What’s In A Name?

I’m pretty sure that everyone writing fiction has at some time been stumped for a name for a character. It has to feel right for the character, match his or her personality, age, socioeconomic status, historical era. Sometimes I’ve been lucky and the right name just bubbles up out of my subconscious. Sometimes I flip through a reference like the telephone directory or the thick baby-naming book I keep on a shelf in my studio. But usually I draw on people I’ve met throughout my life. Maybe it’s a first name, or last name, or sometimes both. After all, that handy disclaimer at the front of the novel absolves me from litigation if someone doesn’t like the way I portrayed his or her crooked teeth or penchant for pornography or stiff drink.

But character names used on television and in the movies get far more scrutiny. Lift a well-known person’s name or portray a famous likeness too closely and you might find yourself in court. Or at least slapped with a nasty cease-and-desist order.

I often wonder if on-screen characters’ names also come from people in the writer’s lives, and in at least one case, I’m right. A reliable source (a livery driver who once drove the “real person” to the airport) gave me the story behind one of the minor characters on the television show, Seinfeld.

If you’re a fan of the show, you may remember Lloyd Braun, who popped up in three episodes played by two different actors (Peter Keleghan and Matt McCoy). He played George’s childhood friend and nemesis. Even though the character had a short grip on reality after a nervous breakdown sparked by losing the mayoral election for David Dinkins, George’s mother (in the classic episode “The Serenity Now”) often scolded her son by saying, “Why can’t you be more like Lloyd Braun?”

Lloyd Braun is indeed a real person; a television executive and producer who did some projects with NBC during Seinfeld’s reign. He’s probably best known for greenlighting Lost for ABC, and became the voice that began each episode with “Previously, on Lost….”

Prior to this, he was an entertainment lawyer, representing, among other clients, Seinfeld co-producer Larry David. The two were also golfing buddies. According to my source, a friendly wager between Lloyd Braun and Larry David on the links led to Braun’s allowing David to use his name on the show in any way he desired, however egregious.

Braun lost. (Wonder what kind of bet Art Vandelay lost?)

Another instance of a real person – though not actually a person – making it into fiction was a little more personal.

If you’re a Psych fan, look for a minor character named Penny Pascaretti, who appeared only once in the first couple of seasons. One of Psych’s writers, Andy Berman, a former child actor who had a recurring role on The Wonder Years, once dated someone in my family. On a walk down my street during a holiday visit, Berman met a neighbor’s dog, a yappy but lovable little thing. Penny belonged to the Pascaretti family. Berman liked the sound of the name and made good on his promise to use it in an upcoming episode.

Other than those two, in the words of George Costanza, “I got nothin’.”

What’s your favorite character name, in print or on screen? Do you know of any drawn from real life? If you are a writer, how do you choose your characters’ names?