Thursday, December 4, 2008

Names and Nicknames

Names are important. In fiction and in real life. But so are nicknames. Take my own name for example, Jillian. For most of my childhood and teenage years, I hated my name. I thought it was odd, no one else I knew had it, and people always mispronounced it as Julian. That’s why most of my family and friends call me Jill, even now. One of my good friends even jokingly used to call me “Jill-not-Jillian” because I’d always make a point of telling people to call me Jill, not Jillian.

The first time I realized I liked my name, I was in college, and I was taking a class with an English professor also named Jillian. She was incredibly smart, graceful, and funny, and also the first person I’d ever met who shared my name. As I got to know and admire her, I actually started to like the name Jillian a little bit.

It wasn’t until I started looking for jobs and sending out resumes, and then looking for agents and sending out queries that I started using the name Jillian myself. It felt strange at first, to have people call me by this name, but then I started to like the way it felt a little more formal, a little more unique, than Jill. And in my head Jillian became my professional/authorial name, while Jill was just a nickname that my friends and family called me. As if to complicate things further, my mother-in-law is also named Jill, and so is my lovely editor, so sometimes, using Jillian, has become something of a necessity just to avoid confusion. (Besides my mother-in-law hates it when my father-in-law differentiates us by calling us “old Jill” and “young Jill”!)

Perhaps because of my own issues with my name, I am always hyperaware of my character’s names and nicknames. Unlike Lisa and Maureen, I can’t start writing a book without being absolutely certain of the main characters’ names. And their variations.

For me the best resource for figuring out names is the Social Security Popular Baby Names website. (Also, a great resource for naming children!) The site allows you to pick a year, and then view up to the top 1000 most popular names for that year. So when I start a new book, I try to first figure out about how old my main characters are, and then I search this site for popular names in the main characters’ birth years.

Of course, that’s only a start. As I look through the names, I think about other things – what is the character’s ethnicity, class, personality? And I also think about how I can make a name into nicknames. I think it’s interesting to think about how other characters in the book will refer to that character. In The September Sisters, the main character is Abigail, mostly referred to as Abby, but more often than not, just “Ab” to her father. There is also a crucial scene in the book, where someone refers to her as Abigail for the first time, and it really means something to the scene. Her love interest is Thomas, usually called Tommy by Abby, Tomas by his Hispanic grandmother, and LT by his father (a nickname that becomes important to the plot at one point.)

I guess I’ve realized that in life, as well as in my stories, names can and will be fluid. Very rarely is a person just one name – just their full name or their nickname. We are different things to different people, to ourselves at different times in our life. And for characters to feel real and believable, I think their names need to also reflect this sense of fluidity. Besides, by the time I have all the names and nicknames figured out, I actually know enough about my characters and their relationships with each other to sit down and start writing!


lisapatton said...

You're so cute, Jillian. I realize I'm showing my age here, but I knew lots of Jills growing up. I love your name. A dear friend of mine has a daughter-in-law, Gillian. Most everyone calls her Jill. She's Irish, so I believe Gillian is the Irish way to spell it. Plus, I LOVE Abby. It's one of my favorites!

Maureen Lipinski said...

Abby's one of my favorites too! Definitely one of the best girl names!

I actually went by a nickname all through grade school until I got to high school and laid down the law. Too bad I still have family members who use the nickname...and they receive lots of dirty looks during the holidays.

Lesley Livingston said...

The 'nickname' aspect is SO important with some characters. You're absolutely right.

And, by the way, as you will see from my post, you would fit right into WONDROUS STRANGE with your name!


Jillian Cantor said...

Thanks, you guys!

Lisa, you're sweet to say you love my name. It's funny how we always feel differently about a name when it's our own.

Maureen, I would love to know your childhood nickname. It's interesting how we redefine ourselves as we get older, in part by what version of our names we use.

Lesley, not only would I fit right into WS but so would my two main characters, Abby and Tommy!