Names from Books: How I named my characters

May 22, 2016 Linda Rosenkrantz

By Mathieu Cailler

During my recent book tour travels, I would often read a short story titled “Zorba’s” from my collection, Loss Angeles. In it, a young couple contemplates names for their soon-to-be-born baby boy. They go back and forth: the husband likes a name, the wife does not, and vice-versa. What I noticed at the readings was that everyone has a name story. And it got me thinking about the names in my book, and how I came to select them.

In “Over the Bridge” there is a jazz motif. In jazz the names (and nicknames)can be amazing—think Cannonball Adderley, Billie Holliday, Zoot Sims—but then again I wanted the name to not overpower the story. I decided on Ella. It was easy to write, easy to read, and paid homage to the First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald.

The main character in “A Day Like Today” is named Locklin. This name came to me in two ways. One, I taught an amazing student named Lachlin and always thought the name was cool, sleek. And two, one of my favorite writers is Gerald Locklin. I decided on the “Locklin” spelling because it was more phonetic.

“Dark Timber” is a hunting story. The protagonist is a boy, so I wanted a name that was innocent and interesting, for it would be used a lot in the piece. I happened to be reading a biography of Raymond Carver (another favorite writer of mine) at the time, and learned that his middle name was Clevie (inherited from his father). The named seemed tender, like it was almost impossible to see someone named Clevie grow up. The name seemed permanently rooted in childhood, which I liked.

Hudson is vital in “Zorba’s”… I won’t spoil any of it for you, but after much deliberation, I couldn’t find the right name, and then, one night at a bar, I ordered an Old Fashioned. The waiter recommended Hudson whiskey. It was a recommendation I took in more ways than one.

“Chasing Light” was the first story I’d ever written about a celebrity, so it was important that his name looked and felt like an actor’s. Sure, plenty of public figures have common names, but in fiction, a person can’t literally see the character. Because of this phenomenon, the name had to have a certain amount of gravitas. At the same time that I was culling names, I spoke to a dear friend of mine on the phone, the author Kali VanBaale. We were discussing her son, who is named Drake. The name immediately connected, and since there is a good amount of happenings on the Pacific (the story takes place on or around boats on Catalina Island), I liked, too, that Drake was the name of an explorer.

I chose the name CJ in the last story in the book, “You’re with Me,” because it is a furtive, secret-holding piece. Initial names, I think, are interesting because they, in a sense, harbor two names that do not have to be disclosed. I thought this mirrored the subject matter of the story itself.

First names that I’m love with right now and that will certainly be a part of future books: Alister (a concierge I met on the road), Fitz (a student at a reading), and Danzy (after the writer Danzy Senna).

Mathieu Cailler is an award-winning writer of poetry and prose. He is the author of Clotheslines (Red Bird Press), Shhh (ELJ Publications), and the recently acclaimed collection of short stories, Loss Angeles (Short Story America Press). Photo by Sue Roman.


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