Have you ever wondered how an author chooses the right name for their characters? Is it just a matter of what sounds good? Or does meaning play a part, or some deep, personal life experience? Do authors name characters after friends and loved ones (not me)? And how important, really, is a name?
I am currently working on my third book in a trilogy and have several short stories published, and therefore have named countless characters, and I still wonder how all this works! In fact, I have been contemplating this since some of my earliest days of writing. One of the first books I bought with my own money was a baby name book (along with a myriad of five dollar fantasy and scifi novels at our small town Hallmark Gift Store. I know. I’m getting old.) I still have that dog-eared, highlighted, much loved baby name book on my shelf today–and I still use it. There is something fascinating in flipping through a hefty volume of personal names, from their various and often mixed cultural heritages to their meanings from simple place names to more mysterious or even unknown meanings. And it always gets me thinking–how does one smash an entire soul into a single sound? And yet, if we didn’t, where would we be? Who would we be?
I have been toying with the concept of “being named” ever since I had to decide upon that first character name for the novel I set out to write as a twelve year old. It was an epic historical fiction involving a family of orphaned children, hand written in a horrendous mess of pages stuffed into a fuchsia three-ring binder. I cringe when I think back upon how I named my first characters. One was Elton, after my favorite singer at the time, Elton John. Another was Star, because I thought it was pretty. Very little thought went into the ethnic heritage or historic setting of my story, as probably should have. And my main character had a name all her own. She was a twelve year old girl (of course) that had outlived the accidental death of both her parents and was left fighting for the survival of her younger siblings against the ravages of slow starvation, a deadly winter and a threating pack of wolves in the woods beyond their dilapidated farm house. Her name? Tranquility; Quill for short. I don’t know if my twelve year old mind necessarily understood the irony in that–I think I just wanted something unique. But looking back now, I feel as though I’ve been re-introduced to my own childhood psychology!
I have yet to outgrow my odd fascination with names. In fact, I might even be a bit crazy over them. There have even been times when I’ve decided there isn’t a name out there that can fit one or more of my characters, and I simply refuse to slap a “My Name Is:” sticker on their shirt. It’s like when you find yourself grappling for a word that just doesn’t exist in our very finite language–nothing expresses the depth of your meaning, and what comes close sounds too trite or cliché. So sometimes, I just refuse to play by the rules. Here’s a snippet from my short story Pandora, published in Far Off Places online magazine. It’s a story in which both my main characters remain nameless throughout:
The daughter strains through shadow, ignoring the hair that has been nudged out of her pony tail by the press of the mattress, a soft ceiling to keep her secure. She unpockets her portable sun, squeezes out a little light. The mother speaks in a tense, black scrawl, a scar across the belly of time. “Memories,” the Adidas box is labeled, renamed like an orphan.
And there’s that whole orphan theme again, but let’s not delve too deep in my strange psyche. In my 2012 novella OPAL, my main character isn’t given a name until the end of the book. By no means am I recommending such strange conventions to other writers–I still feel somewhat amazed that my publishers didn’t reject these stories outright just for the sake of awkwardness alone! I did have one editor tell me I really ought to name the main character in a short story I submitted–and I did, but it was tough to do. I felt I just couldn’t condense her soul into a mere handful of letters!
Perhaps my love/hate relationship with names stemmed from the fact that I never felt a strong connection with my own name. It’s not so much that I dislike it, it’s just a bit of a mouthful (especially now that I’m married to a Wojtaszek!) and it always irked me that people could never seem to get my first name right. I was constantly being called Kristy, Kristen, Kris, Krissy, Krista– every feminine K or C name out there but my own. I always wondered why it was so hard for people to pronounce my name– if you can say Kristine, is adding an “uh” sound at the end really that difficult? Finally, I learned to introduce myself as “Kristina, but you can just call me Tina.” To this day, most of my family and close friends call me Tina– I figured no one could botch such a short, simple name as that, and no one ever has. But I secretly love when someone calls me by my rightful name–and actually says it right!
When it came to naming my own children, I chose simple, easy to say names for that very reason (and because they have a crazy enough last name to contend with). In fact, they are very old fashioned names too. If I had had a daughter, she’d have been named Anne. Simple, endearing, and though it can be misspelled, no one would ever mispronounce it!
I’ve come to the conclusion that names are to people (and characters) what words are to language: a necessary convention, but for the most part, meaningless. As my nine year old will tell you, say a word enough times and it starts to sound really weird–the same goes for names, and they are odd, if you think about it. A mash-up of lost meanings, all but abandoned cultures, societal trends and language-dependent pronunciations. And the spellings of some of these names today? We won’t go there… Suffice it to say, it’s the person behind the name who gives it meaning and life. And that goes for characters, too. So if you’re struggling to name that wonderfully unique character, or straining over that horribly unique and unpronounceable name some deranged author has given your favorite character, remember; a soul by any other name would be as sweet.