Sunday, June 22, 2008

What's in a Name? -- Anne McAllister

We've all heard the "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet," maxim. And no doubt it would.

But the problem for writers is rarely roses. It's usually what to name our heroine or our hero.

Is a Charles the same as a Charley or a Chuck? I don't think so.

Is a Sarah no different from a Sally or a Sadie? Not the ones I know.

Even spelling counts in my world. I just wrote about a Sara in One-Night Love Child who is quite different from a Sarah I have in mind for a future book. And there was no similarity between my Cait and my Kate. None at all.

Are all writers as obsessed with names as I am?

Did they all have their children named when they were in fifth grade? I did. Though I won't tell you what I intended to name them -- and I certainly won't tell them because they'd be horrified.

Still, it mattered.

And why did I need to wait until the last one was born to decide if he was an Ian or a James? Looking at him, both my husband and I knew instantly which he was.

Ask any writer and chances are good she will tell you that without a name, the character won't come to life. And woe betide the author who uses "search and replace" and discovers that as soon as she does, the character dies on the page. Some don't, but it's a chance I wouldn't dare take.

The only time I would dare to do it is if I were the one who got the name wrong to begin with. It happens. Sometimes the character comes along and tells me that I'm wrong. Sometimes my fingers know I'm wrong before I do.

There is a heroine taking shape in my head right now and I wrote about her, calling her Sylvie. At least I've been trying to call her Sylvie. My fingers, however, have been typing Sophy every time they write her name.

Her name is still (I think) up for debate, but I'm beginning to suspect my fingers are going to win.

Suffice to say, for me, naming characters is incredibly important. Knowing their names somehow helps shape the book. And I realized this importance even more clearly when I began to write more linked books.

When I knew ahead of time they were going to be linked, I was careful. But once, writing about a hero named Jack and a heroine named Frances, I gave them friends named Carter and Annabel. They sounded like good supporting-cast names.

How was I to know that Carter and Annabel would start demanding their own book? Worse, that they would demand a book together! I had no idea what an Annabel was like -- but boy, did I find out. And Carter took three books to grow into heroism (in the first all he did was drink beer and eat junk food and make crap out of the hero, in the second, he proposed to the heroine and she said no, and finally, with hard-won maturity he carried the day and got the girl). In the end, he turned into one of my favorites, but it was tricky. And Annabel was no picnic, either!

Lots of authors have stacks of "name" books they pour through for names. I have a few. But mostly I find myself looking in phone books and old census records and diaries and newspaper and magazine articles. Names in lists with meanings don't seem to have much context. I like reading them, but I don't often get a sense of who a person is from a list.

I like it best when names -- and their people -- come in context for me. Then they speak to me, tease me with just enough tantalizing information that I want to know more about.

But it doesn't always happen that way. Originally I began writing books because I wanted to name a son Brendan and my husband, The Prof, didn't.

After enough sons to be convinced I wasn't ever going to budge The Prof on that point, I decided if I was ever going to get a Brendan, I'd have to have him in a book.

I figure I probably owe my career to that Brendan -- and I never had to put up with him as a teenager or put him through college. What a deal!

Do you have favorite names that you picked for kids long before you had any? Or do you now if you're still anticipating?

What about names for characters? Do you have characters in search of names or names in search of characters?


Margaret McDonagh said...

Anne, what a great post. We are definitely kindred spirits on the issue of character names.

I'm very character driven. Ninety-nine percent of the time everything starts with the people for me. They slip into my head, begin to grow, reveal their backstories, their vulnerabilaties, their issues and match up with what will, when the book is finished, be their perfect partner. Even if they don't thing so at the beginning!

And you are so right. The name maketh the character. And no way can I begin to get to know them in my head, let alone actually start writing, until I know that the names fit.

Like you, I've had the odd false start when someone has changed name in the early stages because it just wasn't working. Some instinct or prompt from the character, a change of name, and things fall into place.

When I first started and wrote my very first Medical Romance, I had no idea then that I would be lucky enough to go on to write more and that most would be very loosely-linked around my fictional town of Strathlochan in Scotland. I had a few dicey moments along the way when secondary characters who were meant to fade into the background suddenly grew and started to demand their own stories, so now I am a bit more cautious in case someone pops up and surprises me again!

And don't you find that subconsciously names have meanings for you? You may hate a certain perfectly fine name because of an old school bully, or a name might be associated with a wonderfully eccentric old aunt!

Names have so many meanings and associations for us and you are so right that our characters only fully grow when we know exactly what they are called - and how their names are spelled.

Mags xx

Anne McAllister said...

