Friday, January 30, 2015

The Name's the Thing

I've been thinking about names -- character names. My strategy for finding names when I first started to write was to go to the telephone book (the old days when we received a printed directory). Often, when I was feeling creative, I would compile a list of first names from several alphabets, and a list of last names from other alphabets and mix and match. Often this strategy didn't work. I would start to write and find the name didn't fit. That's why when I look back at the notebook that I kept in the early days of my writing career, I'm amazed to see how often names -- even those of my protagonist and other ensemble characters -- changed. My crime historian Lizzie Stuart was "Sarah" at one point. John Quinn, the cop in that series, was once "Nicholas". He is definitely not a "Nicholas" or a "Nick". And the former "Sarah Adams" has fared much better as "Lizabeth ('Lizzie') Stuart".

Luckily before I stuck my characters with names they would have to live with, it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to think about who they were. Maybe that was why I struggled with names in the beginning -- because I hadn't figured out who my characters were or would be. Interesting how much easier the naming of the characters came with my second series. But by then -- fifteen years later -- I had learned to think first, then write. Yes, I'm a plotter, not a pantser. I need to plan, not plunge in. Or, rather, I'm a hybrid. I need to plan enough so that I have a rough road map. That now includes knowing enough about my main characters to give each a name that conjures up an image in their head. "Hannah McCabe," the police detective in my second series, is the daughter of "Angus". Once I knew her father's name, I knew much more about her and who she would be.

The Bad Seed (1956), a movie that I'm using for some academic research, provides a textbook example of how to get maximum mileage out of names. In a riveting performance, Eileen Heckart portrays the mother of a small boy who has drowned under mysterious circumstances at a school picnic. His penmanship medal -- pinned to his shirt by his mother -- is missing. Drunk and grieving, she comes to visit the mother of another student, wanting to know if the woman's daughter can tell her what happened. In a raw, painful scene, she compares her name -- "Hortense" -- to that of the other mother -- "Christine". Christine is a "gentle name," she says. "Hortense" is "fat" and awkward. She recites the limerick that her own schoolmates made up to tease her. The two characters are a study in contrast. As Hortense Daigle points out, Christine Penmark is wealthy (the daughter of a famous reporter and the wife of a colonel). Christine knows how to wear simple clothes. When Hortense buys simple clothes, they never fit right. The irony of this scene is that Christine, of the gentle name and good breeding, is about to discover that her birth mother was a serial killer and that her pig-tailed, curtseying daughter "Rhoda" has her grandmother's homicidal tendencies. Rhoda kills "LeRoy," the janitor and contemplates the murder of their landlady, "Monica Breedlove," a large, nurturing woman, whose married name once became a topic for discussion with her analyst. Monica is a Freudian.

Some of the lessons I've learned about naming characters:

1. Consider character's size, shape, and other physical characteristics
2. Consider the time period and region of the country in which character was born
3. Consider the naming traditions of the racial/ethnic/religious/cultural group into which character was born
4. Consider the name customs of the family into which the character was born
5. Consider the special circumstances that might have affected the choice of character's name
6. Consider decisions that might have been made by others after character was named
7. Consider decisions the character might have made about his/her given name

For example, do you want to give a character a name that "fits" or that will surprise others and/or make the character uncomfortable or resigned to the reaction. If you're naming a female character born in colonial New York into a Dutch family, it might be a good idea to do some research. Do you want to challenge stereotypes and assumptions your readers might have about certain names and the people who have them? Do you want to use the character's name to reveal something important about the character's history? What does the character prefer to be called and by whom?

The more I think about names, the more I realize how names choices by a writer can open up a story and invite the reader in. Names matter. Just ask "Sherlock Holmes" or "Jane Eyre".

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