Category: names in books

Novelist and playwright Joanne Lessner, author of Pandora’s Bottle and Critical Mass, wonders whether she names her characters….or they name themselves.

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.

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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.

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