Mags, we certainly do seem to be kindred spirits! And yes, I agree about having irrational negative feelings toward names that are perfectly fine -- they just remind me of someone in my past I don't much want to remember (or not happily).

Shari Anton said...

LOL!! Timely post, Anne. I have a character in this next proposal I'm writing that I want to call Constance, but my fingers keep typing Charlotte. I think I'll let her have her way.

Anne McAllister said...

Yes, Shari, I'm beginning to think that fingers know best. Mine have convinced me that Sylvie is really Sophy.

Anna Campbell said...

Anne, what a great post! I'm like you - if I don't have the name, I don't have the character. I think Sophy is going to win, by the way! There's something about those subconscious proddings! Sometimes with the name I've ALMOST got it, but not quite. Like it's been misfiled somehow. I had a Harriet in one of my manuscripts who was definitely a Hester as I discovered after a couple of chapters. But they're close enough in sound for me to realize that Hester was always there trying to get out. I wanted to call the hero of Untouched Titus. He came to me as Titus. He's still Titus in my heart. But I bowed to people who shrieked with horror at that name and then spent months trying to come up with another name. Search and replace was overworked and nothing was ever right. Silas. Marcus. Magnus. I could go on (and on). Eventually I settled on Matthew as a name I like and which wasn't likely to offend anyone. But HE'S STILL TITUS!!!!

Anne McAllister said...

Anna, It's funny that you should say that about Matthew in Untouched, because he never seemed like a Matthew to me when I read him. I hadn't considered an alternative, of course, but he didn't feel especially Matthew-ish. I'll have to rethink him as a Titus.

I had the same experience with a hero I wanted to call Raymond. Actually he was going to go by his last name anyway, which was Tanner, so it wouldn't have mattered. But I got so much adverse reaction to it that I ended up with Robert, which is fine because he looked just like a Robert I know and love. But still -- there's a part of him that's still Raymond in my heart.

Aideen said...

Hi Anne,

I'm really loving my visits to Tote Bag & Blogs lately as the variety of posts are wonderful.
I attended the first ever Mills & Boon workshop in Ireland last March and was wowed by Abby Green & Trish Wylie.
When we had questions and answers time my first question was about character names.
I love romance and will always read it but if a character has a name that I don't like for some reason I simply blank it in my mind and replace it with what I think works.
Wishing to offend nobody who might stumble across this comment, but I'm never going to find Wilfred/Barney/Enda/Mossy attractive and worthy of hero status. Just like Candy/Gertrude/Assumpta don't spell heroine for me. SORRY to anyone who has these names, I'm speaking only in hero/heroine terms.
I have four boys and never knew their names until they were handed to me after their births. One look and I knew who they would be.
Great post, very thought provoking.

All the best,

Anne McAllister said...

Ah, Aideen, I totally understand. But I'm always stumped when it comes to replacing the name in my mind with something else. And I tend never to buy books about heroes with certain names because it just won't work for me. Great names, but not for me.

As for the boys, I know what you mean. I did have names, but had at least two for each of them and when I met the boys (and one girl) in question, both my husband and I knew which it would be.

Makes me wonder if he ever would have seen one of them and thought "Brendan!" Probably not.

Abby Green and I have been discussing (well, that's a polite term. Arguing, more like, but cheerfully) about the name Eamon for a hero. He doesn't have to be Irish, though it's an Irish name. We use it in America.

What do you think? Abby thinks it's for sheep and 50 year old farmers who live with their mothers (apologies to all the Eamons out there. I'm not the one who thinks that!). And if one of your boys is Eamon, Abby will be in deep trouble!

Pat Cochran said...

No way would I have my children
named by the fifth grade! My fifth grade teacher,Mrs. Robertson would not have allowed it! Besides, Mother had already used quite a few names for my siblings. There were nine of us! In fact, for the last three Daddy let us put names into
a hat. My suggestions were drawn
for #s 8 and 9. LOL!

Pat Cochran

Anne Gracie said...

I agree. It sounds superficial, but the right name for the character is hugely important to me, too. It sounds crazy to non-writers, but it's often the first key to unlocking his/her character. It's almost as though there are real people living in my head but unless I call them by their correct name they won't reveal themselves.

I've had all sorts of characters who I initially struggled with. I had a Serena once, who was cool and clever and who very much knew what she wanted but she wasn't working at all in that book. I changed her to Tallie and suddenly she was much younger, more vulnerable and gutsy and with a completely different backstory and set of desires. And bingo, she took off running.

