A Rose by Any Other Name

A friend of mine won a contest in which the grand prize was to be killed by Lee Child. For fellow fans of the Jack Reacher series, this was just about as good as it gets.

I met Andrew Peterson at the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference in June 2008, months before Dorchester Publishing published his debut novel, First to Kill. Apparently Lee Child held a character-naming auction in which he chose three names to be included in a forthcoming novel. Who wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to have their namesake rendered in the mind of the most prolific thriller writer today? Sure enough, when Delacorte Press published 61 Hours in 2010, my friend found himself as a cop on the Boston beat.

It didn’t turn out so well for him.

SPOILER ALERT: He gets nailed on page 283. “Peterson was sprawled across the front seats, dead from a gunshot wound to the head.”

For me, my characters’ names come not from contests but from context and the world around me. Indeed, in the 13 years since completing the first draft of Control Group, most of my character names have undergone a metamorphosis. As I take stock of this current cast, here’s a rundown of some of the characters in the final version of Control Group—and how their names crept into the story. Interestingly, only one made if from first to final draft: Karen Kiley

At BioloGen -

  • Karen Kiley : She made it into the sixth page, chapter one of the first draft in the fall of 2004 (under the working title Big Pharma). “After their first interview, Carter [sic] had left with the impression that Karen Kiley was the consummate marketing executive: she had the boldness to ask for what she wanted and the charm to get it.” I saw the last name Kiley on a relator sign in our neighborhood while walking the dog. Knowing she had a hard edge under her soft smile, I thought I’d add a similar hard “kuh” sound to her first name.
  • Douglas Schofield : He started as Douglas Kay for the first 5 years of the novel, based on a fellow physician’s last name. I later realized, though, that I needed some visual and aural differentiation of the character names to set him apart from Kiley and the then-protagonist Carter. During the 2013 dismantling re-write, while reading a Civil War history, I came across General John Schofield. I liked the sound of the name enough to simply “Find and Replace” his sir name in the text. For me, the “big man from West Texas” was alway just Douglas.
  • Red Pescatelli : The early drafts had him as Hank Pescatelli, but once Blood Money came out featuring bad guy Hank Stone, I needed a new name to pick on. I had long ago settled on Pescatelli from a contestant on the flash-in-the-pan NBC hit Last Comic Standing, but I struggled to find the right first name. Weeks after I had figured out Mackie’s motivation (with the loss of his son setting up a sabbatical that gets him to BioloGen), I found myself in a church pew behind an elderly man with a bright red birth mark stained across his bald scalp. If chance favors the prepared mind, then I was ready in that divine moment. Upon seeing the birth mark, I realized I now had both the name (Freddie, shortened to “Red”) and the motivation (birthmark exposed by chemo-hair-loss as a kid, leading to a career in cancer research). “Kids can be cruel,” Mackie said to Karen after he first meets Red. She doesn’t miss a beat. “So can male-pattern baldness.”

 

Supporting Staff -

  • Tim Stiles : Years ago, when my son became of age, I was asked to accompany him to a boys sports camp and serve for a week as the camp doctor. That coincided with the summer of my last big re-write. While most of evening headaches and stomachaches I saw in clinic came from kids missing mama, I was also called upon to pull a tooth for the first time. Having punted those responsibilities to my sister back home, I now found myself as the one person seven-year-olds looked toward to extract a wiggly tooth. “You know I’ve never done this before, Mr. Stiles” I told the young boy whose last name severs as the inspiration for this character. “That’s alright, Dr. Russell,” he told me, freshly showered and in his pajamas. “I got all night to wait on you.” He almost did.
  • Nurse Lydia : She’d known me in the camp setting as a counselor-turned-med student-turned- camp doc. She’d taught me what it meant to truly care for sick children. And she’d probably pulled more loose teeth than I’d even seen. When young Mr. Stiles came in that night with his dangling tooth, she spoke for all three nurses there when she simply stated, “You’re on-call tonight, Stephen. Time to be a doctor.” Truth!
  • Aunt Mer : Until that fateful first summer night, my sister Meredith had pulled all of my kids’ loose teeth. Even as I write this, I still don’t think she knows she made it into the book during the last big re-write. SPOILER ALERT : she fares better than Andrew Peterson. But just.

 

“What’s in a name?” Juliet pleads to her lover Romeo in Shakespeare’s iconic play. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” she argues, effectively saying, to hell with your house and the name of your family. You’d “retain that dear perfection,” even if your name were Russell.

Of course, they both end up dead as a result of their decisions, so there’s a counter point to be argued for their young love. For my purposes, though, there is meaning in the names authors choose. We start to associate character traits and images based on the melody of these figments of our imagination. Change the name, even slightly, and their motivations and outcomes can drastically change.

I love thinking about plot twists and pacing. I enjoy scenes and setting. But the story really start to take off when I can give a character a name, and then see where they take me.

Romeo, for all his shortcomings, seems to agree: “I take thee at thy word,” he pines to Juliet. “Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptized.”

New beginnings. And it all started with a name.