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
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 thought on “Kris Farmen: A Character by Any Other Name”

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

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