Curtis is one of those good guys I enjoy meeting up with at conventions. He's smart and eloquent. He's also a good writer. Here, he talks about the importance of names in his debut novel, WAYPOINT KANGAROO.
DOFF THY NAME
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title...
— Juliet, Romeo and Juliet (Act II, Scene II)
Shakespeare did many clever things as a writer, and Juliet’s “balcony speech” is one of the cleverest. The literal interpretation of her words is, of course, false: names do matter, especially in fiction. “Humbert and Juliet” would have been a totally different story. (See what I did there? Referencing Lolita to creep you out? The power of a name, my friend.)
When I’m writing a story, I always check my character names for variety (dialogue between “Mike” and “Mick” is hard to follow), historical and cultural associations (“Monique” implies a different person than “Millicent”), and the quality TV writer Jane Espenson calls “subliminal”—when a name alone implies things about the character.
Over several cycles of revising my debut novel Waypoint Kangaroo, some characters changed names a lot. I was also writing more short fiction over the same period—i.e., naming lots of new and different characters—and I got into the habit of always doing a quick web search to make sure I wasn’t inadvertently Tuckerizing a real person. (TV showrunner John Rogers’ “LEVERAGE Post-Game” blogs often mention name clearance issues: network lawyers prefer either something totally unique and unreal, or something very common. That’s also my rule of thumb.) This research was why my randomly-named-in-the-first-draft characters “Alan Parker” and “Jerry Manning” had to change later.
Other names in Waypoint Kangaroo changed because I wanted to make them more meaningful. “Andrea Jemison” started out as “Pauline Deschanel”—again, chosen at random, because we’d recently watched an episode of Bones (starring Emily Deschanel) with our friend Pauline. I renamed that character “Jemison” to honor the first woman of color in space, and “Andrea” from the Greek for “adult male”—because she does present as fairly masculine, and that’s important to her personality.
Another change was “Eleanor Gavilán,” who started out as “Ellie Sparrow”—a nod to both Ellie Arroway from Contact and Mary Doria Russell’s book The Sparrow. There, the primary motivation was to make my cast more ethnically diverse (this is an actually post-racial future setting), and also to connote greater strength: “gavilán” is Spanish for sparrowhawk.
(Changing those two names did preclude one of my favorite dumb jokes, where Kangaroo realizes the women call each other “Polly” and “Sparrow” because they’re “a couple of birds,” but I’m so glad I can share that bit here and now. YOU’RE WELCOME.)
And what about “Kangaroo”? I never divulge my protagonist’s “real” name, because every name he adopts—from his spy agency code name “Kangaroo” to his current alias, “Evan Rogers”—is real. Each identity simply implies a different way for him to interface with the world. We all use different monikers in different situations, and whether someone calls you “Robert,” “Bobby,” “B-dawg,” or “Mr. DeNiro” says a lot about the relationship between you two.
So what’s really in a name? Pretty much everything. That’s the irony of Juliet’s speech: she knows exactly how significant Romeo’s name is, and she’s trying to convince herself that it’s a surmountable obstacle (“Just change your name, dude!”). But we all know how that story ended.
Once a software engineer in Silicon Valley, CURTIS C. CHEN now writes speculative fiction and runs puzzle games near Portland, Oregon. His debut novel WAYPOINT KANGAROO, a science fiction spy thriller, is forthcoming from Thomas Dunne Books on June 21st, 2016. Curtis' short stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, the Baen anthology MISSION: TOMORROW, and THE 2016 YOUNG EXPLORER'S ADVENTURE GUIDE. He is a graduate of the Clarion West and Viable Paradise writers' workshops. You can find Curtis at Puzzled Pint Portland on the second Tuesday of every month. Visit him online at: http://curtiscchen.com