Sunday, October 27, 2019

Naming; the Seeds of Character-Building

As Halloween celebrants set about carving up pumpkins in creative ways for the holiday, consider extracting the many seeds from the gloppy guts of your purchased or homegrown gourds. Yes, they're tasty when baked and salted. But for me, those seeds represent another form of organic growth, related to the very important artistic process of writing, particularly the naming of characters.

In the early drafts of my sixth novel, Now I'm Here, at first I used names of actual people to solidify my initial inspiration. A few find/replaces later, I found a somewhat biblical theme under-riding that work-in-progress. Thus the name Joshua for my main character. The piano-playing teenager becomes somewhat zealous in his devotion to music, particularly the rock band Queen.

In these thematic essays, I've focused on the marvelous Freddie Mercury, and the music aspects of the work. With Halloween only a few days away, let's turn to Joshua's love interest, David Koenig.

Omitting the real name of the cute high school acquaintance on whom I had a crush since grade school, let's bump to the second name I gave the character; David. One day, as I stopped at a local small grocery store, I saw bags of edible seeds on display. As kids and as an adult, I had enjoyed home-baked pumpkin seeds, but seeing that bright red, yellow and green bag so clearly displaying the name, I chose the new and final name for my farm boy.

I thought of the biblical couple Jonathan and David, but that felt too obvious. In search of a last name, I pored over my favorite source, Egerton Sykes' Who's Who: Non-Classical Mythology. 

It was in that book that I found perfect names for major characters in my first novel, PINS. Donald Khors' last name, while a known contemporary name, also represents the Slavonic god of health and hunting, and takes the image of a stallion. Many of the names in PINS reflect the equine metaphors and the actual wrestling team name, the Colts. Each of the several cars in the novel also bring horse breeds into the story: Bronco, Mustang, Pinto.

The fun in finding such correlations serves to narrow the symbology of a story while revealing a sort of true nature to a character. While in the writing process, when trying to figure out how a character should or could behave, I found a point of focus by recalling the symbolic/real name.

For David, however, I couldn't find a name in Sykes' book that fit him. I knew I wanted a Germanic or Norwegian name, since many of the southern Ohio farming families of the era had ancestors from those countries. This brings up a character's family history, an essential part of thorough development. Even if it's not included in the published story, an author should know his or her background, at least for a few generations (orphans and supernatural creatures excused, perhaps).

This is why I find so many pop-oriented books, gay romances in particular, to be lacking. It's all set in the 'now,' with little sense of history (unless of course it is historical). When you can't feel a sense of the grounded nature of a character, they seem flimsy and less believable.

Koenig sounded right when I discovered it from poring over a phone book from Ohio that I'd saved for decades in a box of other research materials for Now I'm Here. An online search confirmed it.


K├Ânig is the German word for king. While David is by no means royal –he's humble, shy, even reclusive– he does 'rule' the fields where his father's pumpkin and corn fields are annually harvested. It seemed organic, true, ethnically logical, and a little bit sexy.


Now I'm Here cover photo shoot
I've humble-bragged here and elsewhere about having worked on a pumpkin farm for a few months in between colleges in 1981. The exhausted, overworked 20-year-old me at the time had no idea those grueling yet satisfying experiences would gestate into parts of what would be my sixth novel. That younger me was still dreaming of the idea of a first novel, in between all the labors.

That's just one story of one name, with a few tangents. I could go on about the nature themes in my two previous novels, Every Time I Think of You and Message of Love, but the two main characters' names, Reid Conniff and Everett Forrester, are pretty obvious.

My second novel, Monkey Suits, refers to Egyptian ruling class versus slave culture (the first and near-final scenes are set in New York City's Metropolitan Museum's Temple of Dendur; pretty obvious!), and when you read it, you can figure out how the four main character's names and natures match the four elements.

For Cyclizen, it's not only about a bike messenger and AIDS activist, but the name puns refer to mythical centaurs, Hercules, and a few other creatures.

This isn't done just to be clever, but to provide me a guide to focusing the story, and keeping the process fun.


But back to pumpkins! Have you saved the seeds? Rinse them, soak them in salt water, or sweeten them with cinnamon or pumpkin spice if you like.

You may not notice the pumpkins on the book cover, but since we shot it in May 2018, I'd saved a few small and big ones from October 2017! One can't just go out and buy pumpkins in Northern California in Spring.

And when you reach the last chapters of my latest, Now I'm Here, I hope you'll enjoy a bittersweet pumpkin and Halloween-related moment in the novel.

And please, do post reviews on Amazon, GoodReads and elsewhere. It's a way of sharing, but also helping get the word out on independent authors' stories.

Happy Halloween!

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