A lot of you know that, besides being the co-mistress of Nameberry, I’m a novelist. In fact, my new book, The Possibility of You, comes out today.
While writing about names and writing historical fiction are often very different enterprises, there are times when my worlds collide. Like when it’s time to name my characters.
For some fiction writers, character naming might be a minor consideration, somewhere above comma placement but far below such elements as title and voice and what the characters eat for dinner.
Not so for me, of course, with the character’s name being his or her most important defining characteristic. In my view, the character’s name contains a kind of DNA code for who they are and where they come from, what they value and how they hope to change.
Novelist Caroline Leavitt, author of the New York Times bestselling Pictures of You, has had not one dream job but two. Before she became a full-time writer, she was a professional namer, naming not books or characters but everything from phones to bras. Her story:
I was writing high fashion copy at Macy’s when my boss asked me to come up with names for a new cosmetic shop. “Five hundred of them,“ she told me.
She wanted names that sounded Italian. (Plissamo. Glissatto.) Names that were Italian. (Fellini.) Names that sounded like Edenic places. (Bliss.) Names that were Edenic places (Roma, Paris, or yup, Eden.)
I sat down with a thesaurus and a dictionary and began making lists of names. Sometimes I rifled through magazines for inspiration, or sat there dreaming as one word seemed to flow into another. It took me about three days to come up with a list, but even then I wasn’t finished. Next the names had to go through legal to make sure no one else had already used the name, and if it was a good one, they usually had. This winnowed my list down quite a bit. Then they had to run it through a language test, because you didn’t want a name being chosen that meant “likes to sleep with goats” in Swahili.
But alas, as it often happens, none of my names were chosen because the shop was never built.
Still, I named kids’ dressing rooms (Presto Chango!) I named a bra (Barely There). I found to my surprise that I was good at it, and boy, was it fun.
When Mike Myers named his son Spike recently, there were several comments on our Nameberry facebook page along the lines of: “Did his wife have a puppy?” and “Bit doggy for me.” Not very kind, perhaps, but it does raise the subject of the blurring of the line between human and canine names, when babies are being named Buster and Buddy, and pups are commonly called Chloe and Mia.
So little Spike won’t be alone in his name zone. Other celebs have provided him with a number of comparably-named prospective (if older) playmates. There’s Michelle Hicks and Jonny Lee Miller’s Buster, Rosanne Barr’s Buck, Jamie Oliver’s Buddy Bear and Alicia Silverstone’s Bear, Justine Bateman’s Duke, Damon Dash’s Lucky, Gerard Way’s Bandit and Robert Rodriguez’s Rocket, as well as the poodle-ready Coco (Courteney Cox & David Arquette), Gigi (Cynthia Rowley), Fifi (Bob Geldof) and Zuzu (Tania Peterson).
But are these still the kinds of names that are actually given to dogs today, when pups are considered more family members than pets? The answer is a resounding no! Traditional canine monikers like Fido and Rover, Spot, and Champ have virtually disappeared, having been replaced by popular people names. In fact, looking at the most recent list of top names for dogs might make you do a doubte-take as it’s so similar to the top babies’ names lists.
One of our favorite guest bloggers is best-selling, prize-winning thriller writer JEFF ABBOTT, whose recently released novel Adrenaline is receiving accolades across the national mediascape. To commemorate his success, we’re revisiting the blog that takes us inside his character naming process, complete with concrete examples–and, incidentally–an acknowledgement of the part played by our very own books and website.
I think it is sometimes easier to name a child than a character in a book.
I have used Pam and Linda’s books to name characters in my novels now for the past several years. And they are perfectly geared to finding that ideal character name, given that the lists are organized by groupings such as style, energy, creativity, and so on. (My favorite all-time list as a resource: The Fitting In, Standing Out list).
I first used a baby naming book as a second-grader, when I was writing my first stories in pencil in a Big Chief tablet. I told my mom I was having trouble knowing what to name a certain character, and she gave me the baby name book she’d used. It listed names alphabetically, with ethnic origin and “variations and diminutives.” What I mostly learned from this book was that Teutonic meant German and I would have been named Caroline if I was a girl. (It was the only girls’ name circled in the entire book.) It offered a fairly slim list of choices, compared to today’s books, and I pretty much resorted to either trying to match a name to the feel of the character (like naming a pretty girl Melissa, which was the epitome of a pretty girl name at the time) or matching the name’s original meaning to the character. (I named a king in a very early short story Frederick because it meant ‘peaceful ruler’, and he was a nice king.)
I knew even then that picking a name because it meant ‘brave warrior’ in Old German had very little to do with how the name was viewed in our culture. And in the shorthand of fiction, you want a name that matches the character, that signals, however subtly, to the reader, a trait or feeling about this person.
When I started to write a new crime series about an ex-CIA agent who owns bars around the world, I wanted the characters to have names that matched their personalities. Now, the advantage of naming characters over kids is that you know the personality of the character, and you don’t know (yet) the personality of the beautiful little baby.
In my alternate life (the one where I’m a jet-setting opera singer based in London), I have a clutch of children with fabulous names. The girls are called Tessa, Lily, Francesca and Imogen, and the boys are Sebastian, Phineas, Jasper and Colin. In my actual life, I’m a New York-based writer and performer with two kids who got my first round draft picks: Julian and Phoebe. But as a writer, surely I can pepper my work with those other glorious, un-exercised gems, right?
Well, not exactly.
J.K. Rowling has famously said that Harry Potter just strolled into her head, fully formed. I understand what she means. My characters have a habit of knocking on my mental door wearing nametags. Even names that carry hints of significance are often a chicken and egg situation. For example, the hero of my novel, Pandora’s Bottle, is named Sy Hampton. I don’t recall consciously choosing his name, but one reader asked if it was meant to illustrate a “sigh” of disappointment (he’s having a mid-life crisis.) Another suggested that “Hampton” indicates a yearning for the finer things in life epitomized by those exclusive Long Island enclaves. Those are certainly reasonable assumptions, but I can’t say honestly whether Sy grew more melancholy and striving because of his name, or if, when I named him, my subconscious instinctively know where he was heading. However, I do know that when my editor floated the possibility of changing his name – feeling that Sy suggested someone of a slightly older generation – I just couldn’t.