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Friday, February 12, 2010

KOTOR Countdown #10: The Naming of Knights

Beginning a sequence of short pieces on the Knights of the Old Republic comics series, which ends Wednesday with #50; coming later tonight are some answers to questions you've asked (and you can still ask, by posting here)...

People often ask where I get the names for the characters and locations in the Knights of the Old Republic comics series. Mostly, I just make them up — using words that have interesting sounds. Occasionally, writers use names from real life — but there are problems with doing that.

One is that you’re working in a world in which every word is potentially trademarkable, and every character copyrightable; whatever you create belongs to the rights-holder whose sandbox you're playing in, depending on how the contract is set up. As my friend Bob Ingersoll once noted in a Comics Buyer's Guide column after having appeared as a lawyer in several Marvel comics, he's now trademarked by Marvel Comics. So while I was tickled that a fan at my first KOTOR panel in 2006 brought along a flier campaigning to have his online alter-ego, Hedec Ga, incorporated into an issue of the series, I just couldn't do it. But I always remembered it, and I still have the flier somewhere!

There's also the matter of not wanting to actually depict any individual. Todd MacFarlane got into legal hot water with hockey player Tony Twist years ago over a character in Spawn he argued was based on him. That disclaimer in the front of the book you're reading and at the end of the TV show you're watching — the one that states that characters don't represent any person living or dead — it's there for a reason.

Now, in my early days in comics, I did slip in a few familiar names. My mother became a senator interviewing Tony Stark in the Senate Subcommittee Hearings in Iron Man #76. The comet in #83 is named for high school friends Carlin Stuart and Ken Barnes. Another character that appeared in the Iraq storyline was named upon my good friend Major Michael Singleton, who was over there in the Army at the time and who had helped me with details about what things were like. But the General Singleton that appeared in Iron Man #81 looked nothing like him (and had a promotion).

Neither character ever appeared again, but when I began writing Star Wars, I'd been working long enough to know that there was no such thing as a throwaway character. Every character with the tiniest mention wound up on Wookieepedia. So when it came to names my real-life resources down to a few physical place names. The best example of this is Jarael’s birth name, Edessa, which I plucked off my wall map of Greece. As a collector of maps and globes, I find some interesting spellings now and again, particularly in foreign atlases. Often the names are only starting points; to a large degree, you want words to sound like they're spelled, so that requires some rethinking.

My one real case of "tributing" others in a KOTOR name was extremely indirect. Feln, one of Zayne’s Jedi Masters, has an appropriate name for a member of his Feeorin species: short, blunt, and to-the-point. But it also hides the names of my sister’s four children, some of whom had helped me through the Knights of the Old Republic video games. Just as advancing one letter forward in the name of the computer, HAL, from 2001: A Space Odyssey gets you the acronym IBM (just a coincidence, as any Clarke-phile will tell you), Feln's name held an Easter egg. Going back two letters from Feln gives you the first initials of Daniel, Christopher, Joey, and Laurie!

And here we see another reason why you don’t want to use names of people you know in fictional works in any way — since readers know Feln's eventual fate. (And besides being cool-looking, he's not that nice a guy anyway.) It’s not exactly a tribute if the person whose name you use ends up dying or becoming evil. That came home to me when I was writing Knights of the Old Republic #20, in which a boy and his younger sister — the children of the constable of Taris — are rescued by Zayne from kidnappers. Given the children’s ages, I had briefly considered taking my own children’s names and anagramming them or somehow otherwise working them into this one-time cameo appearance.

I soon thought better of it when I began plotting Vector and realized that their mother, the constable, would be turning into a rakghoul. Not something you want to do to the mother of anyone you like — or their characters! The constable was not based upon her anyway, nor were constable's kids based upon my own. So we named them something else entirely.

Interestingly, the final stretch of Knights of the Old Republic contains a fairly expansive use of a real person worked into a character: Pete Hottelet. The winner of the Penny Arcade Child’s Play Charity Auction, Hottelet earned the right to appear in a Star Wars comic book — and he first appeared, looking like himself, as Captain Telettoh in #42. (Three guesses how we came up with the name.) We used him again in #49, so it wasn't a one-shot deal. For charity's sake in the future, hopefully Telettoh can retire in good health!

More on names later. And the first round of Answers to Burning Questions is coming later tonight...

View all the countdown posts! 

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