Tag Archives: tombstone

Is It a Rose by Any Other Name?

Naming a fictional character can be a tricky business. The right name can make a character greater, and the wrong name can derail all your carefully drawn details. The importance of a name on people’s perception of a character or even a real person has long been understood. In literature the Bronte sisters were originally given male pseudonyms in order to render them more serious and palatable to their potential readership. The author George Sand was born Amanda Aurore Lucille Dupin. Later on Hollywood was following a similar practice. Only in their case they weren’t hiding gender but often accentuating it with what were either considered lovely memorable feminine names or manly names befitting a man of action. Who doesn’t now know that Cary Grant started life out as Archibald Leach? They did hide, however, ethnicity in many cases. Theda Bara was actually Theodosia Burr Goodman, a good Jewish girl from Ohio.

Historically a name can make or break whether or not someone is remembered. In Allen Barra’s examination of the fame and notoriety of Wyatt Earp, Inventing Wyatt Earp, he devotes a section of the book to speculating on why it is Wyatt Earp more than his brother Virgil Earp that is remembered as the upright lawman with the Buntline Special Colt .45. He quite congenitally points out that, besides a few other details of Wyatt’s fame, ‘Wyatt Earp’ just rolls off the tongue better than ‘Virgil Earp’ does. Keeping to the western theme ‘Doc Holliday’ is a magical moniker that gives the owner a permanent password to fame. In the town of Tombstone at the very same time lived a medical doctor who was known as Doc Goodfellow, and while the name appears to be nearly as good, and then good doctor was, in fact, a brilliant physician and innovator, it is the gunfighting tubercular dentist who’s name really sings in the memory.

In fiction, as in fact, it is a great boost to memorability to have a great name. Arnold Schwarzenegger wrote in his early memoir Pumping Iron of his intention to keep his funny sounding Austrian name that was hard to spell, despite Hollywood practice, because he believed that it’s very unusualness would ensure that people remembered him. It seems to have worked in his case though many actors and actresses have discarded their own prosaic sounding names. After all would Cary Grant have been quite so suave and sophisticated as Archibald Leach? The name shouts his working class roots as well as having an unfortunate association with small blood-sucking invertebrates. I have come across many unfortunate names in real life such as Doreen Wonderlick and Dick Swet. You have to wonder what the parents were thinking.

Unless you want a comic character you want to avoid doing the same thing to your own ‘children’ of your imagination. I can’t tell you how to choose a good name, but I do several things. I collect names. When I hear a good name I keep a note of it. I, of course, mix and match. It’s very important to say the name aloud a few times to make sure it sounds right. You might want something melodious or you might want something guttural and punchy. It is good to consider whether or not it fits your character. Like A Boy Named Sue it could be ironic or it could be a perfect match; something that suggests that your character just couldn’t be named anything else and be the same person.

When I write collaborative fiction at Pan Historia I often find the name coming first – surfacing out of the depths of my mind like a leviathan breaching. The name draws the rest of the beast out into the open sea of my imagination until I have a fully realized character. Most of the time though I think writers will have a character in mind and need to name them after. In your short story or novel there will be many supporting characters – each will need a name. I would give as much thought to the smallest bit part as to the hero or heroine. A small character with a funny or unusual name well thought out can become more vivid in the reader’s mind. Who can forget Ratso Rizzo from Midnight Cowboy? Now tell me what John Voight’s lead character’s name was from the same movie? Can’t? It’s Joe Buck – a name very suitable for the character but completely upstaged by Ratso Rizzo. All of these factors should be of consideration when you’re naming characters. Whatever you do, don’t just open up the White Pages and randomly pick a name.

Be armed with names ahead of time. Keep a notebook with all the great names you come across including the names of family members or friends that you find evocative. You might not have occasion to use them right away, but in time they might be just the right moniker for some well-crafted character. It’s ok, in a manuscript or draft, to play with different names, or versions of a name, until you get it right. It’s a little more difficult in collaborative fiction because you create the character before you start writing, but be prepared to delete that which does not work.

Writers: I would love to hear your tips and techniques for picking out the right name for your characters. Feel free to comment and keep the discussion going.

More on Collaborative Writing

Sometimes a guy’s gotta do what a guy’s gotta do…

In one of my most recent collaborative posts I wrote something for my character that under ordinary circumstances I would never write. In a somewhat romantic scene between my rather chivalrous historical character John Clum (a very interesting man!) I had him mention the lovely ‘violet’ eyes of the heroine (a purely fictional Madame with the proverbial heart of gold). Now the reason I wouldn’t normally do this is a) most people don’t have violet eyes (except Liz Taylor) and b) I feel it’s verging on bad writing – ie: “I gazed into her large liquid orbs like pools of…” You get the point.

So, I hear you all chime, why did you do it?

I did it for my writing partner. Writing with someone in a collaborative fiction project should not be all about the quality of the writing all of the time – not if you’re doing this as a social recreational thing. See I adore my writing partner in that novel, Tombstone, at Pan Historia. She’s been a great friend for years now. We’ve never met in person but online we share a great history of fun and collaboration. I wrote about her violet eyes because she would enjoy the reference and the deferment to her creative fantasy life. She wants violet eyes! She gets violet eyes! It’s her fantasy too, damnit. I wrote it to give her pleasure.

