Wednesday, April 12, 2017

What's in a Name?

Imagine my shock. Suddenly the hero of my first and third novels was dead. The author is always the last to know.

Okay, my protagonist is not really dead. Actually, I guess I am only presuming he is not dead since I have not yet worked out where Dallas Green would be today in 2017 and what he would be doing. Obviously, though, I have worked out where he is at least as far as the end of the upcoming book and, truth be told, a good few years after that, since I have already been plotting out the third installment in his prospective trilogy. I hope that is not a spoiler to be divulging he survives for that amount of time. I figure that, when the protagonist of a book is narrating the story in the first person, he necessarily cannot narrate past the end of his own life. Well, unless he is narrating from beyond the grave like William Holden’s character is Sunset Boulevard.

The shock I mentioned above had to do with an obituary I came across in The New York Times last month. It reported that Dallas Green had died on March 22 at the age of 82. Of course, the story was not about my fictional creation but about a real person.

The real Dallas Green (actual full name: George Dallas Green) was born in Delaware and had an undistinguished baseball pitching career before going on to manage to the Philadelphia Phillies to their first-ever World Series title in 1980 (coincidentally the very same year in which my upcoming book is set). He later was a manager for New York’s Yankees and Mets. He was known to be tall and hot-tempered and to have a booming voice. His life was marked with sadness that went beyond simply being one of numerous people fired by George Steinbrenner. His nine-year-old granddaughter was one of six people killed in the shooting that injured U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson six years ago.

One of the tricky things about writing fiction is coming up with names for characters. It is pretty much impossible to come up with a plausible-sounding monicker that does not already belong to some number of real people. Generally, one avoids using the same name as someone particularly famous—unless maybe it is a plot point or important detail for building the character. (“Unlucky enough to be named Frank by his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Sinatra, he was regularly beaten in school by bullies who insisted he sing for them with the same voice quality of his famous namesake.”) Not being much of a follower of sports, I do not think I was even aware of the existence baseball’s Dallas Green when I came up with that name for a teenager in a California farming town in the early 1970s. As for his best friend, Lonnie McKay, I don’t know how that name came to me but, after the book was published, a childhood acquaintance mentioned with some amusement on Facebook that his cousin had the very same name. Had I met or heard about the real Lonnie and then had the name stick in the back of my head somewhere?

I did learn of another real-life Dallas Green not long after Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead came out. I was listening to Weekend Edition on National Public Radio one Saturday when Scott Simon interviewed a Canadian singer/songwriter named Dallas Green. If I had missed hearing about him up until then, it may have been because he was a vocalist/guitarist in the hardcore band Alexisonfire before setting out on his own seven years ago. He has since recorded under the name City and Colour—because his name is a city followed by a color. Born in St. Catherine’s, Ontario in 1980, he was actually named after the baseball manager who achieved his World Series triumph that very same year.

I am sure there are many more Dallas Greens out there. A quick web search, for example, turns up a couple of men (a DJ in the Washington D.C. area and an Australian athlete and father who died way too young last year) and a couple of women (a technical administrator in northern California and a recent bride in North Carolina).

It is always worth doing a search on a character’s name before committing it to print but, as I say, you are never going to come up with any kind of normal name for a character that is not already being used by a whole bunch of actual real people out there. I suppose the best you can hope for is that your fictional creation does not resemble a real person to the extent that you could be looking at lawsuits—especially if your fictional creation is not very well behaved.

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