Category: naming 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.
Whose name is worse than mine? Almost no one’s, by my lights. I’ve spent decades looking, and 99 percent of the names I hear are better than my own. Once in a great while, I do come across a name that I actually think is worse, and I view such names with both pity and awe–but more on this later.
What’s so bad about my name? I come by it honorably enough; I was born in Chadera, Israel, where the name Yona was perhaps not so common as the Susans or Debbies that populated my grade school classrooms, but neither was it freakish. Then my parents moved back to the United States and it did not occur to them to Anglicize my name, which was always confused or mangled: Yola, Yoda, Ona and Zona were a few of its many ungainly permutations. And coupled with my unusual last name, Zeldis, made for an even more confused reaction.
When I entered a new school in fourth grade, my teacher looked at the class list and said, “What is Yona Zeldis?” I had to raise my hand and say, “It’s me.” She thought it was a misprint and that it should perhaps have been Zelda Yonis; no such luck though.
When I chose the name Claire for one of the protagonists of my new novel, The Obituary Writer, I thought I’d found the perfect name for a woman living in 1961. To me, Claire sounded sophisticated without seeming snobby; feminine but not girlish; and although not unusual a name, it was also not common.
So imagine my surprise when I started to read another novel partially set in the early 1960s, Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, and found a protagonist named Claire. The feeling was similar to the day I showed up at a Mommy group with my baby son Sam and every other boy there was also named Sam.
After I got over discovering this other literary Claire, I wondered if Jess Walter and I were somehow tapping into a hot new name trend. But no. Claire has been solidly in the Top 100 girl names for a decade, and among the U.S. Top 1000 since they started keeping records in 1880.
Lots of parents seem to have been influenced by the romantic hero of Nicholas Sparks’ novel-turned-blockbuster-movie The Notebook to name their sons Noah. In the 1980s—two decades before The Notebook—Noah’s popularity held steady in the 200s and only made a big leap upward in the late 1990s when the book was first published, jumping again in 2004 after the movie came out. By 2011, Noah had moved all way up to the fifth most popular boys’ name.
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.
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.