What’s in a name?

When Marilla Cuthbert first meets Anne Shirley, she asks the 11-year-old orphan girl what her name is.

“Will you call me Cordelia?” she asks.

Anne goes on to explain that she despises her “plain, sensible” name, but thinks it would be perfectly lovely to be called what she considers such an elegant name. Marilla declines, and Anne reluctantly accepts being called by her real name, although with the caveat that it always includes the “e” on the end.

Thus, Anne “with an e,” though plainly named, cements herself as one of the most beloved of literary characters.

One of my favorite parts of writing is naming my characters. I have always loved the history of names. I read my first baby name book cover to cover when I was 8, loving the discovery of their origins and meanings. So when it comes time to naming my own characters, I have a lot of fun! But just as one poorly conceived plot device ruin a good book, so can an ill-named character take the reader out of the story.

Here’s a few of my rules when naming characters:

ShakespeareChoose a name you like. 

Seems kind of silly, doesn’t it? But just like naming your children, this is a name that is going to stick with you with for a long time, depending on how fast you write, or how successful the story has been. Make sure it’s something you’re going to like for the long haul.

Choose a name that suits the character. 

In early draft of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, her spoiled Southern belle was named “Pansy O’Hara.” Can you imagine “Pansy” vowing to never go hungry again, or helping Melanie have a baby while a battle raged on around them? Thank goodness someone made her change the name to the now iconic “Scarlett!” When I started writing my murder mystery, the protagonist’s male co-sleuth was named “Reed Spencer.” But after writing just a few pages of “Reed,” I just couldn’t stand him. He wasn’t a Reed! Today, “Drew Spencer” is helping Mira solve murders!

Choose a name that works with your story’s genre and time period.

Seems simple, but I hate, hate, HATE it when I read a story that features a protagonist named something that utterly doesn’t fit with that time period or genre. Think of a cowboy romance with a heroine named “Tiffany” or “Arwen.” Or maybe a futuristic sci-fi adventure with characters named “Herman” and “Mabel.” Just doesn’t seem to work, right? It goes the same way with modern fiction: if your character was born in the 1980s, most likely her name would be something like “Jennifer” or “Jessica,” two of the most popular names of that decade, rather than something funky, like “Legend” or “Naveah.” And if you want a funky name, make sure there’s a reason for it, other than “I’m a writer and I can do what I want.” (Good reason, but probably won’t hold up with your publisher.) A great resource is the Social Security website, which lists the most popular names by decade going back to 1880.

AnneChoose a name that your readers or target audience can pronounce. 

This one’s a personal pet peeve of mine. Don’t spell your character’s name in such a way that your reader doesn’t know how to pronounce it. Unless they are listening to an audio book, it’s hard to know how an oddly-spelled name is pronounced. The exception: fantasy stories often have unusual names, but there is usually a hint from others on how to pronounce it (“rhymes with BLANK,” etc.).

Of course, sometimes we can’t control our character’s names any more than we as writers can control them. L.M. Montgomery stated in her autobiography, The Alpine Path, that the character of Anne Shirley just came to her, fully fleshed out and named, down the all-important “e.”

So, how do you decide what to name your characters? Are they named after someone in particular? Or do they just come to you?

Responsibility of a name

Names are hard.

Like Brenda, in yesterday’s post, we never knew that until we were expecting a child. Then it hits you.

I mean, when you name a child, you are placing a label on that child for LIFE, the same as naming a character. Of course, with a character, you can change it before publication if you like . . . the replacement feature works great for that.

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. – William Shakespeare

For kids, not so much.

I read this quote from Proverbs: A good name is rather to be chosen over great riches. – King Solomon, Proverbs 22:1

No pressure there.

So, we chose a first and middle name that we could agree on. No small feat, that. We knew we wanted traditional. No androgynous names, no made-up names, etc. Pure Aglophile, that’s us. So we chose Emily (think Emily Dickenson for my English-teacher husband) Suzanne (the name I wish my plainer “Sue” had been).

