Category: how to name characters
My love affair with names began in elementary school when I selected a book about the meaning behind names from the monthly book order catalog. I enjoyed it so much I asked my parents to buy me a second name book. I picked up the original Beyond Jennifer and Jason, and highlighted it within inches of its life. I loved the way names sounded in my head and how Pamela and Linda took thinking about names a step further than most books. They gave them new meanings and classifications and offered insight into how names might be perceived by other people at all stages of someone’s life. It fascinated me and thus, a name nerd was born.
For years, I scribbled stories here and there but my favorite part of the process was always naming the characters. I labored over who would get which moniker, many times to the detriment of the story. I’d have two full pages of characters with spectacular names and one page of actual story completed before I gave up and started something new.
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.