I was once told that my parents had given me a wonderful gift by naming me what they did. I was named after each of my grandfathers. I never thought much about as a kid, except for being a bit self-conscious about my middle name. As the years went by, however, I came to accept it and didn’t think much about it. I was fortunate to have a last name that begins with a letter at the beginning of the alphabet. Whenever we were told to line up in alphabetical order, I was always at the beginning of the line. I remember one kid name Ziliwitcz, who was last every time, but that’s the luck of the draw. You can’t do much about it. What bothers me, however, are the weird names that kids are stuck with nowadays.
Movie stars and celebrities seem to be among the worst offenders. Off the top of my head I can recall some of them naming their offspring things like “Apple,” “Rumor,” and “North.” I mean, what’s wrong with Anne, Ruth, and Norman? Did these parents think about the teasing these kids are going to endure growing up? Perhaps they had weird names themselves, and that’s why they made the choices they did.
When I was a cop I used to play the name game a lot with people I arrested. We found one guy hiding in a Dumpster after a brief chase. In the booking room he figured he could delay the inevitable and refused to give me his name and information. Finally, after a bit of persuading, he came up with the moniker, James Brown. I tried to get him to reconsider, but the guy was adamant. I looked at my partner and said, “Meet James Brown.” My partner immediately lurched into a frenzied dance number, singing, “I feel good.” After we ran the arrestee’s fingerprints we found that his real name was Eddie Green. At least he stuck with the color theme.
I was so fascinated with one arrestee’s name, Cleveland Gunn, that I used it in my second Leal and Hart novel, Hostile Takeovers. Gunn was the super-bad villain. I never found out if that was the guy’s real name or not. Sometimes it was impossible to tell. A lot of arrestees had so many different names that came back with their fingerprints from previous arrests that their own mother’s would have been shocked. Many of them would use a variation of their real name so their aliases would be similar sounding. The worst ones would use a relatives name and DOB information, which inevitably caused the poor, unsuspecting relative to get picked up on a warrant instead of the real offender. These innocent people would routinely be held until their fingerprints had been run. Sometimes a burst of creativity would grab an offender and they’d go with something totally different. So you’d have ten similar sounding names, and then something like Andronicus Roister would jump out at you. The trick was getting them to spell it on three separate occasions.
I was working a plainclothes unit when we arrested a young woman once using a false credit card with the name Tiffany Smith on it. The account was totally bogus but the girl refused to give me her real name, insisting she was Tiffany Smith. She had a fictitious state ID card with that name on it, too. I ran her prints, but they came back with no previous arrest record. Since she had no authentic identification, I had no choice but to book her under that name. While I was holding her two of her cohorts, an older man and woman who had obviously put her up to the scheme, came by the station and demanded information about bonding her out. I tried to explain to them that I was holding her until I verified her identity because she had been using a false name. They became irate and yelled that the girl was Tiffany Smith and I should let her be bonded out. After trying to explain to them that the girl would not be eligible for bond until I had verified who she was and that she was clear of wants and warrants, the male tried to intimidate me.
“Did you ever think her name might really be Tiffany Smith?” he asked.
I pretended to contemplate his question, and then answered, “No.”
He didn’t appreciate my comedic timing and yelled, “What’s your name?’
I turned to him, go a serious expression on my face, and answered, “My name is Tiffany Smith.”
Again, his appreciation of my stand-up routine was negligible.
The girl was eventually charged under that name. She bonded out, didn’t show up for court, and a warrant was issued. I never saw her again, so apparently she kept on the straight and narrow and said goodbye to Tiffany Smith. But if she’s ever fingerprinted again, that’s the name the prints will indicate.
When you’re writing fiction, you have to use equal care in choosing names. I’ve been told I have a tendency to use the same core list of names over and over again. I know the names Jim and Phillip show up in my writing a lot. For the deceased, frozen, rockabilly king of rock and roll in my novel, Freeze Me, Tender, I wanted something unique, yet natural sounding, so I went with Colton Purcell. I named my protagonist Harry, after one of my favorite uncles, and used Corrigan for the hulking professional killer that stalks him. Even though I had two characters whose names began with the letter C, I figured I could get away with it since one of them, Colton, had been cryogenically frozen a decade or so before the story began. The rule of thumb is to avoid names that begin with the same letter or sound alike.
My advice is to keep a character list of all the names you use and where you use them. It’s awfully easy to have a Jim crop up as a minor character in Chapter Two, and have another equally insignificant guy pop up in Chapter Twenty that’s also Jim. With a character list you can avoid this problem. Or, I suppose, you could avoid it altogether by naming the guy Apple, Rumor, or North instead.