Years ago, I read something about the importance of names, how success or failure, or even occupation, is sometimes indicated in what our parents decide to call us. Sometimes they decide in advance and when the baby arrives they take one look at the infant and go with a name they had not even considered before. The name they had chosen just was not right for this child.
Can I drop a name? Please let me drop a name. Alistair MacLeod (No Great Mischief) once complimented me on my ability to draw completely different characters in the same story with psychological insight.
For me, this begins with the name. I can’t just hang a name on a character because I like it. It has to suit them – in my mind. To have the action and dialogue remain true to that individual character it helps to keep in mind an image of a whole person as I write.
I have my own theory on names. I’ve noticed that you can often find a commonality between people with the same first name. “Name” in this case meaning not the name on a birth certificate, necessarily, but the name s/he is commonly called. So David is different from Dave is different from Davie, etc.
Every boy or man I’ve ever known called Dave, for example, has been affable, easy-going, quick to smile. Now there is no psychological insight involved here – there might be other mean Daves in prison for armed robbery just as likely as celebate Daves who will one day qualify for sainthood. I’m just saying the Daves I, personally, have known have those personality traits in common. And so, if I had a character named Dave, even if he was a convict or a priest, you can pretty much bet he would use his charm -- whether for good or ill.
What do you call someone, when it’s up to you to name them? Usually, it’s more obvious what not to call them. You’re not going to name a big burly chef at a lumber camp “Tiffany?” (Although that does make for interesting possibilities ...)
Sometimes the character has a name when s/he introduces him/herself. Sometimes it’s so long since I had the idea for the story or met the character that I don’t remember how I came up with their name in the first place.
I’d forgotten until the other day when I came upon the original short story,Current Events, that Carole was first called Caitlin. I do remember I was working at the time with a guy whose wife was named Carole, spelled with an e, and I liked that. In spite of many changes in her character development that have occurred through my notes, she has kept that name.
Melissa was always Melissa. Ben started out as Bernie. But I later used Bernie in a different short story, so I had to change it. Well, I guess I didn’t have to – but I am trying to use different names across my body of work (that sounds so pretentious!) for the more prominent characters. In part it's so as not to confuse myself.
Matti is Ben's significant other. He is rather a latecomer to the novel and is still in development. His name came from a website where I was looking for ethnic variations on "Matthew." But then his background and occupation began to seem too close to a friend's and I didn't want a comparison drawn, so I'm thinking I will make him Euorpean, maybe Czech. And I may yet change the name.
I had some trouble with Joel. To tell the truth, I didn’t want to waste a name I thought I might want to use at another time. I’m not sure what that was about. A reflection on the character, or on the name itself? But then Melissa’s husband is pretty much a throw-away character, hardly figures in the story, even as a background character, yet I gave him the name “Kyle," which I like, and could see myself using for a key character in some other project. He is such a minor figure here, maybe that wouldn’t keep me from using it again.
Carole’s parents’ names – Lila and Dalton – were sourced from applications for seniors’ housing that I happened to be reviewing as part of my job. Some of the names struck me as lovely, old-fashioned pairings. I jotted down a few of them for future reference, without any specific project in mind. If you had relatives, Lila and Dalton Kemp, who had applied to a seniors’ co-op near Ottawa in the mid-eighties, they may very well be the namesakes of these characters. I never met the real couple, and knew absolutely nothing about them except a few vital statistics and their current living situation at the time – all long forgotten. (You’ll read later why I make this disclaimer.)
Quite often in my notes I will come across a half-dozen names for the same character, trying them on like shoes. Nomi was like that. There is a real Nomi – let’s call her Mary. I started by calling the character by Mary’s middle name, which would have suited her just fine, but I knew that was temporary. Mary, much like her fictional alter-ego, would be exceedingly upset, not to mention vengeful, at having been represented in a negative light. (Mary is, after all, perfect.) She was Heather for a time, then Wendy – both of these I have since used in other projects. And then – in an attempt to soften her a bit – I looked for something childlike, an adolescent nickname, kind of ridiculous or pathetic. “Nomi” is, in my mind, what her two little brothers called her when they could not quite enunciate her real name, Naomi. I don’t know (yet) why Nomi kept this nickname into adulthood, but it does seems to be rather telling. Nor have I decided whether I will reveal her actual name or let it remain back story.
In one of my shelved novels I have a character named “Lydia.” My friend Mary-Louise (wife of one of the affable Daves) nagged me to change it because she didn’t like it. I tried to explain – unsuccessfully – that I didn’t particularly like it either. What mattered was that the name suited the character in my own mind. “Lydia,” for some reason, reminded me of the real person on whom Lydia was based. (Mary-Louise had never met her.)
When do I know a name is right? When it brings up certain impressions of the character as I write, impressions that are consistent, and strong enough to be sustained through months – even years – of a project’s life. Whether anyone else gets the same vibe from the name is irrelevant. It is merely a device – albeit an important one – to help me guide the character through decisions, actions and dialogue so as to remain true to the heart and soul of . . . well, of herself.