And, Anna Campbell, I can identify with your Titus problem. The hero of the book I just mentioned was Marcus, but my editor said there'd been too many Marcuses (Marcii? ;) published by them lately and could I please change his name. I didn't until the very end —I couldn't make him work with a name change. So the last thing I did on that book was a search and replace and turned him into a Magnus, but yes — he's still Marcus to me.

Some names never work for me, though I keep trying. I don't know how many heroes I've written who started off as Adam and moved on to someone else. And Rafe, my current hero, wants to be Francis — or is that the other way around?

Anne, I like the name Sophy much better than Sylvie. But I would love to know what names you had picked out in 5th grade. C'monnn, we won't tell. And anyway, it was 5th grade. We're all pretty fanciful at the age.

Anne McAllister said...

Pat, with nine kids I might have stood a chance of a Brendan at our house. We didn't get that far. I have a friend who was the eleventh child in his family and got named after one of his older brothers' friend's dog. Fortunately the dog was called Steve!

Anne, I think she's a Sophy for sure. I like Sylvie all right, but apparently that's not her name. My fingers know best.

And sorry, but there are some things you just don't talk about -- and names you pick in fifth grade are among them. They were bad, but they just never would have worked.

And yes, Magnus always seemed more like a Marcus to me, too.

Anne McAllister said...

I meant they "weren't" bad. They were very pedestrian. Which is not to say that the names my kids have now are off-the-wall. They're not. But they suit them. The 5th grade choices weren't.

And no, Brendan wasn't among them.

Michele L. said...

Hi Anne,

Loved your post! I am not an author but do love names too. I agree, I correlate the character to it's name in the story. I have read some books where I didn't like the name at first but loved it by the end of the story.

Some names I don't like are common ones such as Andrew, Peter, Chris, Dwayne, Ted, etc. I like strong names like Grant, Victor, Pierce, Quinton, Landon, etc. I realize some characters don't fit certain names. I can imagine it is pretty hard sometimes coming up with original names for your characters. I applaud you for your talents at picking great names for your characters!

Michele L.

Annie West said...

Anne, it's good to know this fixation with names is common in writers. I suffer the same thing. Well, suffer probably isn't the right word, but you know what I mean. The name has to be right and the idea of changing a character's name at the end of a book fills me with horror.

I started a book with Tessa as a heroine (a name I'd wanted to use for ages). I decided she couldn't be Tessa as it was my editor's name and I thought she wouldn't like reading a heroine with her own name. I fully intended to change the name and tried to contort my character into all sorts of other names. She just wouldn't go. She was Tessa and that's it! Fortunately my ed didn't mind at all so I was lucky.

Anna, I remember your Titus fondly. I still think of him as Titus, and have trouble sometimes if I'd talking to others about the book to remember his new 'show' name.

Anne G, good luck with Magnus.

And Anne Mc - I think it's going to be Sophy!

Currently having fun with some foreign names and have even changed a character name (but as she only speaks on 2 pages I'm not as worried).


Aideen said...

Hi Anne,

I'm afraid that I would have to agree with Abby on this one. I'm familiar with two Eamon's. One is a 50 something year old man and yes, he does live at home with his mother...and aunt none the less!! Honest to God, does Abby know this person too??!
The second 'Eamon' in question is a nice enough man but is so boring I'd rather have root canal done than have to listen to him.
So for me, Eamon is a no-no. Obviously none of my boys have the name so Abby is safe.
But if you want to go ahead and use the name don't worry, I'll just change it to something else in my head when I read his story.

All the best,

Liz Fielding said...

I'm in the middle of naming names at the moment, Anne and it's really difficult, especially as it's a two-book thing and I need two sets of names NOW.

My Sylvie named herself. It's not a name I'd ever have thought of. That is so helpful ... I wish this lot would hurry up and decide what they want to be called so that I can start. :)

Anne McAllister said...

Michele, It's comforting to know that it isn't only authors who obsess about names. I tend not to be fond of names that were "popular" at the beginning of the 20th century. I like some of the good old classic ones, and I tend to like some ethnic ones . . .

Like Eamon, Aideen! I'll have to ask Abby if she knows the same 50 year old you do. That would be interesting. Small world -- or small Ireland, at any rate. I keep telling Abby I'll write her a hero named Eamon. She isn't quick on taking me up on my offer.

Annie, I don't think I've ever named a heroine the same as my editor. And I can't now, as I have already had a heroine named what my current editor's name is. I'm glad Tessa enjoyed 'her' heroine!

Liz, your Sylvie named herself the way my Sophy has apparently named herself, despite my thinking she's a Sylvie. Well, I was close. I hope you can come up with some good names for your new heroes and heroines. Yes, it's trick to name several at a time, isn't it?