Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Power of a Name

Choosing a name can be a struggle, at least it can be for me. I think it's important for your character to have a name that rolls off the tongue, and has a deeper meaning than just its obvious literary qualities. In my first picture book I decided to name the three sister's after the seasons of Winter (Fuyu), Spring (Haruko) and Fall (Aki). Each girl had qualities and features that made them like the season they were named after, and so the decision to name them these names was an easy one to make.
In my next book, the name of the main character (a nine-year-old little girl) was a bit hard to come up with. In this case I wasn't looking for something with a hidden meaning, I just wanted something that was cute, feisty sounding and dynamic. It needed to represent the character and be easy for young children to say. After much thinking I came up with Penelope Jane Parker (P.J. for short). It works for her and I liked the ring of it.
The current book I'm working on touches on the hidden meaning aspect of naming characters that I did with my first book. I love mythology and any time I can weave it into one of my stories I jump at the chance. The main characters are four siblings, much like my own children. There are two boys and two girls, and I wanted their names to represent their personalities and their strengths. The main character is a twelve-year-old boy and his name is Prometheus Swift. The name came to me quite easily and was the first thing I came up with, long before the story actually began to form in my head. His sisters and brother are also "p" named characters taken from mythology (Greek and Roman).
It's fun to name your characters. It's like picking out the names of your children. It has to be perfect, because it's the name they are going to have for the rest of their lives. It's the name that everyone will remember and it has to fit not only their appearance (what you picture that to be in your head), but also their personality. When you hear names like Ebenezer, Scarlett, Boo Radley, Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy their appearance comes to you immediately and is in large part the product of their name. Even if you haven't seen a picture of them, or even if you have, in your mind you have a clear idea of what they look like and what they are like...names are powerful, so choosing one is important.

Happy writing.

Friday, December 5, 2008

That Shakespeare-guy didn't know what he was talking about!


"What's in a name? That which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet;/ And so Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,/ Retain that dear perfection which he owes/ without that title."

I say thee nay, Old Bill!

Mikey and Juliet? Steve and Juliet? Geoffrey and Juliet?


Also - Mercutio? Could never ever ever be called anything but Mercutio. It would just be wrong.

Me? I don't know if I've ever changed a character's name after I've started writing them... I don't know if I could. Start writing them, that is. I have to have stuff like that pretty nailed down before I start a character on their way into the story. It's one of my loveable quirks.

That and the fact that I have no idea where some of my character names come from. Often, they just come attached when the character presents themself to me. My male protagonist in WONDROUS STRANGE, Sonny Flannery, is a possible exception to this - I'm pretty sure that his name, in part, was inspired by the Robbie Robertson song "Sonny Got Caught in the Moonlight". Or maybe that was already his name and and I just started to associate the song with him after I started writing... aw hell. I don't know. It's a chicken/egg thing, that one. But he's never been anything but Sonny. I can't even imagine it. My brain goes into vapor-lock if I even try.

I also noticed another quirk while writing the WONDROUS books; for this story, I really seem to gravitate toward names with repeated letters in them. Sonny. Kelley. Emma. Tyff. Maddox. Anneel. Bellamy. Harvicc. I have absolutely no idea what that means. But I did find it an interesting observation.

Names are tactile, visual, aural to me. They have a sound and a look and almost a taste to them when I see them. They have to look right on the page. They have to feel right in my ear. And they have to be right for the character or I find I have a very hard time writing that character.

I wrote a short story called "Trippingly Off The Tongue" that had a character named Vinx in it. Actually, that was the short form of his name - his nickname, if you will. I knew that while I was writing the story but, like my protagonist in that case, I didn't know what his full name was until the very end of the tale. I found out at the exact same time she did that his full name was, in fact, Vinxythnial Wharburton-Smythe III. A perfect name for a seven-foot tall winged purple demon with a homicidal sense of humor, don't you think?

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!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

What's In A Name?

I’m beginning to think Maureen and I are somehow related. As the months roll on and I read her posts, it’s obvious to me that we could quite possibly claim birthrights to the same pod. I mean for starters we have the same agent AND the same editor. What are the odds of that? Something tells me those ladies must see similarities in Maureen and I, as well.

