Friday, September 28, 2012

It's (not) just a name

All of us are given a name, when we're born.  And sometimes, that name doesn't really fit.  So we use a nickname based on our given name, or we use our middle name, or we use something like Bucky, or Tiger.  Sometimes we grow out of a nickname; sometimes we grow into a nickname.  And sometimes we just go through life with the wrong name  (how many of us can say we know a person who simply does not fit their name, and it strikes a discordant chord, every time we hear or use the name?)  And you can't really blame parents when any of this happens  (unless the given name is something bizarre like Bucky, in the first place)...  at the time they had to choose a name, they had no idea what sort of person the child might become.  (Actually, when my sister's birth certificate was issued, it listed her first name as Baby, and her second name was Girl.  Technically, 100% accurate.  However, this was a mistake, it was less than satisfactory to all involved, and a corrected birth certificate was issued.)

But when a writer names a character in the story, the writer does not have the excuse that new parents have.  While it's true that sometimes a writer might not know a lot about the character when the character first shows up, by the end of the story, it's pretty clear what sort of person the character is.  So, as writers, we have an obligation to our characters, to name them appropriately.

When writing a story, I have been known to sit and ponder, sometimes for a long time, trying to figure out what a character's name might be.  Particularly during Nano, this is truly a foolish thing to do -- there's hardly time to ponder the plot, much less the character's name.   I  know that many writers simply assign a random letter to the character, with the plan to go back later, and put in a name.  This doesn't work for me --  I find myself unable to go forward, without an identity.  There are some who laugh at me, for this attitude... and while I have outwardly acknowledged that my approach makes no sense, inwardly -- well, let's just say I disagree.

Recently, I started listening to a new book.  (about half my reading is done on my nook, the other half is done via recorded books, while driving in the car)  The main character's name is Elizabeth, although I think perhaps the only time her full name is used, is when she first identifies herself to the reader.  Other characters call her Liz, or Lizzie, when they use a name at all -- most of the time, they don't call her anything.  While I have not given much thought to what this character's name might actually be, there is NO doubt in my mind, that she is NOT a Liz, Lizzie, Elizabeth, or even Liza or Beth.  The first few times I heard someone call her Liz or Lizzie, I truly thought 'Who is that?', before I realized they were talking to the main character.  I have run into situations before, where a character's name feels a bit odd, or a nickname might feel a bit forced, but this is the first time where the name has been downright wrong.

This is enough to convince me.. It's NOT just a name, it's an important element of the character, a reflection of their personality.  So I will go back to my ponderings, to do my best to properly identify my characters, doing my best to get it right.  And if I don't, my characters will let me know.


  1. I completely agree with you! I can't write a nameless character; using a letter will not work for me. And I've lost track of the "temporary" names I used that turned permanent because the character came to match that name and no other would do. :-)

    My 'favorite' is a name I made up for a female character that I later (two drafts into the book) learned was an Arabic male name! She still has that name because it's her name!

  2. Made me think of my first mother-in-law, Ruth Abiah Hufft. Biblical names her mother picked for her second daughter. She never expected to learn the middle was male Hebrew. I also remember a young man I dated (twice, I think) who would always be Charles. Maybe Chaz at the 'right' school, but never, ever Charlie or Chuck. I don't think he would ever had heard the word Bubba. Lots in a name.

  3. Oh, I've always thought you have to have a name for the character first. I mean, how will you know who you're writing about. I can't very well introduce folks as Man 1, Man 2 or woman 1.

    Good post Laurie!

  4. Wow, I struggle with that, too! I sit and think about names, and sometimes I get tired of it and just pick one, but it never seems right, and I have to wait for it. Good reminder for me to start writing down names now in advance of NaNoWriMo!

  5. I'm not a writer, but I enjoyed your post. I've come across some crazy names, as an accountant posting receipts - and then there are the obituaries in the paper. I'm sure I would have a notebook full of strange names, had I only started collecting them years ago. It's always something I've paid attention to. I do read all the time, and agree that some characters are not named appropriately. My dad (so I've heard) wanted to name me Paula. I've often felt more like a Paula than a Teresa (Terri). Very interesting!!