Over the weekend, I had a fun little discussion with my pals at How Many Pages Did You Write Today? about character names. We tossed out ways to find good names (baby name books, spam files, newspaper stories) and how a character’s name may reveal something about the person. In the course of the discussion, I mentioned my character name pet peeve.
My character name pet peeve is the cop named Mike.
Mike must be the go-to name when inventing a police character because I run across fictional Officer Mikes all the time. It’s not a bad thing, necessarily. Following the idea that a name tells about the character, the abundance of Officer Mikes make sense, in that the patron saint of police officers is Saint Michael the Archangel.
St. Michael the Archangel is usually depicted with wings, a sword, and holding scales of justice. If you are raised as a Roman Catholic, you are taught this is because Michael is the sworn enemy of Satan and the leader of the Army of God. He is one of the angels present at the hour of death to protect the souls of the dying. On Judgment Day, Michael weighs a person’s record of good deeds. He is a guardian and protector of the Catholic Church.
Add all of that up–sword, scales, guardian, protector–and no wonder a child named Michael might grow up to be a cop. It may be a chicken and egg kind of thing–the classic self-fulfilling prophecy–and this is why I see so many manuscripts with Mikes running around protecting and serving.
But maybe it’s time to give Officer Mike a rest. I’d like to propose a new go-to name for cops.
Heck? Officer Heck? Are you laughing? Rolling your eyes?
Think about Sheriff Heck Tate, as portrayed by the character actor Frank Overton in the 1962 film, To Kill A Mockingbird.
In Harper Lee’s novel, Heck Tate doesn’t get a lot of page time. When he does appear, his actions are pivotal. It is Heck Tate who brings Tom Robinson to the next county to await trial, which shows how well the small town sheriff understands the mood and prejudices of the citizens in his jurisdiction.
It is Heck Tate who arrives with Atticus Finch when a mad dog is in the street. In this scene, Heck Tate acknowledges who is the better shot and asks Atticus to take down the dog. He puts aside whatever macho pride or male ego he may possess when he hands over that shotgun. He even teases Jem that didn’t he know his father was the best shot in Maycomb County–an important moment that lets the son see his father as an autonomous man, not just as a parent, for the first time.
It is Heck Tate who ultimately exercises what modern law enforcement calls officer discretion. Sheriff Tate has lived in Maycomb all of his life. He knows everyone in town. He obviously knows how to read a crime scene, even when his witnesses are an unconscious boy with a broken arm; a grown man hidden away for so long, he’s become mute; a scared little girl in a ham costume; and a dead man on the ground.
It is Heck Tate who knows what limelight would do to a shy fella like Boo Radley, and so it is Sheriff Heck Tate who fulfills his duty to protect Maycomb’s mockingbird.
“I may not be much, Mr. Finch, but I’m still sheriff of Maycomb County and Bob Ewell fell on his knife.”
Let the dead bury the dead, is Heck Tate’s advice. Wise words, right? I wonder if this level of officer discretion would be possible today, or if Heck Tate would be the subject of an Internal Affairs investigation by the time the credits rolled?
But I digress.
If St. Michael the Archangel made Mike a good name for cops, Heck is no slouch in the meaning department. I will be a little presumptive here and assume Harper Lee meant Heck as a shortened form of Hector.
The name Hector is Greek. It means “holding fast.” In mythology, Hector was a fearless warrior prince, the older brother of Paris. Hector’s death during the Battle of Troy was a terrible blow to the Trojans, not only because he was a brave and fierce fighter, but because Hector was wholly honorable. After Hector was killed, Achilles, who killed him, dragged Hector’s body behind his chariot for twelve days in an attempt to shame and humiliate the noble Trojan prince, but even the gods admired Hector. They took pity on him in death and protected his body from abuse.
Eventually, the Trojan War was halted for twelve days so that the people of Troy could serve Hector with proper funeral rites. He is remembered in art and literature as one of the Nine Worthies.
Today, when a police officer dies in the line of duty, legions of his fellow officers participate in public, traditional funerals meant to honor the fallen officer for making the ultimate sacrifice. I don’t know that this tradition goes back to the mythology of Hector, but it seems right.
So, Officer Heck. A fierce fighter whose name means “holding fast.” A person infused with honor. Someone prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice. I would feel safe with such a man protecting my town.