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.
Sometimes, this all-important name comes easily, as with Bridget’s name in The Possibility of You. I didn’t have to think at all about that one. My grandmother’s life was the first inspiration for the book, and her real name was Bridget.
But while choosing Bridget was easy, the name contained a lot of complex messages for my character and for the grandmother who inspired her. My grandmother’s family had no idea that her name was Bridget until she died, for instance, when we found her birth certificate. She’d always called herself Bea, or sometimes Beatrice, or sometimes Bertha, and was mysterious about how and why she got to have so many different names. (Can you recognize one of the seeds here of my early name nerdism?)
By the time we learned my grandmother’s real name was Bridget, we weren’t able to ask her why she’d hidden that fact or why she’d changed it….much less why she’d traded in her beautiful appellation for the hideous Bertha!
But I discovered through researching my novel that many of the young Irish women who came to the US to work as servants in the years leading up to World War I changed their name from Bridget. Bridget became shorthand for “ignorant Irish maid” and young women who worked as servants were commonly called The Bridgets. This became the first title of my book: The Bridget.
My fictional Bridget, unlike my grandmother, refused to change her name, though this dramatic event ended up on the cutting room floor.
Other name details got cut too. The main character in the 1976 section of the book, Billie, was originally called Lily. But as I decided to make her character younger and scrappier, Billie seemed a better choice.
My contemporary heroine Cait has an awkward version of her name, but the awkwardness is deliberate. Cait‘s adoptive parents chose Caitlin, a name that always felt too bland and which she shortened to the more dashing and determined Cait. The unusual spelling suggests the character’s own sense of standing apart from the crowd.
Maude, the book’s anti-heroine, was only ever Maude, which has always felt like the perfect name for her character. Vintage with an undernote of seaminess, the name Maude to me suggests someone who’s stuck in the past and who’s using finery to cover up something tawdry, like purple silk and perfume over an unwashed body.
My contemporary hero, Martin, is named after an old friend of my husband’s and mine, mostly because I wanted to name the character after the writer Michael Cunningham, whose novel The Hours so inspired my book, but ended up deciding that Michael was too uninspired a name.
And my very favorite name in the book is Jupiter, Jupe for short, who is from an African-American family with a long lineage dating back to slave days when such grand mythological names were common among blacks. The name Jupe made the character both otherworldly and down-to-earth, qualities I think you’ll agree he possesses.
The book ends with two of the characters (I won’t tell you which ones) discussing what to name a baby. Their final decision, and the reasons behind it, is one that never fails to move me to tears. The right name can have that powerful an effect on a person, in fiction as in real life.
Special offer for Berries who buy my book: If you’d like a free signed and personalized bookplate, just write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me who you’d like me to sign the bookplate to and where I can send it. Thank you!