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Dinosaur Jr. Where You Been

Naming a protagonist is tricky. You want a name that stands out, but doesn’t seem contrived or cheesy. You need the name to fit with the world, and be the kind of name the reader will anchor to, because it will probably be on every page.  Hannibal Lector, not a protagonist but a great lead name.  Hannibal, one of the great strategists in history, and Lector, which is a latin word meaning ‘to read’ or ‘one who reads’, so there’s a meaning there you can choose to dig out, together, there’s a rhythm to it, Hannibal Lector just sounds sinister, it rolls off the tongue, it’s one of those collections of syllables that you can just say over and over again.

Michael Valentine Smith.  I loved Stranger in a Strange Land; I read it back when I was thirteen or so and immediately went back and reread it when I was done.  Michael Smith is a common enough name, but the fact that we have Valentine in the middle makes it stand out; it’s the kind of name that sounds inherently noble; an angel, a saint, and a salt of the earth laborer all in one. Michael Smith is just a dude, but michael valentine smith is a dude from mars that changes the world.  I love it.

Sam Spade, you couldn’t get away with this now, but when Dashiell Hammett did it, it was perfect.  Quick and cool, it’s a short little name bursting with attitude. Alliterative names have a pulp feel for me, because I grew up on marvel comics, where everyone was Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, Bucky Barnes, Otto Octavious, J Jonah Jameson, Reed Richards, Pepper Potts… There’s something comforting about an alliterative name, I trust Scott Summers; I may not like him, but I think he’s a good dude.

Alex. One of my all time favorites, just Alex, from A Clockwork Orange, just a short version of Alexander, much as the character was a small tyrant, rather than the great conqueror of his namesake, although that name takes a back seat to two other fantastic names in the same book; Dim, one of his droogs, who’s so aptly and evocatively named that you can see the whole character in one word, and Ludovico which isn’t a character but still, what a great name.

Sci-fi and Fantasy are loaded with both terrible and wonderful names. Nearly every name in Tolkien is fantastic, while in second rate genre books it seems like every other hero is named ‘Shepherd’; every place is named haven or solace or some such shit, and every villain’s name sounds the same, full of D, G, K, and Us.

I’ve been trying to come up with a few names to hang a story on; we can’t all be J.K. Rowling and Suzanna Clarke; two of the best contemporary character namers I’ve read.  I mean, how can you beat Arabella Strange and Severus Snape?

Anyway, this album, it makes me want to listen to the Meat Puppets and Nirvana again; maybe throw in some Sonic Youth and Pavement for good measure.  There was a time where Dinosaur Jr was in the rotation on some massive playlist, but it never really stood out to me.  Now that I’m swimming in it, I’m very happy that I didn’t wear it out like I did with other bands in the genre.  There’s a lot more to appreciate here way behind the vocals; which in the past is probably all I would have focused on.

Matt and I had fun naming the characters in Follow the Squirrel. Tomi (toh-mee), Rana, Castle, Ajax the Rat.. and when we were writing thaw we had a lot of placeholder names that ended up becoming the character names. I think you write the character to the name a lot, maybe it’s just me; Cutty was my favorite.

So the name should identify the character, anchor the reader to the page, in the least; whether or not to make it symbolic of something else, i think, is a case by case decision, and usually comes off as cheesy. John Uskglass; that’s another fantastic Suzanna Clarke name. You have to stop and say it aloud when you read it, which I think gives it a gravity that is perfectly appropriate for the character.  How do you even come across John Uskglass?  I’d love to read her mind once in a while.


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