Always end the name of your child with a vowel, so that when you yell the name will carry. – Bill Cosby

When number 2 came along, we had gotten sentimental in our old age, I guess, because we immediately came up with a great name that combined the middle names of BOTH our mothers! Why we didn’t think of that before, I’ll never know – but I think we made the right choices. Ellen (My mother-in-law’s middle name) Priscilla (my mother’s middle name and HER grandmother’s name) came to be.

Both names fit. Do children fit the names we give them, or are their names predestined? Hmmmm . . . deep questions.

And then there are character names. In my unpublished work, my main character is Sarah Jane Crawford. A good, straightforward Southern name. Her love interest? Jared Stuart Benton. Sarah’s best friend is Lucy Dixon. His best friend? Tom Livingston.

Now here’s a challenge for you, dear reader. What can you tell me about each of these four characters, simply from their names? Sorry, no prize involved except the bragging rights to your obvious gift of discernment.

Happy Thursday, folks!

A Character By Any Other Name …

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet; …”

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

When we named our children, my husband and I put a lot of thought into the process. Our oldest is Sarah. A beautiful name, right? And it means Princess. At that time we knew few people named Sarah, so the name seemed perfect. Our boys’ names are Bryan (means noble and strong, and is spelled like my maiden name, Bryant) and Brandon (means prince, or fiery sword). Lovely names all, right?

That’s what we thought. Then Sarah grew up in a sea filled with Sara(h) Andersons, especially here in Minnesota. It seemed she always had one or two more Sarah Andersons in her grade that her school tended to mix up. Needless to say, she’s not too crazy about her name, and, at college, she’s adopted a nickname that makes her unique.

And then there are our boys, Bryan and Brandon. When used alone the names are wonderful. Regal sounding even. The problem is, the names are too much alike. People–even relatives–okay, even I–tend to mix the names up and the boys don’t like that one bit. I still like the names, I just wish we’d have given them a little more thought.

I guess that just proves the value of choosing the right names for your characters. You don’t want to get stuck with the wrong names. Admittedly, when I first began writing, I didn’t give name choice a lot of consideration. I simply chose names I liked. Thank goodness those names aren’t set in stone.

I don’t follow one set method when choosing names, it depends on the story, and the character, naturally. In my first novel I needed a name that could sound Manhattan professional and yet childlike. I settled on the name Richard. To his NYC colleagues, he’s Richard, but when he’s home among family and playing with nieces and nephews, he’s called Ricky. The name alone displays two sides of his personality. As for his surname, Brooks, that was taken from a quick glance at my bookshelves. The name Terry Brooks leaped out and voilà! I have a last name.

Now in my contemporary romance, Hearts at Risk, I was a little more deliberate with the name choices. I love symbolism in books, especially when it’s hidden. In Hearts at Risk, all the main characters have been touched by heart disease so I set out looking for names that meant heart, but didn’t want it to be obvious so as to take away from the story. For my female protagonist, I needed a name that would suit a twenty-something woman, someone who grew up with old-wealth. I don’t recall where I discovered the name Corliss, but the name fits perfectly. It means good-hearted. It has a wealthy sound to it, but I couldn’t picture a twenty-something going by that name, so she goes by  Lissa.

The male name was a bit tougher. Most male names that mean heart are unpronounceable or very ethnic sounding. Todd nor Hugh fit my thrill-seeking character’s personality, but Caleb did. As an important story element, Caleb’s last name needed to be something very common in Minnesota, so anything that ended in  –son.  And thus, Caleb Johnson was born.

While I appreciate the symbolism, the key to making these names believable for the reader is that they fit the demographic: contemporary, twenty-something Minnesotans. The wrong choices can pull the reader right out of the story.

Our characters by any other name might smell as sweet, but the wrong name choice could easily fumigate the entire manuscript.

