Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Choosing Names

As I've gotten into the nitty-gritty of writing my new novel, it struck me that one of the most important things we writers do when constructing a story is to choose the names of our characters. A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but a heroine named Rose is likelier to catch our readers' fancy than one named Skunk. (Yes, it's silly, but it illustrates the point.)

Often, I find I choose my characters names without much thought or effort. The character's personality traits just seem to "fit" a particular name, or the hero/heroine comes to me with a name before I've even thought up more of the story. (In one case, I thought up a whole series of books based on a single name, Liberty Jenkins. Not that I've had time to write it, yet!)

To me, the fact that a name can suggest a story (or a story a name) illustrates just how powerful they are to shaping what your book becomes. A heroine named Hortense or a hero named Ernest will have far greater hurdles to overcome in playing against "type" than one named Angelina or Brad. That's not to say an author can't overcome those hurdles, but that by choosing those less attractive (apologies to all Hortenses and Ernests present) names, the author sets herself up from page one with a hurdle to overcome.

In the book I'm currently working on, the heroine's name was decided before I wrote the first line. Because she appears in Sinfully Ever After, the last of the novellas in Behind the Red Door, I had to use the name I'd given her in that story. If I had known, however, that I would be giving her a book of her own, I probably wouldn't have chosen the name Marianne.

It's not that I have anything against the name Marianne. It's a pretty name. It's also a perfectly Georgian and Regency-era correct name for a lady (and there are precious few, as Jo Beverley points out here). It's just that it's not the name I would have associated with this particular character as she has evolved. That said, it's what I had to work with, so it's what I went with.

I had more leeway with the hero, since he doesn't appear in any of the other stories. I also had to provide his nephew, who plays a pivotal role in the story, and his three daughters with names that seemed to "suit" them (and, as an added bonus, might provide me with grist for more stories down the road).

As is sometimes the case, the hero's name presented itself almost immediately. Sterling. As soon as it popped into my head, I knew it was right. He's hard and a little tarnished, but with a bit of polishing, his true worth shines through.

Okay, two down, one to go.

The nephew took a little longer. I started with Benjamin, and even used it in the first draft of the first chapter, but it just wasn't working for me. I couldn't say why, I just knew it wasn't the name that character wanted and needed. I knew the name needed to start with a B (again, there's no rhyme or reason to why I thought that...I just did!), so I kept trying and the name that kept coming to me was Bernard. It's perhaps a little nerdy sounding, but for this character, that fits. Not that he's nerdy exactly, but...well, let's just see if someone actually decides to publish the book and you can find out for yourself!

YOUR TURN: Are the names of the characters in a book important to you? Will you deliberately pass over a book because you don't like the name of the hero/heroine? Pick up a book specifically because you like the names? And if you're a writer, how do you choose your characters' names?

2 comments:

Clisby said...

Well, I'm not a writer, but once when I was a night copy editor at a newspaper, the entire copy desk whiled away an evening making up florid descriptions of characters in a novel to be set in Charleston. A couple I still remember:

Penelope Ashley: She had the body - and the responsiveness - of a Greek statue.

Rutledge Tradd Prioleau Wentworth XXIII: A man shackled by his past, he longed desperately for the one thing he could never have - a first name.

Jackie Barbosa said...

Ah, Clisby, those are a hoot. Especially the man longing for a first name. I know a few people like that, lol.

Hope things are good in your part of the world!