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Naming Characters: How Changing A Name Changes Everything

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Some of you know that I have another writing life as a novelist: Babes in Captivity and Suburbanistas are two of the novels I’ve published — my new one, called The Tiny Forever, is coming out in February 2012.   One of my novel-writing mentors was the mystery writer Elizabeth George, who taught me that a novel begins with the creation of its characters.  And the characters start with their names.

The right name is essential for building the other qualities that will make a character come alive on the page, George believes (and I believe too).  When you’re working on a piece of fiction — and I know some of you are interested in names primarily as writers, not parents — and the story or book just isn’t coming together, sometimes the problem is that your character has the wrong name.

I decided that might be the problem with my new novel, which I’ve been laboring over for three years now.  One of my three main characters, a flower child whose role in the story unfolds in the late 1970s, was named Lily.  But I wanted her to be tougher than that, I decided: a scrappy tomboy fighting her way through the world.

And so I changed her name to Billie.

My inspiration was Kate Atkinson’s When Will There Be Good News? One of Atkinson’s main characters is sixteen-year-old Reggie, alone in the world and desperate, yet winning and resourceful.  I admired the way Atkinson wrote from Reggie’s point of view – third person, but intimate – and decided I wanted my character, Lily, to be more like Reggie.

But when I changed Lily‘s age — from 23 down to 19 — and situation — from a college graduate living in New York to a dropout riding cross-country with her father’s ashes and a handgun in her backpack — I realized I had to change her name.  That’s when Billie was born.  The name Billie made sense because I thought this character’s father might have named her after Billie Holiday, and because, like the character, the name sounds kind of Western and kind of irreverent.

You’d think that naming characters would be a snap for me.  Yet as every name lover knows, choosing names in theory and finding the ideal one for an actual person (even when that person is fictional) are two very different things.

Name problems can be easier to solve in other people’s novels (and with other people’s children).  A girl born in the 1950s with sisters named Joanne and Debbie would more likely be Carolyn than Caroline, I recently told one writer friend, pointing to nameberry’s popularity charts.  Caroline was rarely used outside of the upper classes before the Kennedys popularized it in the early 1960s.  Another character, born in the 1930s, might have been Lillian or Louise, but certainly not LeeAnn.

Yet I feel less certain about my own poor Billie, whose name I’m still not sure is right.  Sure, Billie fits the stereotype of the tough tomboy, but maybe it would be more interesting if her name were something ultra-feminine, like Violetta or Angelina?

Plus one of my other main characters, whom Billie spends a lot of time with, also has a name that starts with a B, Bridget, and that name is carved in stone.  As a reader, I hate it when character’s names or physical descriptions, even their hair colors, are too similar.

Or maybe the problem is that the character is not really a Billie after all?  I’m going to take one more in-depth survey of her persona, make one more attempt to define who she is, and thus settle on the perfect name.

In this way, at least, creating characters is easier than naming (and raising) children: You can, at will, reinvent their looks, their personalities, and their names, again and again.

This post was adapted from a guest blog I wrote for my friend Christina Baker Kline’s blog on writing a novel, A Writing Year.   Christina‘s wonderful new book, Bird in Hand, comes out in August.

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