Books on writing fiction say, “give your characters a unique name or a particular quality so the reader can remember or identify with them.” I struggled with that advice from the beginning—the people in my books are normal people who live in ordinary places—so why should I make them different?
My main character is Steve Schilling. Using Steve as the first name is simple enough. Schilling popped into my mind as a last name because I was going to refer to him as a “shill,” a hawker, gambler or swindler. He never turned out quite that way, but lying to women about his affairs might have made him more of a “shill” than I realized.
One day, purely by accident, I discovered a new way of naming and sometimes describing my characters. It happened in Signature Affair when Steve was introduced to the Chairman of the Democratic Party. With that thought, my mind shifted to my good friend, Clarence Smith, who was the local Chairman of the Republican Party. “Ah ha,” I said to myself. “I’ll make the character in the book just opposite of Clarence.” And so the character had dark hair slicked back and a beer gut, just the reverse of my friend. In the book, I named the Chairman of the Democratic Party Clarence Smithton. See the similarity?
From that point on, I started searching for names, using part or deviations of our friend’s names. Subtle insertions began to appear, professor Tarpley, Mary Ann Kellman and Reverend Scanlon to name a few. It wasn’t long before friends were calling to be in the next book. Soon what to name the characters was replaced with a little game—who do we pick today?
All of this is in good fun, but now the word is out. “Be careful what you say when you’re around Les, you may appear in his next book.”
One of the funniest things happened when we were visiting good friends, Don and Gloria Cagigas, in Ohio. Naturally, we talked a lot about the book. It so happened that I was writing about a banker at the time who chaired the United Way. That was close to what Don had done—he was a retired banker who then became the head of the United Way.
As a joke I sent him a draft chapter, using Don Cagigas as a character’s name. Gloria read the chapter, had a good laugh and encouraged Don to read it. Being tired that night, he said, “I’ll read it in the morning.” Of course, he got the look, and immediately picked up the draft and began to read. Turning the third page, he shouted, “Don Cagigas? What the heck . . ?”
The next morning I got the call—“everyone will think it’s me. You can’t use my name.” After lots of laughs, I told him not to worry and assured him the character’s name is really Don Cagney, not Don Cagigas. As a result of that experience, my wife and I now have fun at the dinner table figuring variations of friends’ names for my characters.
Do you have an interest in being in my next book? Be careful what you say; you be may be there someday!