Friday, January 13, 2006

Say My Name...

I was, as previous posts have indicated, a huge Star Trek fan. (Not so much anymore, since, 1: They ain’t making no more and 2: That last push was pretty bad.) So, back in the early 90s, I tuned in with a somewhat guarded interest when Babylon 5 premiered. Hey, more sci-fi, right? How bad could it be?

Turned out that it wasn’t too bad at all. And while I can completely appreciate what J. Michael Straczynski was trying to do with his 5-year plan (and even more impressed that he actually got to pull it off in this increasingly quick-to-cancel TV enviornment), I stopped watching. Lots of reasons, but one of them, for sure, was that I hated the character names.

Laugh if you want, but how you choose to name a character is, for a long term project like a TV series, a crucial set of decisions.They are the talons with which your show hooks into the viewers’ collective memory. And Star Trek set the gold standard for TV sci-fi character names. Kirk. Spock. McCoy. Picard. Riker. Data. Crusher. Worf. No more than two syllables. Hard sounds. They provide an instant memory tag.

(They aren’t quite as elegant as, say, the names of the Cheers cast, which work on so many levels it’s scary. They’re not only easy to recall, but they actually describe the characters in one deft stroke. Sam Malone: Sam Alone. Diane Chambers: a walled-up personality. Woody: dense but warm. Frasier Crane: lives entirely in his head, his cranium. Man, just brilliant.)

Back to Babylon 5. Names like Jeffrey Sinclair (now, I know a few Jeffreys, and they’re all good folks, but “Jeff” isn’t really the guy you wanna follow into interstellar combat), Michael Garibaldi (named, I believe, for a fish), Laurel Takashima (not that you can’t go ethnic, but when you do, go Sulu)… They just didn’t register for me. And so I moved on.

When starting to dig into Monster Attack Network, the first thing we tackled was nailing down the names. They needed to be quick, easy reads for the characters, as well as having some style, while also avoiding the standard pitfall of “I’m writing my first comic so I’m gonna give my hero the coolest name I can think of. Of course, it’s a name that would never find itself on a real person. So, welcome to the world of Josiah Danger.” (Personally, I blame Wolverine for this. "Logan" has been at the head of every too-cool-for-its-own-good name trail of the past 20 years.)

For our hero, we settled on Nate Klinger. Implies a certain Germanic heritage. Also the idea that he’s the kind of man who clings to something—for us, that thing was a certain code of conduct. He holds these truths to be self-evident…

Speaking of holding, our hero’s No. 2 is Ezekiel Holder. Also goes by Zeke. “Ezekiel” gives you a hint of a Bible belt upbringing, his parents the kind of people who name their children after biblical characters. “Holder” for a couple of reasons. In the book, he’s the chief reconstruction engineer—the guy who holds things together. Holder is also my grandmother’s maiden name. So there.

Our heroine, Lana Barnes, is a native of the island of Lapuatu. So, I spent long relatively fruitless hours searching through Hawaiian name guides. Most of them are incomplete, but Lana seemed like a name you could relate to pretty easily but still get an exotic feel from. Barnes, well, to spill too much about that would ruin the book.

Hugh Tensington. The great white hunter who lives on an island frequented by giant monsters and never actually leaves the office to hunt. Hugh, because he tells this huge tall tales of exploits that might never have happened and Tensington because it has the root of “tense” in there. And it sounds stuffy and British.

And Terry Callow, the Trump-esque land developer. Callow. Hollow. Shallow. Yeah, that works for a guy who keeps knocking things down to build anew…but likes the knocking down better.

Herbert Marshall McLuhan said that “the name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.” In other words, be responsible when naming your characters. It matters. Take it from Mr. McLuhan: You know he got his ass kicked in elementary school with a name like Herbert.


Bill Cunningham said...

Yes, a person's name reveals a lot about their character. I always go through the script and change names around to mean something (if only to me). I understand that Stan Lee tried to limit a characters last name to two syllables:

Reed Richards
Peter Parker
Matt Murdock
et al...

marc bernardin said...

Yeah, and I'm sure his following the Siegel and Shuster pattern same-letter-for-first-and-last-names was conscious. After all, Lex Luthor, Lana Lang, and Lois Lane came before the Marvel characters. (Though I wonder what the big deal was with the letter "L"?)

Ken Lowery said...

I'm sorry, what? I'm still staring at that book cover, and it's creeping me out.

marc bernardin said...

Suck from the Jameson's teat, little Irish baby...builds strong drunk bones