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…
Is more difficult, I think,
Than naming children.