When I began writing what would turn out to be my first novel, Self-Portrait With Boy, for many months—years, even—all I had was jibs and jabs: A basic premise, a bunch of seemingly unrelated research and scenes, and a character by the name of Lucy Rile.
All I really knew about Lucy Rile was that she was a photographer. I named her Lucy because Lucy means light, a photographer’s medium. Rile because I had a sense that, eventually, she’d outrage people.
Over time, her character became clearer. She was androgynous, ambitious, friendless, direct. The name Lucy began to seem too sweet and girlish. I shortened Lucy to Lu, a name I loved for its androgynous simplicity.
But Lu seemed like a nickname—and that opened up a new line of questioning. Had Lu been named Lu as a baby, or had she become Lu over time? What did Lu’s birth certificate say? I had to consider her parents, an introverted blue-collar guy from Massachusetts and the teenaged daughter of Slovakian immigrants. Would they name a baby Lu? Not likely. I considered the name Louise, its brassy sass, its reference to real-life artist Louise Bourgeois. Yes, Louise was good.
In the process of naming my protagonist I’d discovered more about who she was, and what her story would become.
A name is an efficient way to evoke character without indulging in too many tangents or plot detours. Giving the characters in my novel memorable, meaningful names that evoked something essential about them both made it easier for me to channel them during the writing process, and helped telegraph who they were.
Many of my characters have names with some preexisting meaning that’s closely related to their character or role. Fiona Clay runs an art gallery. Tammy Day has a sunny personality. The last name of the grief-stricken character Kate Fine is a nod to the longing she feels to actually be doing fine.
Kate, like Lu, is a serious character, but many of my supporting characters are more humorous. The landlord Gary Wrench, a miserable bumbling man with a bad case of eczema, is named ironically. He never actually picks up a tool to fix anything in his decrepit property. The swaggering real estate developer Wayne Salt—a cross between a pirate and a cowboy, reckless and unabashed, with a peg leg and a dirty mouth—is named for the salty water of the East River that flows into the ocean, and for John Wayne, because the post-industrial neighborhood where my book is set was so lawless, vacant, and uninhabited during the period when the novel takes place that people used to call it the Wild West.
It amused me to give the characters in Self-Portrait With Boy clear, simple, sometimes weirdly obvious names, but in the work I’m writing now there are no Clays or Wrenches, Days or Salts or Fines or Riles. In truth I started growing out of naming my characters this way before I was even finished with the novel.
I was in the final quarter when Lu Rile’s last name began to annoy me. It was one thing to name my more incidental, supporting characters this way, but for my complicated protagonist, it seemed reductive and on-the-nose. I considered striking Rile from the manuscript entirely. I tried to think up a new last name for Lu.
But there was no going back. She was, she is, Lu Rile, and always will be.
In jazz improvisation, a wrong note is only a wrong note if you shy away from it. One way of integrating questionable choices is to make them with self-awareness, boldly. If I couldn’t change Lu Rile’s name, I decided, I had to embrace it, to show that it was purposeful, to let Lu herself in on the joke.
Late in the book, then, an article about Lu Rile appears in the New York Post, a publication famous for its punny headlines. It reads: “Art World Riled Up.” Lu reports this to the reader with a snide aside. “As if we didn’t all see that coming a mile away,” she says.