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25 April 2012

The Name Game


I was thinking about baby names long before I was pregnant, though I was several months into my pregnancy before I settled on my daughter's name. I would try out different names, think about them for a while, try to imagine calling my child that as she grew up. By the time of my baby shower I was sure enough to tell my friends. At the end of the shower a friend's ten-year-old daughter patted my pregnant stomach and said "goodbye, Mélanie." The name was starting to seem inextricably intertwined with this little creature who kicked with increasing vigor.

My daughter, Mélanie Cordelia, is named after two characters in my books, with a nod to Shakespeare. Just a couple of yeas ago I was naming the character Cordelia, who appears in my recently released Imperial Scandal. I went through a similar process to the one I went through naming my baby - making lists, trying out names. Save that the character who would become Cordelia already had a very clear personality in my mind. That's where naming a character is different from naming a child. The character is usually already a fully formed adult. And of course one doesn't have to worry the character will hate you as a teenager for choosing that particular name.

Sometimes I struggle over character names, other times they seem obvious to me. While it took me a long time to settle on Cordelia's name (and on Harry for her estranged husband), I knew almost instinctively that Cordelia's sister should be named Julia. Last month, just before Imperial Scandal was published, I was having dinner with a friend in New York. We started talking about Brideshead Revisited, and only then did I realize that the two sisters in Brideshead are named Julia and Cordelia. Very different characters from my Cordelia and Julia, but subconsciously I must have remembered when I named my characters, if only in the sense that those two names seemed to go together. The tricky thing of course about naming characters is that one doesn't know what conscious and subconscious associations readers will bring to the names one chooses.

In naming a character a writer struggles with not only what fits the character but also with what name that character's parents might have chosen when the character was as much an unknown as my unborn daughter was when I named her. I went through several names for the hero's sister in Beneath a Silent Moon before I realized her half-French mother would have given her a French name. Suddenly not only was the name obvious, but her character fell into place. The historical novelist also has to deal with what names were in historical usage. A real challenge when family trees of the era reveal a multitude of George, Edwards, and Johns. This becomes particularly problematic in an ongoing series. Yes, a set at Almack's might have been made up of two Georges and two Elizabeths with two Edwards and two Annes in the next set over, but in a novel the reader will get confused. Yet, going back to the question of what names the parents might pick, some characters' parents would be likely to pick conventional names. And then there's the real historical character who suddenly cries out to pop into one's fictional narrative and happens to share a name with an already established fictional character. Or two historical figures who share a name - the book I just finished features Sir Charles Stuart, real life British diplomat, and Charles, Lord Stewart, real life British diplomat/soldier. One can only imagine the confusion at diplomatic soirées, especially as both men were known for their amorous intrigues.

When I find the "right" name for a character, it's soon hard for me to imagine them as anyone else. Just as it's now hard for me to imagine my daughter as anyone but Mélanie Cordelia.

Do names affect the way you view a character? Have characters in books changed the way you feel about a particular name? How important is historical accuracy to you in character names? Writers, what are the particular challenges you face in naming characters?

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6 Comments:

Blogger Isobel Carr said...

And then there’s the problem of you finding the “right” name, but your editor disagreeing with you vehemently. I changed the name of the hero in my last book twice. He started out as Banestre (as in the Butcher of Bunkerhill), and to ME, that is his name. He became Agravaine, which I could still work with, and then ultimately, Gareth, which I couldn’t. It shut down my ability to write for weeks before I simply went back to writing him as Ban. Ultimately, I did a search and replace at the end and transformed him into Gareth, but to this day when readers talk to be about “Gareth”, I have trouble remembering who the hell they’re referring to, LOL!

7:04 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

That's hard, Isobel! I still use Mélanie and Charles for my characters and then do a search and replace. But they're Malcolm and Suzanne in the copyedits and galleys, and I've got to the point where I think of the names interchangeably and sometimes don't even notice the difference.

11:13 AM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

And then there are historical eras where you find accurate first names, like thirteenth century Spain where I set BOND OF BLOOD. I only had a dozen names to choose from for my hero - which somehow made it harder to choose,

Then my French heroine insisted her name was Blanche. Okay, that was easy, I could live with that. Then I found out that the princess she served was an extremely famous figure in Spanish history - and even appears in the legends of French crusades. Worse, said princess shared the same first name with my heroine and is known to history as Blanche de France.

My editor refused to let me change my heroine's name. Instead we always referred to the princess as "The Princess." That led to some odd arguments with copyeditors about capitalization, since she wasn't a British princess. LOL

2:54 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Fictional characters sharing names with historical characters can be so problematic, Diane! And so common in eras when the names in use were limited and people were often named after royalty. Too funny about the copyeditors!

1:34 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Names definitely affect how I perceive a character and when I was writing women's contemporary fiction, I often hit the baby name book to see what a name meant before I used it, or to choose a name for a fictional character based on its meaning. And if other people are like me, they associate names with certain memories. Women named Norma or Sylvia will make me think fondly of my grandmothers; but change one letter to Sylvie and you get the name of a woman who once done my husband wrong. And I have yet to meet a woman named Valerie who is nice to me.

When I named male characters in my contemporary fiction, I tended toward monosyllabic names for the heroes (Mike, Jack) because they conveyed strength and a regular-guy kind of feel. I can't see naming a hero Nigel, for instance. It feels too weak to me. The more syllables, the more it dilutes the strength of a guy's name to me, unless you chose a name with historical connotations of heroism, like Alexander. The name Horatio isn't exactly hero material, either, but no one called Nelson that except his wife, Fanny, whom he came to deplore.

I chose the name Amanda as a pen name for two reasons: to me it conveys strength, intelligence, and no-nonsense. I also chose that pen name because my favorite play I ever performed was Noel Coward's PRIVATE LIVES and the 2 main characters are Amanda and Elyot. So I had a fond connection to the names from the getgo.

11:39 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I love your pen name, Amanda! Private Lives is such a great play, and Amanda Elyot has an elegant, erudite sound that goes wonderfully with your books.

It so interesting the connotations that certain names have. I think it would be interesting to have a hero who, like Nelson, had a first name no one called him by. Dorothy Dunnett uses Francis Crawford of Lymond's name quite brilliantly. Different characters call him a variety of different things, and very few people call him "Francis" (so that the use of the name signifies great intimacy).

2:25 PM  

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