Wednesday, May 20, 2009
What's in a Name?
As I begin a new book proposal, I remember what it's like to open a fresh can of Playdough. The odd kid-scent of it. The vibrant colors. Hefting it in my palm and digging my fingers into the soft, yielding medium. The possibilities for creativity are endless. I can make a hot pink pizza with neon yellow pepperoni, or I can roll it out and make hot dogs or french fries or 'bisghetti'. (Can you tell I taught preschool?) I think new beginnings for writers are a bit like fresh Playdough. You can take your idea, work with it, reshape it and toss it 'back in the can,' and no one's the wiser.
One part of the creative process that Sharon posted about is how important it is for the writer to have the character's appearance firmly in mind when discovering that character's story, but not to 'paint a portrait' for the reader. Other attributes may say more about the character than a physical description could. This was brought home to me when I received the book cover art for Raising Rain. As I wrote it, I found headshots for everyone except for Rain as a child. When I saw her on the front cover standing apart from the women who raised her, my heart filled with compassion. Her part of the story came alive for me, and I yearned to pick her up and comfort her, though I never saw her face.
While physical attributes are important, names can also give insight into a character. Willy Loman, in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is a 'low man' who comes to a bad end (oops, spoiler alert!). To Kill a Mockingbird's Boo Radley is the perfect name for a character who starts out with an ominous air about him. The name 'Whiskey Priest' describes the troubled state of Graham Green's character in The Power and the Glory. Hannibal (rhymes with cannibal) Lechter is pretty self-explanatory, and Dorothy Gale's name (Wizard of Oz) is descriptive, though not overly subtle.
A character's name can be an outright attempt at description, or a very subtle tag. It can suggest a character's situation in life, including where they are in the birth order (Jr.?), the time period in which they live (Fitzwilliam Darcy), the country (Madeline) or even the section of the country where they were born (Ma & Pa Joad). In fiction, it's not advisable for two characters' names to begin with the same letter or to sound similar unless a relationship is implied, such as with twins or siblings. A strong character might have a shorter name with harsher consonants (Captain Kirk) and a softer character might have something more flowing (Buttercup). Some authors choose names for the cadence (Inigo Montoya) or for an unusual quality (Spock). Most authors steer clear of hard to pronounce names, such as Hermione in the Harry Potter series. The author finally cleared it up by having Hermione explain the pronunciation of her name to a visiting Bulgarian student with whom there was a language barrier. Smooth. Maybe I should have thought of that. One of my new characters is named Roberta - Bebe for short - and people are already mispronouncing it. I should have had her explain "Bebe, as in BB gun" to someone. The author should always avoid anything that causes an interruption of the story by the reader stumbling over words or names.
While many name generating online sites are specifically for people searching for fantasy game names, there are also websites specifically for authors. One such website is www.thenamegenerator.com, but the names are chosen randomly and this doesn't really give any insight into the character or take into consideration your story. I prefer to take the time to choose just the right name for my character to live with. Work that Playdough a bit longer.
Does a name come to mind that describes a memorable character for you? How do you go about choosing names for your characters? We'd love to hear!