As for this week, it seems we have the same approach when naming our characters. I’ll just start with any old name (with the full intent of changing it) so as not to hold up my progress. In my current novel, Whistlin’ Dixie In A Nor’easter, handyman Jeb had an earlier name - handyman Ray. By the end of my first draft I was so used to calling him Ray, it almost stuck. But I was never really sold on Ray and even though he had taken on that name for a large part of the book, I still wasn’t sure it was the best I could come up with. When his character was fully developed, I actually searched the phone book for better suggestions. I needed a Vermonter surname and ultimately settled on Jeb Duggar. Now, I can’t imagine him having any other name.

My heroine, Leelee, has two daughters in the book. The Christening of those little girls turned out to be a personal sojourn into a part of life I seemed to have missed. As the mother of sons, and no daughters, I chose Leelee’s daughter’s names as I would have my own, had I ever been given the chance. Sarah, because I love it and Isabella, after my great-grandmother.

Finally, my antagonist needed a name that, upon seeing it in print, would create an immediate visual for a reader. She’s nearly six-foot tall, mean, bossy and 100% German. Her unpolished fingernails are yellow from the thousands of cigarettes she holds between her fingers each year. She’s the owner of the Vermont Haus Inn, Leelee’s future home in Vermont. Somehow Helga Schloygin seemed a pretty good fit.

Naming characters is actually the fun part for me. Spitting out a first draft . . . now that’s something I could attach another kind of moniker to altogether. How about . . . Pulling Out Hair!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Ebenezer Lipinski Sounds OK, Right?

When I write a first draft, I don't allow myself to think too deeply about each character's name, since that is usually a fabulous avenue for procrastination involving baby name websites, books checked out of the library and hours of contemplative thinking--all in the name of "research."

So, I usually just pick whatever name comes to mind easily, and retain the right to change it later. But, this can have interesting consequences. For A Bump in the Road, my main character's husband was named Ryan at first. I've always loved the name and he "seemed" like a Ryan.

Anyway, fast forward to a couple of months after I finish my first draft and I find out that I'm pregnant. After reeling from the burning irony that smacked me in the face, I started to think about baby names. And, after my husband and I found out we were having a boy, we decided on (You guessed it! Are we unoriginal or what?) Ryan.

I thought it would be traumatizing enough for my kid to have a mom as a writer that he didn't need to share a name with one of mommy's characters, so fictional Ryan became Jake.

After Ryan became Jake, I realized my main character's original name, Kate, would sound weird: Jake and Kate. Too many Ks or something. So, Kate became Clare.

Except now, and I wish I were joking about this, if I ever have a girl, I kind of love the name Clare.

I seemed to be destined to use all of the "good" names up through my books and be forced to name my actual child Ebenezer or something.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Name Game

Names are important. After all, how many times have you heard a name and instantly connected it to someone in your life or someone from your past? Or, how often have you heard a name and instantly, a vision of who the person was popped into your head--all based on their moniker?

For me (because of my age), the names "Cindy," "Bobby," "Marcia," "Greg," "Jan," and "Peter" all bring to mind a certain show...and the characters behind those names. And of course, there are people from my past who will always be the embodiment of their names--no matter how many other people I may meet in the future with the same names.

So, when I begin a new book and have to decide on names for my characters, I try to think of names that 1) will either make sense for that particular character OR is the complete opposite of what most people might think when they hear that name, 2) obviously, names I like or dislike--depending on the character in question and what their role in the book is, and 3) whatever "feels" right.

Unfortunately, many times I've come up with what I thought was the "perfect" name, only to have the character refuse to come out of their shell. The first thing I do when this happens is change their name. Seriously. Often, just by changing a name, the character is given life and suddenly, I know who they are and can write them that much better.

This is what I call "The Name Game." In my July release, A Stroke of Magic, the hero's name was originally Caden. But he wasn't becoming a fully developed character, and I wasn't connecting with him. So I changed his name to "Ian." Same thing--he was just this flat guy who was so not hero material. Finally, I renamed him "Ethan." Weirdly, even though it's similar to "Ian," the name "Ethan" did the trick, and all at once, he came into perfect view for me. Now, just like with my children, I can't imagine him with any other name.

Names are important, both in real life and in books. Can you imagine Harry Potter with any other name? I can't! And I can't imagine Alice in Wonderland being "Kathy" in Wonderland, or "Jessica" in Wonderland...nothing else fits as well as "Alice."

Naming characters is's the beginning of that character's identity. Sometimes, it just takes a while to find the perfectly right one.