Laurel Dewey: Naming your character

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Laurel Dewey Author PhotoGenerally speaking, writers can be a sensitive bunch. Obviously, it takes a lot of sensitivity to create characters that never existed before and give them interesting stories where they can play out their dramas. On a whole, I think it’s fair to say that most writers are a lonely lot, spending most of their time holed up in front of their computer, blasting their adrenal glands with too much coffee and nicotine and worrying if they’ve got what it takes to compete in the big bad publishing world.

It also might be safe to say that, given a writer’s artistic temperament, they weren’t necessarily understood when they were younger. Maybe their peers shunned them. Rejected by their parents. Perhaps they were teased or beat up on the playground. But you want to know a secret? When those future writers were going through hell in their younger years, they were quietly taking down names.

Oh, yeah. They had a plan. A somewhat flaccid, yet sinister plan. For every individual who mocked or abused them, that future writer had a special plan to take out their revenge. One day, the bully would become the antagonist in their novel.

Consider it literary justice. Literally.

Sure, it’s passive/aggressive justice. But we writers are not exactly known for starting actual physical fights. It might damage our fingers and, thus, prevent us from sitting behind our keyboards and gunning down our aggressors.

About three years ago, I recall reading about the late author Michael Crichton’s literary brawl with Washington political columnist Michael Crowley. Seems Crichton fit into that “sensitive” category I mentioned. As the story goes, Crichton was deeply insulted by Crowley’s criticism of the writer and his politics. So Crichton did what any self-respecting writer does: he named the villain in his latest novel, Next, after the guy. And he wasn’t subtle about it, giving the antagonist the name MICK Crowley.

Oh, it gets better. He made Mick Crowley a sodomizing, child rapist. But best of all, Crichton gave Crowley’s character a small penis. Talk about cutting a guy off at the knees…or higher. While the real Crowley is fumed about this obvious defamation of character, he never sued Crichton. After all, few men are going to cop to a character being named after them when said character has a pecker the size of a postage stamp. In the literary world, libel lawyers unofficially call it “the small penis rule.”

I can speak from experience about naming the villain of a story. It’s always a moment of power mixed with unrestrained glee. The added perk is that after months of writing your book, it’s akin to a long therapy session of beating the crap out of a pillow where you imagine the face of your enemy. In some ways, you’ve exercised your demons by continually typing the name of your oppressor hundreds of times and placing him/her in situations that humiliate, taunt and eventually, destroy.

But there can be problems in the villain-naming department. For example, what if your playground bully had a name that was common? John? Cathy? Tom? Ann? And what if there were other people in your life—decent people who you like—with the same name? I’ll tell you what happens. The decent people call you up, incensed that you chose THEIR name as the serial killer/wife abuser/child molester/deranged lunatic. “What did I ever do to you?” they ask you, offended that their common name has been trashed.

However, when you tell them that you were not trashing THEM, but someone else who happened to have the same name, they take a meaningful pause. “You mean it wasn’t ME?” they ask, sounding a bit disregarded. It’s no a no-win situation because now they feel left out!

Or, there’s this one: instead of naming the villain after a foe, you name them after someone you like. Yes, I know that goes against the creed of naming your bad guy after a putz. But this dilemma occurred recently. My editor, Lou Aronica, has been a wellspring of support since the inception of Detective Jane Perry. When I started outlining the sequel to “Protector” (titled “Redemption”), I promised to name a major character in the book after him. However, I’d already bestowed all the main characters with meaningful names. The only character that remained unnamed was the central criminal mind—a guy who was a child killer and rapist. I’d NEVER named a villain after anyone I liked. Never. But I really wanted to get Lou’s name in the book in a prominent way. When I emailed Lou to ask if this was okay with him, he wasn’t sure at first how to take the news. But when I explained everything, he agreed to allow his name to be sullied “in the spirit in which it was bestowed.” Thus, the villain of Lou Peters was born.

Finally, there’s this predicament when choosing your scoundrel’s moniker: their namesake simply doesn’t get it. This exact thing happened to me years ago when I was fresh out of college and ready to sully the name of someone I didn’t like. I wrote a short story and merrily named the antagonist after a particularly nasty literary professor (talk about justice) who had been a thorn in my side. The story was published in an obscure literary journal and, out of the blue, I get a letter from the Lit. Professor telling me how much he loved the story and how “honored” he was to be one of the characters. Honored? Talk about knocking the wind out of my vengeful sails.

In retrospect, I should have given his character a small penis…


Protector cover


Laurel Dewey is The Story Plant’s Author of the Month. This means we’re offering sensational deals on all of her books, including national bestseller Protector. You can learn more here.

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On May 20, 2013
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