Again that is set amid the earthy realities of life in nineteenth century Alaska, but I’d bet folding money that none of Douglas Adams’ old bosses ever rang him up after reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and demanded to know why he used their name for some dopey character in his book.

All of which does nothing to lull the novelist to sleep. In A.C. Weisbecker’s words, you have no idea how much a writer sweats over these things. Except, if you read this blog, you probably do. But as a good friend of mine (who I would call “Fred” if the name didn’t already belong to one of my uncles) once said, none of that awful stuff I spend my time worrying about ever actually happens. So don’t tell me that worrying doesn’t do any good.

Kris Farmen is the author of the novel The Devil’s Share, as well as numerous essays and magazine stories. His new novel, Turn Again, will be released this fall. Kris, who lives on the Kenai Peninsula, will be signing copies of his book at the Talkeetna Roadhouse on Wednesday, August 29, at 5 p.m.

1 comment:

Lynn Lovegreen said...

Great post, Kris. It is hard to name characters--I've resorted to looking at online baby name lists.