Friday, July 5, 2013

What's in a Name?

I know I've mentioned it before, but I proofread for a friend of mine who is a court reporter. I'm in California, she's in Wyoming, but we send transcripts back and forth via email. The hearings are usually boring (though I have read the transcripts for a murder trial or two, and those were not boring). I read a transcript the other day, and when I came across the name of one of the witnesses, I had to stop and laugh. Then I had to mentally flog his parents because, wow, it wasn't nice what name they saddled him with. He's a deputy sheriff and his name is ... I swear I'm not making this up ... Boot Hill.

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.

Clunk.

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.

12 comments:

Sandra Stiles said...

I too spend a lot of time on names. I also look through websites for a picture that represents them. Like you it gives me a visual. Looking at those pictures often triggers personality traits. Maybe it is the tilt of a head or the snarl that suddenly gives me the idea. Looking back at my current WIP and reading over all of my notes for it I realized that from the very beginning idea to where I am now, my MC had gone through three different names. I hadn't found the right one until this last one. You are right, names are very important.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

In my current WIP, I had the mother and daughter's names mixed up for the whole first draft. It made me feel all out of whack. So, I swapped the names. Ah. That fixed a bunch of the issues I had with the characterization.

Jennifer Major said...

My hero is Native American, and at first, I had a long 4 word name for him. "Rides Like an Arrow". Then my lovely Navajo friend mentioned that Navajo don't have those kid of names. Not like the Cheyenne or Lakota. So, I changed it to a Navajo name I found online on a Navajo website for Navajo parents. Then a Navajo lady said "Nope, don't use that one. We'd never use a name like that. Ask Helen Yazzie for a proper name."
But, but, but...?
So, I asked my dear, sweet , highly respected Elder friend Helen Yazzie for yet another name. And she gave me one more, and that name MUST stay.
Why 'MUST'? Because I dare any editor to find another one!!!

The heroine? Sarah. Not hard at all.

Sharon K Souza said...

Sandra, I'm glad I began making a collage of photos for my characters in each book I write. I keep them, and each character has become like an old friend.

Susie, how interesting. Yeah, I think we always know when it's not quite right. I love when it finally clicks.

Jennifer. You have some good resources! In certain types of novels, names are even more important, so I'm glad you were able to find the perfect one.

Jenny M. said...

What a great topic for a post! And one that's come up recently in my work — I'm an editor who works mainly with inexperienced authors, and the name choices in a crime novel I'm editing right now reflect the author's age. Character names include George, Mary, Dick, Liz, and James, but it's set in the present. Can you guess her age?

Sharon K Souza said...

Jenny, that's funny. It can be jarring when the names don't fit the story. It's just as bad when the names are all young and trendy when they shouldn't be. Thanks for sharing.

Kristi said...

I've always been a "collector" of names. I love to learn others' full names, or their children's names, and the stories behind them. That little habit is certainly coming in handy now. I'm finally trying to get serious about my first book, and I've got a good list of names from which to choose. (Especially a name I got from an ancestor on a friend's family tree.) The correct name is definitely important.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

My brother interviewed almost everyone he could get to sit down in a coffee shop with him. He created over 200 'character profiles' based on their answers to his questions, complete with internet pictures and multilayer, hyphenated, doublebarrel names. His 'novel' has very little plot but each of these characters gleaned from his acquaintances is represented. Since his death I have mulled how to complete the project, especially since his best friend asked how his character was doing...
Names come to me. Some are make-believe, random letters typed and then reordered to make sense. Heien (Hey-en) is one of my favourites. Then I like to take an archetype like Arthur and flesh him out. Or reorder a reader's expectation. What do you think of a man named Robin? Christopher Robin grew up to be quite bitter, I've heard. I love foreign names. Georg (hard g), Ranjeev, Batisamah.
Sharon, reading this I realised I made a mistake, easily corrected, thank goodness. I had another character called Helen swirling in and out of scenes with Heien. I got confused because the brain doesn't differentiate that one letter in the middle. So I changed Heien to Celesteien. But I really think Heien is Heien, not Celesteien. So Helen is going to get a new name... I can't do a Suzie and switch them. Celesteien is too overblown for this girl. Stay tuned!
And Jennifer! What name did you stick with?! My curiosity and love for names is burning up!

Cherry Odelberg said...

It is so hard NOT to give a character the name of the person they are patterned after. But, one must be so careful, you know, not to give away the true identity of the person you are vilifying or glorifying.

The first full length novel I completed was written in first person. The narrator is never called by name. Perhaps that was a good technique. Perhaps only amateurish.

Sara said...

My long term WIP is a fantasy novel, and the entire genre suffers from completely ridiculous made up names . . . and yet a mark of the genre is to NOT simply use "regular" ones. To make it worse, it's an alternate Rome, where the men all had one of about 15 names and all the women were essentiall *numbered*. There's only so far that place holders and first initials will get you.

Cherry--the unnamed 1st person narrator has worked for Cat in the Hat for decades!

Sharon K Souza said...

Kristi, "a collector of names,"I think that's fascinating. And I'm delighted you're serious about your writing. It sounds like you should be.

Henrietta, what a blessing to have this work of your brother's. I hope you find what to do with it.

Cherry, you're right. It's best to disguise the people we pattern our characters after. I really like the idea of your first person narrator never being called by name. Doesn't seem amateurish to me at all.

Sara, that would be a challenge! Hope it's going well for you.

Jenny M. said...

Quick follow-up to my earlier comment: As I delve further into this book I'm editing, I find more evidence of the author's age - characters named Hilda, Gertrude, Walter, and Betty. And, yes, the author is around 80 years old.