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?