Wednesday, September 05, 2018

More fun with names

It's fascinating to me how great Type M minds are thinking alike these days. Several of us are pre-occupied with characters - their names, their creation, and their centrality to the story - and several of us appear to be starting new novels, or even new series. Thinking up character names is is one of the first steps in beginning a new novel. Most of us choose names very carefully and deliberately. First of all the name has to be true to the age, ethnicity, and region of the character. Second, it has to have a certain rhythm so that it either rolls off the tongue or completely trips us up, depending on the traits of character we are creating. Some names sound soft and gentle, Justin, for example, while others sound more hard-hitting, like Rock. Third, it has to be distinguishable from the other characters in the book; so avoid having six one-syllable names that begin with J, like Jim, John, Jeff, etc. If readers can't keep characters straight, they'll get lost.

Fourth, and probably most importantly, we want the name to evoke particular impressions in the readers' minds. Certain names, such as Adolf, are forever fused with history. Others are associated with cultural stereotypes. I would likely not name my rural Eastern Ontario farm characters Nigel, for example. Jim, John or Bud for him. Unless I want his name to be an issue in itself.

Aline jokingly said no action hero would be called Cedric. I smiled because the hero in my Rapid Reads series for reluctant readers is named Cedric Elvis O'Toole. It's a weighty, tease-worthy handle that the shy, self-effacing young handyman has had to carry all his life. It forms a delightful contrast to who is he. Amanda Doucette is the series hero in my regular mystery series, and her name was chosen with careful attention to the rhythm of it, the combined impression of softness and toughness, and to some extent the ordinariness of it. Both Amanda and Doucette are names often found in Eastern Canada where she is from, and Amanda is a common but not too common name in her age group. I find the current tendency to give heroes, particularly female heroes, really quirky names annoying; to me, it detracts from the realism of the character.

One of the beauties of Canada is its cultural diversity. In addition to its Indigenous peoples, it is being settled by people from around the world, so there is a wealth of names to pick from, increasing the challenge of getting the right name for the age, gender, and ethnicity of the characters in a particular region. In FIRE IN THE STARS, set in Newfoundland, I had to make sure that all the Newfoundland names I used were not only genuine to the island but also to the specific part of the island. Luckily the Internet allows me to poke around in villages, websites, tourism ads, local news reports, and so on to poach the names I needed.

In THE TRICKSTER'S LULLABY, I had characters from Vietnam, Haiti, Syria, and Nigeria, as well as French Canadians. Once again, the Internet to the rescue. It's still possible to get the name wrong - did I get the right regional/ religious affiliation for the Nigerian name I chose, for example - but I hope I've reduced my margin of error.

I am just beginning the earliest draft of my fourth Amanda Doucette novel, currently titled THE ANCIENT DEAD. It is set in southeastern Alberta, among prairies and badlands. Some of the characters are descendants of early settlers from various parts of Europe, and I will be picking surnames that are reported in the local history books from that era.

Characters appear unexpectedly during the writing of a book, and in each case, I pause to consider exactly what name to give them. At the end of the first draft, however, I have one final test for the entire cast. I list all the letters of the alphabet down the page, and then fill in each name, first and last, beside the letter it begins with. This allows me to see at a glance whether I have too many names beginning in M, or names that are too similar in appearance, sound, or length. Thus a character may find itself with a new name at the end of the process, which can be amusing when I forget who that character is. Usually fairly minor characters make this sacrifice.

Choosing character names is like choosing baby names. The writer wants the name to conjure up something about the character's nature. Emily is a very pretty, feminine name, ideal for a gentle, caring character. But all this care may be derailed by a reader's own experience. If your reader has been dumped by the love of his life Emily, he's going to have a very different emotion.

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