What’s In a Name?

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It’s more or less my habit to come up with fairly unusal names for the characters in my books. How many of you out there actually know somebody named Milan Jacovich (besides, of course, the real Milan Yakovich, my friend and dentist after whom I named the character)? In my new book, “The Cleveland Creep,” one of the main characters is named Cisne—which rhymes with Disney. As I explain in the book, her mother was Panamanian, and in Spanish, “cisne” means “swan.” I learned that a few years ago when I was having dinner in a Columbus suburb and the waitress introduced herself to us as Cisne—and when I asked, she explained her name the way I do in the book.

Even Milan’s new assistant in “Creep,” Kevin O’Bannion, is saved from having a relatively familiar first name, as he insists on being referred to as “K.O.”—and all boxing fans know that “K.O.” is the way to describe a knock-out.

Writers have to be careful what they name their fictional characters, though. In my out-of-print stand-alone mystery, “The Chinese Fire Drill” (I have a few hardcover copies left for sale, if you’re interested), I wrote half the book featuring a romantic female lead named Kathy until I discerned she wasn’t at all a Kathy—she was a Kate, and Kates are very different than Kathys. Thank God for computers, so I could change her name throughout those first 150 pages with a single keystroke.

One of the best opening lines in all of literature begins Moby Dick. The narrator says, “Call me Ishmael.” That gets your attention, doesn’t it? Much more than if he’d said, “Call me Bob” or “Call me Murray.”

Think about all the work fiction authors must go through naming characters, or risk suffering the consequences. For instance, just imagine: a handsome man in a dinner jacket strolls into a casino in Monte Carlo, orders a vodka martini shaken, not stirred, lights a Dunhill cigarette, and sits down at the baccarat table opposite a man with a Teutonic accent and who is wearing a monocle. Then he introduces himself as “Bond—IRVING Bond.”

Sure, in the first three Milan adventures I created a girlfriend for him named Mary. But what the hell—I was young and inexperienced back then.