Category: names in books
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.
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.