What’s In a Name?

9 Jun

When you plunk yourself in the chair in front of your computer, and begin to write your story, do your characters emerge full-grown, complete with names and full IDs, or do they hide behind walls and refuse to show themselves to you without a formal introduction?

Generally, my characters tell me who they are before I start writing, but the minor players are sometimes bashful, and I have to go seeking their identity. Names come from various sources, and places, so it’s needful to pay attention. Sometimes more than others.

For contemporary stories, however, you can sort of let your imagination take wing. Or use any of the very helpful guides available to help new parents choose a great name for the addition to the family.

Androgynous names can be helpful, too, as I can easily attest – Kelly being one such. In one workplace thirty years ago, which never had more than a dozen workers at any one time, there were two named Kelly and two named Kim. The odd part was that one of each pair was male and the other obviously, female. None of the four of us had ever before encountered another person with the same first name, so if either name was called out, we all turned to see which one of us was being called for. It was SO weird! But fun  in a way, to suddenly become part of a world with seemingly too many persons named Tom and/or Jane.

It’s mostly men who are tagged with a number after their name, as in II, III, or IV. I think the only one that goes higher than that are European Monarchs of past years, who had great fondness for certain names: George comes to mind, as does Charles or Henry. In this day and age, however, I suspect that number is more of a burden than anything else, although it does demonstrate a family’s longevity.

Some names imply character traits that may or may not exist in your character. If you are determined to go against type, you would do well to provide a sentence or two explanation. For instance, an acquaintance of mine was named for a dear friend of her mother. However, the two women who shared that name never met. The younger one (let’s call her Blanche, to avoid getting tangled up in all the pronouns) hated her name, and couldn’t wait until she was old enough to change it legally. Which she did, and has been happily re-named since that time. A funny side issue: Blanche’s Mom accepted the new name with no trouble, and always referred to her daughter by the child’s chosen new name. Blanche’s mother-in-law, who herself had a nick-name totally unaffiliated with her own name, flatly refused to accept the change. This didn’t exactly make for happy family gatherings, always providing additional tension to a situation already filled with more tension than needed.

If you expect your character to have a happy old age, give a bit of thought to how well that name might age along with the person.

Movie studios in the 1930s were notorious for re-naming their up-and-coming stars. Think Roy Rogers, John Wayne and Gene Autry. Chances are they’d not achieved their manly star status under their birth names: Leonard Franklin Slye, Marion Mitchell Morrison and Orvon Grover Autry, respectively.

And then there were Judy Garland, Rita Hayworth Joan Crawford and Marilyn Monroe. Hmm. Maybe there is something to this naming thing. These ladies were christened (in order): Frances Ethel Gumm, Margarita Carmen Cansino, Lucille Fay LeSueur and Norma Jeane Mortenson.

And of course, there was that wonderful song made famous by Johnny Cash:  A Boy Named Sue. It won Grammy Awards for Best Country Song as well as Best Male Country Vocal Performance. An interesting side note: in 1969, when it was recorded, the word ‘damn’ was edited out of the last line before the recording session. Imagine that!

If you’re writing a historical novel, you’ll find wonderfully unfamiliar and currently unknown names for your characters by delving into novels written during the time in question. Maybe there’s a ‘family’ name that’s always used for the first child, but maybe also, it could be used as a middle name rather than the first name. Tradition was much stronger and more important to the family in centuries past; much more so than it usually is in these unbuttoned times.

And, if you pay attention (a wee bit of research will help with this one) you can be fairly safe in naming female characters after flowers — the research is to be sure the flower actually was available in your country and year of choice. Males can almost always be named after a monarch.

A creative writer can usually think of some justification for nearly anything to be included in her/his book, but inventing names does require a bit of extra thought. On the other hand, it seems that real families of today – at least in Ohio – are delving into the past for baby names, which you can see by this article in our daily paper from last month. http://www.cleveland.com/parents/index.ssf/2015/05/top_ohio_baby_names_for_2014.html

So — Happy Name Day! — everyone!

As always, questions and comments may be directed to: bookmechanicATgmail.com


One Response to “What’s In a Name?”

  1. Trudy June 10, 2015 at 12:45 am #

    Great post!


    Author of The Emma Haines Kayak Mystery Series http://trudybrandenburg.wix.com/trudybrandenburg

    Sent from Trudy’s iPad Mini


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