What’s in a name?

14615623_1110885608964654_1763911799486784800_oI was in Dallas a couple of weeks ago discussing Trial by Fury with the Women With Pride Book Club at their brand new Resource Center. These women have rolled out the welcome mat for dozens of lesbian writers who come from all over the country (world?) to talk about their work with readers who are more than fans — they’re deeply engaged in our stories and fascinated by all the steps that go into bringing them to print. It was one of the best book sessions I’ve ever had because the questions were not only informed, but a departure from the ordinary. I really had to think about my answers; but best of all, I had the chance to listen to readers.

That’s the background for today’s blog, the subject of which is how I go about choosing character names. I was talking about the process of turning a raw manuscript into the book they were holding in their hands: the edits and revisions, the formatting and proofreading, the blurb and cover design. I casually remarked that sometimes on the final editing pass, I’ll decide to change a character’s name. There was a collective gasp — you’d have thought I’d confessed to killing off the dog. How could I create someone from whole cloth, develop her across 300 pages, and at the very end, change her most defining characteristic?!?

The answer is buried in my reply to the question I get most often: Where do you get your inspiration? If my inspiration for a story comes from something other than a character — say, a setting or a plot twist — I focus on those things when I begin to write, knowing I can revisit the details later. If instead I let myself get hung up on “Oh, I have to name my characters first,” I’d procrastinate and risk losing the inspiration. A name is too important to rush; and besides, my impressions of a character can change between Chapter 1 and The End, sometimes rendering my original choice a bad fit.

So what goes into naming a character? These are some things I consider:

  • Is it easy for the reader to sound out? “I’d like you to meet astronaut candidate Zdeslava Soloveitchik, from Bulgaria.” You can see why I went with Mila Todorov instead (T-Minus Two). If readers stumble over uncommon names, that could keep them from talking about my book.
  • Is the name ethnically or geographically appropriate? A name can be a steady reminder of a character’s heritage, appearance or accent. I hoped you’d always picture Carmen Delallo’s (Out of Love) Italian features — olive skin, dark hair and eyes. That you’d hear Maribel Tirado’s (Playing With Fuego) animated Cuban accent. That you’d remember Summer Winslow (Touch of a Woman) was born to hippie parents during the Summer of Love. That you’d recall Amber (West of Nowhere) hailed from Kentucky, where Amber, Misty and Brandy were top-20 baby names that barely cracked the top 100 in New England.
  • Does the name reinforce the characterization? A sharp-sounding, one-syllable name might suggest a no-nonsense character, while a melodic name perhaps conjures someone soft and feminine. Androgynous names are certainly a bit cliché, but there’s no denying they help anchor the dynamics of a butch-femme relationship. Stacie Pilardi (Anyone But You), Addison Falk (Worth Every Step), Kelly Ridenour (Sea Legs), Vonne Maglio (“Stolen Souls” in the book Undercover Tales). Can you imagine any of them as Gabriella or Desirée?
  • How does my character feel about her given name? Does she embrace it, or does she insist on being called by something else — her initials, her surname or a nickname? Marty Beck (Mulligan) was no Martha; Audie Pippin (Sumter Point) shuddered at being called Audrey; Spencer Rollins (Malicious Pursuit) used her middle name because she couldn’t bear to be called by her first — Dolly.
  • How can I make my character’s name stand out? Go for something out of the ordinary. D’oh! There obviously are sounds I like: Leo (Photographs of Claudia) and Theo (Trial by Fury); Wynne (Just This Once), Glynn (Secrets So Deep) and Allyn (Life After Love). You can always try a variant on the common spelling: Cait, Jenifer, Eryn, Traci, Malissa, Stefani. For much of the time I worked on Etched in Shadows, my main character was Janelle. As I described her upbringing, it made sense she’d have been named for her father John, so she became Johnelle.
  • Avoid the obvious associations, as iconic names can undermine your descriptions and characterizations. Murphy (Brown), Clarice (Starling), Scout (Finch), Buffy (Summers).
  • Will my character names cause confusion? Erika and Kendra look too much alike on the page, as do Dani, Darla and Deanna. Do they sound alike? Debbie/Kathy/Sheri/Kaylee. Are they derived? Elizabeth/Liz/Beth/Libby/Betty.
  • Do my lead characters sound good together? Anna & Lily (Shaken Series), Carly & Justine (The House on Sandstone), Ashley & Julia (Rhapsody).
  • ***

    Where do I find names? For surnames and secondary characters, I usually start at mongabay.com, which ranks the top 100K most popular surnames, along with 1,200 male names and 4,200 female names. For popular baby names by decade (and even state), check the Social Security site. Names are everywhere: obituaries, honor rolls, rosters of sports teams. I attended college graduation for both of my nieces many years ago (UNC-Chapel Hill) and picked up programs with thousands of names. Any time I come across something interesting, I jot it down in the notes file on my phone. Those names alone may one day provide the inspiration for a story.

    So here’s a question for you: When you pick up a book, what’s in a name?

    *****

    One of these days we’ll talk about book titles. I announced earlier this year that I was working on a new book I’d decided to call Moment of Weakness. As the story unfolded, another theme took over and I began referring to this work-in-progress as Shining Warrior. Then last month I sent the blurb to Bella Books and they put their cover artists to work. We quickly agreed on an image that captures the essence of the story, but with the words now pasted across the top and down the spine, I had second thoughts about the title. Or rather, first thoughts — we’re back to Moment of Weakness. I’ll be sharing the blurb and cover with you soon.

    One Response to “What’s in a name?”

    1. Interesting follow up to the discussion at book club. Thanks so much for continuing to support us with your great books and willingness to come visit.
      Sandy

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