What’s in a name? Tradition, ancestry, identity…

As we’ve learned over the past week, naming our characters is (almost) as important as naming our children. We give birth to these characters, nurture them, throw them in harm’s way, and finally reconcile them to their faith and bring them the happy ending they deserve. Sounds a lot like real life, doesn’t it?

As I write this, my darling mother-in-law is dying. Her name is Marguerite. To me, that has always sounded Hispanic (even though I don’t like margaritas) but she is 100% Norwegian. (Her name is actually French. Go figure.)

I can only imagine the shock her parents felt when she decided to marry David, a 100% Swede. They are proof that mixed marriages can work. Sixty-four years of telling Swedish and Norwegian jokes, trying to teach their three boys and daughters-in-law Swedish and Norwegian (I’ve finally picked up “hurrah!” which is at the end of the birthday song), and attending lutefisk dinners. Now that’s one tradition that’s going to end with them – fortunately or unfortunately.

Marg did extensive genealogy work and traced her family back to Charlemagne. (Someone said recently it seems all genealogy traces back to Charlemagne!) There’s a variety of beautiful names on the family tree.

First there’s Marguerite, which means pearl or flower. Then there’s her Norwegian grandmother, Maren, which means of the sea (and is Latin-American. Hmm.). There’s a cousin, Berit, which is Celtic meaning splendid. And of course there’s Gunhild, the battle maiden. How come we don’t see that name in stories anymore?

Have you looked into your own family history to see what names your ancestors had that might work in one of your stories? Some of those old names are coming back around – names like Penelope, Harriet, Miles, Oscar. Some aren’t – like Florence, Madge and Orin. How fun to include an ancestor’s name, someone you never got to meet, and make them real, perhaps even a hero. A neat way to acknowledge your own history as you write your stories. Who knows – perhaps your great-great-great grandmother Gunhild will be reincarnated as the feisty old aunt of your heroine (Maren) who connects the heroine to her happily-ever-after Oscar. It could happen.

No More Lame Names

Names can set the tone for your entire story. This not only goes for characters, but for businesses, fictitious towns, fancy-schmancy estates, and other locations as well.

In Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell did a great job of naming the plantation Tara. Doesn’t that sound elegant and regal, perfect for the lifestyle Mitchell had planned for all of Scarlett O’Hara’s little escapades? The book just wouldn’t be the same, if the author had placed Scarlett in the middle of Moose Haven or Alligator Estates. Kind of takes away from the leading lady’s high falutin ways, doesn’t it?

When orphan Anne Shirley comes to live at Green Gables, I picture a peaceful, country home with lush pastures and a picturesque countryside. Lucy Maud Montgomery chose a perfect name for Anne’s home, a quaint farmhouse which sets the perfect atmosphere for her ultimate desire to have a family who loves and accepts her.

The Hideaway series from Hannah Alexander, takes place in Hideaway, Missouri, a town in which Fawn Morrison seeks refuge. The moment I read the word Hideaway, I knew I was in for a tale laced with danger and intrigue. On the other hand, if a novel of suspense takes place in a town called Happy Hollow, I wouldn’t take the book seriously and probably wouldn’t read any more than the back cover blurb.

Realistic, intriguing names add authenticity and flavor to your story, even if only mentioned casually. A few well-placed names can set the background and theme for your novel. TV shows and movies are great ways to study the importance of names within your story. On Friends the story often takes place in the coffee shop Central Perk. Immediately we know the show takes place in New York and that it’s a central gathering place for the friends.

Comedy depends on the humorous application of names. In National Lampoon’s Vacation things just wouldn’t be the same without the family’s vacation to Wally World. The name Wally World is so simple it’s funny. We know plenty of laughs will follow, especially when the Griswald’s arrive at the theme park and Marty Moose (another example of a good name) announces that the park is closed for repairs.

Attention-grabbing names are essential in making your story come alive. Whether you’re considering the name of your character’s beauty salon or the restaurant in which she’ll have lunch, an interesting name brings the setting to life. Appropriate names make a story memorable to your reader, and more than anything I want my readers to remember my stories.