A Rose By Any Other Name Could Be a Dandelion)


What’s in a name? Let Shakespeare’s Juliet wax poetic on a name’s unimportance— I disagree.  Supposing Melville had started the iconic first line of Moby Dick by proclaiming, “Call me Fred”? or if Margaret Mitchell had kept the original name for her heroine and dubbed her ‘Pansy’ instead of Scarlett? Really, a lot depends on the names we hang on our characters.

Choosing a character’s name is akin to selecting the perfect fabric for that important tree in a new quilted project or the exact color with which to paint a sunset. The chosen fabric should meld with the art quilt in progress while at the same time proclaiming its individuality. The sunset hues should offer the viewer a sunset that will draw them into the painting. Color and fabric must fit just so… and just so should the name suit its character. Sounds simple, but getting to that point is another matter.

I admit freely that I have trouble naming the people about whom I write. Family members who have seen me at this stage of the game have loudly questioned my sanity as I dither and mutter to myself. Boys’ names are not bad because early on I discovered that the males I know don’t much care whether or not I wrote about their namesakes. But then there are the girls…

I have the awful habit of personalizing girls’ names, Should I call the mean girl Nancy? It fits fine, but there’s my good friend Nancy, and how can possibly I write nasty things about someone named after her? The same goes for Ruth and Maria and Carol. In desperation, I seize upon Davina. Nobody I know is called Davina, which is good, but unfortunately it absolutely does not fit the persona of my mean girl— which is bad. So I am back to square one—the muttering and dithering.

Names that I love are not always perfect, either, and have often to be ditched. Though I have longed to saddle some character with Murgatroyd, I haven’t yet done so. The same goes for whimsical monikers. Buttercup and Fairwynd might be perfect for Gilbert and Sullivan, but they just won’t do in modern fiction because the best sort of names are the sort that quickly become a part of the story and don’t jolt the reader every time they appear on the page.

Then there is the problem of inventing characters from different countries. Haunted by memories of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, I try to keep unfamiliar names few, simple, and pronounceable. Thus, in A Boat To Nowhere there is a Mai and a Kien, and in Yuri’s Brush With Magic Tammy’s Japanese name is Tamako, Ken’s  Kenjiro. Melding West and East into the unfamiliar names, I hoped, would make them easier to remember.

I wonder if other writers have (or have had) my problem. Did Dickens sit up all night thinking up Ebenezer Scrooge? Did Harry Potter—a name so ordinary and pedestrian and yet so perfect—spring easily to mind? Was Winn Dixie (dog names are hard, too!) already thought of before the story came to be? And what of Lemony and … oh, yes, a big favorite from my childhood… Captain Blood? No muttering or dithering for those authors, I’d bet—no long hours glued to the book of a thousand names! But I have hope. Perhaps one day in the not so distant future I will be able to smile at the character of my choice and say clearly, “You are called Denise.” Er…hold on just a minute…

Naming characters

Is more difficult, I think,

Than naming children.



About Maureen C. Wartski

I’m Maureen Wartski, writer, artist, wife, mother, grandmother; you can see that I have many of the bases covered. I was born in Ashiya, Japan, a (then) small town which lay cradled between sea and mountains. In the evenings, we would walk along the road that ran past Osaka Bay, and a great moon would rise out of the water to turn the world to silver. I’m told that my first words were, “Big moon!” All my life I have felt the tug to write something, draw something, put together something with fabric, string and color, and the urge to create has grown through the years. I suppose, then, that it’s a natural thing that this blog be full of the things that so many of you enjoy doing…drawing, making something with fabric, and writing. Yuri's Brush with Magic, my newest book for middle schoolers follows the adventures of a brother and sister, the magic of words, and the incredible magic of the natural world. I'd love to hear from you! You can send me a note at: maureen@wartski.org/ My blog is here: https://maureenwartski.wordpress.com/ Or friend me on Facebook!

7 responses »

  1. So I’m working on a new novel length story about a girl named Lavender. She’s born in 1850 and because of the nature of the story the name of a herb was absolutely the perfect name for her. Just for my own pleasure I went to a nursery and bought a lavender plant. My story moved along, as my stories tend to do, with fits and starts, with more pages dumped than kept, with all sorts of problems that my writer’s mind took into account. My writers’ groups read and marked pages. Back to work I went. Then my lavender plant died. It just looked at me one morning, nodded its branches in the wind and by nightfall faded away. There was not a root or stem with life left.

    Needless to say, the story will not go forward. Lavender refuses to talk with me. Words about her do not weave into story. Now is the problem a dead plant? Is the problem my own short comings as a writer? Or does the inability to continue lie in her name? Oh, Maureen, I’m mourning Lavender’s withdrawal from the pages of my life. You used cloth and color as examples of finding the right “fit” for a name. I’ve used plants for my examples in my story. If I could make Lavender a daisy or rosemary I would, but those plants don’t come anywhere near her personality. Poor distressed Lavender. For now she’s resting in the filing cabinet.

    I don’t know where my mother came up with the spelling but my name is that very unusual Blonnie. And you have happy days always.

    • Such a sad story, Blonnie! Hmm… how to restore Lavender’s persona? Pungent but refreshing, gentle but assertive, soothing but steadfast…. Chicory? Pennyroyal? I sort of like Pennyroyal… her nickname could be ‘Royal’… no? There are other herbs!
      Don’t give up, Blonnie!!! May the force that helps, drives and prods all good writers be with you.
      Maureen 🙂

  2. Oh, Blonnie, you must get another lavender or a sachet to get that story going again.
    Names are hugely important to me, and it’s a relief that I only had to change the name of a minor (mean) character in my latest wip because my niece named her baby the same name (Olivia). I don’t think I could do this with the MCs.

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