Monday, August 13, 2018

What's in A Name? (Why Choosing Character Names isn't As Easy As You Think)

One of my favorite parts of writing is choosing character names. It's also one of the most challenging. Just when I think I've settled on the perfect name I discover (usually through polling friends or from beta readers) that the chosen name doesn't work for them, usually because they have a history with it.

Take for example the name Linda. One of my favorite people in the world is named Linda. However at least three of my long-term relationships have been with men who've longingly recounted the torrid, sometimes-unrequited love affair with their Linda. One of my lovers had two special Lindas. All the Lindas in these stories are drop-dead gorgeous, highly intelligent, sexy, hilarious women who've left an indelible mark on these men's version of the ideal women. There's no way I'd not unpack my Linda baggage if I chose it for a character. 

In THIS I KNOW, claiming to be inspired by God, Reverend Carter "divines" names for his newborn children. 

"Mama told us that after each baby was born Daddy held his fat black Bible over our tiny bodies and the Lord bestowed upon him a name for his children. To tell you the truth, I don’t think Daddy was listening very well. Or maybe God changed His plans, because none of us fit our given names except for maybe Hope, who is the oldest."

I loved choosing the names that Daddy gives his daughters. I knew I wanted him to screw up because it was important to underscore the ego hidden within the act of projecting personalities upon his progeny. Ironically, as a writer, I am the all-
powerful name god and I got to name the reverend. I sometimes imagined him standing behind me as I wrote. Henry? Really? Pretty sure I'd be a James or a John, good strong names. (Insert author's maniacal laugh.)

In my next book (CLOVER BLUE/June 2019) the characters live in a spiritual commune in 1970s Northern California. Each member chooses a new name for themselves when they join--except for the children, who are named by the guru. The "Olders" pick names like Coyote, Jade, Wave, Willow, Sirona, Gaia, Lotus and Doobie. The children, referred to as "Youngers" are named Harmony, Moon, Aura, Rain and, of course, Clover Blue. You can probably imagine how fun it was to name them, right? Yes, but you wouldn't believe the list of outrageous, often horribly ridiculous hippie-dippy names I waded through before settling on this ragtag cast of characters who live in the woods without plumbing or electricity.

I feel fortunate to have been gifted with a unique name by my mother. Her name was VaLoyce, an uncommon name that rolls off the tongue and sounds exotic. I like to think my mom chose "Eldonna" for me because she believed I was the child who would fully embody such a powerful name. She once told me that she went to high school with an Eldonna and always liked the name, but I call bullshit on that. I think by the time she gave birth to her fifth daughter she ran out of girl names. She probably figured I'd adopt the shortened "Donna" but I never took to it outside our home. I was always Eldonna at school and in the workplace. I also rejected the suggestion from a well-meaning professional to use my nickname Ellie as my author name because "it's more approachable." To my siblings I am Donna. To many of my friends, I'm Ellie. But in my blood and bones, I am Eldonna. Sounds a little melodramatic to say that, but hey, Eldonna is a serious damn name.

What about you? What are your favorite or least-favorite names? Do you like your name? If you could change your name would you? What would you change it to? Have you ever stopped reading a book because you hated the character's name? 

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