I might be fantasizing about writing the great American novel one day, but she’s getting a kick out of being a beautiful woman with a shadowy past, violet eyes, and a heart of gold back in the Wild Wild West. And why the hell not? Let’s face it. I get a kick out of role-playing Wyatt Earp in the same role-play collaborative novel. So sometimes it’s really good to remember this is not always about serious writing and ART. It’s about fun too.

And as the man said: “if it ain’t fun, don’t do it”.

Fiction Understanding History

Recently I participated in an online writing exercise that was ambitious and unusual. I don’t know what happens elsewhere because I tend to stick to a few places on the internet and really dig in deep, but even for my community site www.panhistoria.com I felt that the endeavor of last weekend was quite remarkable. We re-enacted the Gunfight at the OK Corral with our key writers over one day: October 26th, 2008 – the 127th Anniversary of the historical event.

To give you a little history our group has been ‘role-playing’ the characters and color of the town of Tombstone, Arizona since 1998 when I first quite randomly picked up the character of Wyatt Earp, and my kid, then quite young wanted to be Doc Holliday. I thought it would be an educational thing we could do together – I could sneak some history down with the role play and he might actually learn something. School sure wasn’t sticking. At the time I was into Ancient Egyptian and Roman history and knew nothing about the American West. I was not a huge fan of Roy Rogers, the Wyatt Earp TV Show (never heard of it even), and even John Wayne (though The Shootist was on my list of great movies). I neither counted nor discounted the western movie from my repertoire of viewing or reading but what brought me to westerns was a movie – it was Tombstone starring Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer and a momentary passing interest my son had in Doc Holliday because of that movie.

Slipping into the skin of an American icon, one both revered and hated depending on whose doing the looking, was and remains a terrifically challenging task. Not to be half-assed I started looking into the historical record of a man that lived by the gun but was never shot himself and kept finding nifty and interesting tidbits as well as controversy. It was a story sure to suck me in. Who was this guy and how did he become famous, stay famous, and then end up the central figure of a love him or hate him conflagration that maintains its passion to this day across numerous history forums?

One thing I decided early on was that I was pro-Earp. First I was playing the character and I preferred the hero to the villain (villains are great fun to write by not the kind of dull brutish villain Earp detractors favor for our Wyatt). Second there were several facts that seemed indisputable and pointed to Wyatt being an ok guy even if he had some less than stellar moments on occasion (as is true of us all): his enemies pretty much were all well known rustlers, collaborators with criminals, on the graft, and ended up either in jail or shot for their crimes; his enemies tended to ambush people and shoot people in the back; Wyatt ended his life respected and loved by some rather upstanding and interesting people.

There is probably no way at this late date in history to ever completely know just what kind of man Wyatt Earp really was, and in the end it’s not necessary to me as a fiction writer to recreate the man. I have, in the end, simply created a man that I call Wyatt Earp who re-enacts many key elements of the original’s life but is, in fact, quite uniquely himself. You cannot take the role of another for ten years and not infuse something of yourself into him – whatever your take on history.

This year as a writing group it seemed like we finally had the chance to write about the events that seemed to have thrust Earp into the history books whether he like it or not. These events, the Gunfight, which should more accurately be called “the street fight in the vacant lot by C.S. Fly’s Photography Studio (not so catchy is it?), are not exactly pivotal events in the history of our nation. In fact it’s a wonder that they survive as more than a footnote in the annuals of the history of frontier law and as one of the only actual gunfights to take place in western American history – unlike the Dime Novels would have had us to believe.

But it is a pivotal event in the history of the American Myth, and part of the stories that make us, as a nation, who we are, or at least who we like to be. Wyatt Earp’s name is known around the globe as a symbol of American shoot ’em up go get ’em and ask questions later law enforcement. He is the predecessor of characters like Bruce Willis plays in the Die Hard franchise. Going back to the shoot out itself, even if it was just in a collaborative fictional setting, our history books open, was to watch the birth of something huge and looming in the American psyche. I make no judgments here whether it this thing is good or bad, but it is part of us, even to the people with no interest in the ‘Wild West’ or Wyatt Earp. We are touched by it whether we like it or not. It’s relevant to our dealings in law enforcement, our dealings in government, in foreign policy, and how many of us see ourselves.

So it was with some sense of awe and accomplishment that I completed a twelve hour long role-playing session at Pan Historia on Oct 26th with my fellow writers (much thanks to the other big players Virgil Earp and Doc to use their Pan identities), as well as all the other wonderful writers and supporters playing characters both made up and historical. As the day flowed from one tense moment to the next, after weeks of building up the tension in town to get the heat right, I finally made sense of what, no matter how well explained in a history book, had previously left me confused and without answers: what happened that day to cause the Earps and their friend Doc Holliday to participate in a gunfight that hurtled three men to their deaths, made Wyatt and Doc famous, but ultimately destroyed all the ambitions of the Earp family.

And in making sense of it the event finally became more than just fiction, it became history.