What’s in a name?
I have a confession to make: I suck at naming characters.
I’m not kidding. Once, while working on a first draft, I realized my book featured three Jakes. Which, apart from sounding like an ill-conceived second sequel to CHINATOWN, probably made the story a little tough to follow. (Note to self: THE TWO JAKES was a massive flop. Even among hardcore mystery fans, that joke ain’t likely to land. Not that that’s ever stopped you before.)
Even when I manage to avoid repeating myself, the names I’m drawn to have a certain sameness to them, like those parents who name their children Braden, Caden, and Jaden. That’s fine for triplets, I guess. (An aside to parents who do this: I’m being polite because I want you to buy my book. It’s not fine. In fact, it may constitute cruel and unusual punishment.) But in a work of fiction, it pierces the illusion of a wide and varied world, and pulls back the curtain of authority we writers hide behind.
When I sat down to write THE KILLING KIND, I wanted to avoid my usual naming rut. I wanted names that sounded lived-in, authentic. So, as a music geek, I turned to an unlikely source for inspiration: the real names of punk artists who use stage names.
Straight-laced FBI agent Charlie Thompson has little in common with her namesake, whom Pixies fans know better as Black Francis. Ditto her partner, Henry Garfield, who takes his name from Black Flag front man turned spoken-word artist Hank Rollins.
Though I changed the spelling a tad, my rockabilly stoolpigeon Eric Purkhiser is named after the late, great Lux Interior of The Cramps.
And Hendricks’ best bud Lester Meyers is named after legendary punk innovator Richard Hell (born Richard Lester Meyers) of Neon Boys, Television, the Heartbreakers, and the Voidoids.
Not all my characters are named after punk musicians, of course. Rough-hewn hitman Leon Leonwood takes his name from the “L.L.” in L.L. Bean, as a nod to my adopted home state. I likely cooked up Chicago Mafioso Monte D’Abruzzo’s name after a particularly tasty glass of Italian red. Alexander Engelmann’s surname was taken from Glennon Engleman, a St. Louis dentist who moonlighted as a hitman. (Posthumous congratulations, Glennon: you’re no longer America’s most hated dentist.) His alias—L’Engle—was borrowed, with apologies, from Madeleine L’Engle, author of A WRINKLE IN TIME. And casino pit boss Bernie Liederkrantz keeps the stage-name theme alive, although he’s certainly no punk musician—he’s a felt-based game show host better known as Guy Smiley.
But what of my lead character, Michael Hendricks? The truth is, I tried out several names before I found one that stuck. He began life as Michael Stark, after the warrior angel and Donald Westlake’s nom de plume, respectively. But that struck me as too cheesy—like Chase Stone or Slade McFacepunch. Plus, the world’s already got a Ned Stark and a Tony Stark. How’s poor Mikey going to stack up against Iron Man and the Lord of Winterfell? (No, really, fanfic authors: I wanna know.)
So how’d I land on Hendricks? I tend to think of Michael as a little prickly and unapproachable, but oddly compelling. One day, when I was editing the opening chapter of THE KILLING KIND, I read this and it clicked:
“[Hendricks] missed the dark greens and cold blues of northern New England, where even the hottest summer sun failed to warm the deepest hollows of the forest, and the water ran cold all year long.”
Cold, piney, unapproachable, and a little bit James Bond-y… yeah, I named him after gin.
One last thing: Hendricks burns through a goodly number of aliases over the course of THE KILLING KIND—each of them an easter egg, a winking reference. But those, I think, I’ll leave you to discover.
Chris Holm is an award-winning short-story writer whose work has appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies, including Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2011. His critically acclaimed Collector trilogy made over forty Year’s Best lists. His latest novel, THE KILLING KIND, is about a man who makes his living hitting hitmen, only to wind up a target himself. For links to Chris on Twitter and Facebook, visit www.chrisholmbooks.com.