What’s in a Name?

I haven’t blogged for a few weeks as I promised I would. I’m sorry. But something happened yesterday that made me want to tell you about the last few weeks. My writing coach noticed that in both of my novels, Charlie’s Angle and An Ode to Cleve, the name of the main character is similar: Charlie in one, Chuck in the other. “Who’s Charles?” she asked. “That’s something you’ll want to look into.”

I didn’t have any conscious basis for the choice of names except they seemed to fit the characters. I thought back to the “Charlies” I’ve known; two of my high school classmates were “Charles.” One we called Chuck, the other Charlie. Charlie died last week. His name had changed to Mario, but he was still Charlie to me.

I’d better back up. The reason for the name change was the fact that Charlie had become a Franciscan friar. In those days the Franciscan order gave novices new names as they studied and prepared to become priests. When I was young, I studied for the priesthood. Charlie and I knew each other in the Franciscan seminary, where we were both studying to become Franciscan friars. In the end, however, both of our lives went in a very different direction.

When I got word from Charlie’s wife, Marge, that he had died, I stopped what I was doing – nobody else was home – and sang the Ultima out loud, first in Latin and then in English. The Ultima is a hymn to the Blessed Mother asking for a peaceful death… “Lead us home to thee, we call; Virgin Mother, Queen of all.” It’s a Franciscan song that we sang at the end of every celebration, happy or sad. So while it’s traditional at funerals, it’s also a song full of hope and joy. Is the Kaddish like that, you Jewish readers? Does it also have both senses?

On the day of Charlie’s funeral, at the very time I knew the celebrant, Father Jim Van Vurst, another classmate, would be giving the final blessing and those of my classmates who were at the funeral 1000 miles away would be intoning the Ultima, I played it on my harp.

My wife, Kathy, asked me later what I most remembered about Charlie. He was a quiet person, but kind. On Wednesday and Saturday afternoons we had regular chores before we could take off on a hike, or play baseball, go downstairs to shoot hoops, or whatever. I worked in the tool shed where I dispensed rakes, hoes, shovels and whatever people needed to do their work in the garden or around the building. When they finished their work they brought the tools back to me for cleaning, oiling if needed, repair if broken, etc. That meant that most of my friends had finished their work while I still had plenty to do. I recall one time when I was up to my eyeballs in rakes and shovels and the place was a mess, I heard someone behind me laughing, “JP, it looks as if you need some help here.” It was Charlie, in a characteristic manner offering to help someone else. It took less than half the time with the two of us working together.

To answer my coach’s question: As I said, I wasn’t consciously thinking of anybody in particular when I used the names Charlie and Chuck in my two novels. Although it’s interesting; my seminary classmate, Charlie, did later teach math in high school. Hmm.

On the day after Charlie died, his wife Marge sent me a email; she mentioned my book: “I wanted to write and let you know that Mario (Charlie) ordered your book… it arrived 2 days before he was admitted to ICU. I took it to the hospital… he attempted to read… but had little concentration left. I plan to read it for him…the blurb is very intriguing.” I assured her that by now her dear husband knows the story.

I can imagine Charlie looking down at my writing and, still laughing, saying, “JP, it looks as if you need some help here.”

Pax et bonum, Charlie!

PS. If anybody wants to read about Charlie Brannigan, the protagonist in my novel, Charlie’s Angle, check out my website, www.charliesangle.weebly.com; or you can get a copy on Amazon. If you have a Kindle you can get that version free next Friday, Nov. 29. Amazon is having a promotion on Black Friday only. You don’t even have to leave the house to shop on Black Friday, and did I mention that it’s free?

How do you choose the names of your protagonists?

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