For those youngsters among us who have no idea who or what a Boot Hill is (this only occurs to because, I'm amazed to say, my own two adult daughters didn't know), Boot Hill was the name of the graveyard in every old western ever made. Wikipedia says: "Boot Hill is the name for any number of cemeteries, chiefly in the American West. During the 19th century it was a common name for the burial grounds of gunfighters, or those who "died with their boots on" (i.e., violently).
I'll just pause here and blow the smoke away from the barrel of my six-shooter.
I can't believe this poor guy, a deputy sheriff at that, goes through life with the name of Boot Hill. Where on earth was his mother when the birth certificate was filled out?! Think of the jokes he gets with every introduction. Nor could I believe that, as he was sworn in, there wasn't a single snicker in the courtroom -- at least none that my friend recorded. Only in Wyoming. And only in real life. Because, as an author, if I wrote westerns, and if I named a character Boot Hill in one of my books, my editor would make me change it. If I had an editor. "Contrived," she would scold, "contrived, contrived."
As I sit at my desk writing my latest novel I have a collage of my main characters before me. When I create characters for a new book, their names have to be just right. I experiment with different names, as if they were a taste to be explored, until I hit on exactly the right one. I always know when I have it wrong, and I always know when I get it right. I love the name of one of the main characters in the latest book I'm working on. I can say that because, honestly, I didn't give her the name. She gave it to me when she introduced herself. That's really how it happened.
I was in a writers' critique group a few years ago with a lovely young woman who was working on an edgy paranormal thriller. Her main character was -- much like the author -- a sharp, attractive young woman named . . . Mabel.
With as much finesse as I could manage, I did my best to get her to rename her character. (Forgive me if your name is Mabel; it's not that I don't like your name, it's that I didn't like your name for that character).I told her Mabel did NOT fit the character. That it conjured up a whole different persona than the one she was striving for. No matter how hard I tried I could not convince her.
So names really make a difference to me. But not until three books ago, when I wrote Lying on Sunday, did I spend much time searching for the right faces to go with the names. Now as I develop my character profiles I spend a day or two navigating through "headshot" sites until I find the perfect image that correlates to the one in my mind for each of my main characters. The benefits are that I feel I know them better than ever before, and it's easier to keep track of their physical attributes, so I don't give someone green eyes in Chapter 1 and brown eyes in Chapter 12. For me it's added another dimension to the discovery process. And after all, that's what a novel is all about -- for the reader and the writer: becoming acquainted with new people and learning as much of their stories as they're willing to share.
But that doesn't mean I have to paint a portrait for the reader. In fact, the more I write, the less inclined I am to give details about physical appearance that aren't necessary to the story. It may be far more important to know that my protagonist has a scar on her ring finger than that she has blond hair or dimples. Here's a perfect example of germane description from one of my very favorite books, Joy Jordan Lake's Blue Hole Back Home:
"I watched the new girl swing her leg out from under her red skirt -- a brown leg, darker at the knee than the thigh, and darker still more at the calf. And I watched the boys watching the brown, or maybe the shape -- I wouldn't know what boys see when they watch -- of first one leg then the other, and not a one of them . . . able to talk. Me, I had a spasm of wanting to stay put myself, of fear that tripped up my feet and made me wish desperately I could miss this one trip to the Blue Hole with our mangy pack and the new girl. Because I was beginning to think what a bad, what a truly remarkably bad idea this whole thing might be."
Trust me, it only gets better from there. If you haven't read, I highly recommend it.
As a writer, how much time do you spend naming your characters? Like me, do you ever feel you haven't quite got it right? What's your favorite example of the perfectly right name for a character in a novel you've read. Or a perfectly wrong name? I'll start. For a perfectly right name, it doesn't get any better than Uriah Heep in David Copperfield. For a perfectly wrong name, I'll stick with Boot Hill.