Wheatfield Near Fort Pierre, South Dakota. Photograph by Robert Clements

Monday, November 15, 2010

What's in a name?

A metal chicken by any other name would be a drill. Photo by Robert Clements

I was reading a piece on the web the other day about how it's important to take care when naming your characters.  For instance, a Scotsman named Carlos might seem out of place.  Well, duh. 

But since one lives with these people all during the writing process, from conception to birth, a familiarity, a rightness with each character's moniker will aid in moving the process forward.  I was lucky for my first novel.  I'm having a bit of trouble with the second. 

Florine sprang out of my head fully named.  I reached up into the sky and pulled it down as if I'd had a balloon attached to my wrist, all along.  I named her after no one.  She just became.  Her friends, Bud, Dottie, and Glen each came from a different place in my psyche.  Bud.  A good Maine nickname (his real name is James Walter, after my grandfathers).  Dottie's named after one of my grandmothers, and after a woman who wrote a hilarious letter to the editor of a local paper.  That's how this whole novel began (see my blog entry about ideas).  Glen, well, he looked like a Glen to me.  Or perhaps he reminded me of someone I knew named Glen.  Again, the name seemed to fit.  If it hadn't have been right, it would have been struck.  Leeman is a good Yankee name, and Gilham is close to Gilliam, a big name in the Phippsburg area, where much of the book is set.

More names.  Ida - my aunt Iva; Sam and Robin - no one in particular; I love the names and wanted to use them.  Ray - the former owner of a general store.  He's no longer with us.  Funny story about Ray - one of my friends, a woman 'from away' moved to a local village during her hippie days.  She brought with her a beautiful cat named Leonardo.  One day, as sometimes happens to city kitties transplanted to the country, Leonardo disappeared.  My friend went into the general store and asked Ray if he'd seen the kitty.  Ray said, "Dead."  That was Ray, and his blunt, taciturn nature remains alive through the gruff character who runs the general store in my novel.  Bert Butts - well, he's a nod to the late, great Marshall Dodge's Bert and I.  Stinnie Flaherty I named after two guys I worked with at a grocery store early in my twenties.  Andrew Barrington - Andrew after someone I had an enormous crush on, once.  Barrington - sounds toney.  Several characters have names that are combinations of people I know; many of them some of my favorite firefighters who work in Portland, Maine.   Elisabeth Moss and Detective Pratt are named for beloved writer friends and colleagues. 

I still don't know Grand's first name.  I think it's Florence, although it might be Edith.  Carlie was Marley, but then the dog book and movie came out, and I figured that another Marley would lose her impact.  So, Carlie (short for Caroline Lee) she became.  It's a saucy name, as was she.  Susan was Suzy, but it seemed to Elton Johnish and cutesy - "I remember when rock was young, me and Suzy had so much fun...".  So she turned into Susan.  And here is a good example of how the psyche plays with our imaginations.  I swear to this - when I named this character, I completely forgot that my eventual first husband went out with a Susan prior to our courtship, and left me for a Susan at the end of our kiddie-marriage.  Wow...  I wonder what else I'm keeping up there.

Stella was Betty, to begin with.  In my mind, Betty was plump and not attractive, kind of a gossip, and a lot less subtle than she became.  I didn't like Betty, she was the woman who took poor Florine's Dad away during the most vulnerable time in Florine's life.  Then, as I got deeper into the novel, I realized that Betty was a cliche.  This character, one of the most complicated and difficult to write, and to like and understand, needed a name worthy of any number of actions.  Stella is an interesting, rather sexy name that can go one way or the other.  Stella - means Star.  Stanley Kowalsky - STELLA.... My grandmother, Stella, a hella if there ever was one. 

So, yes, simplified, Carlos the Scotsman might be a reach.  I find, as a writer, that I need a comfortable cast of characters surrounding me, with names that I recognize and can work with.  Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea is filled with folks I can work and play with, anytime.  Takes a village of well-named characters to make a book.  That's why I'm hoping that I can settle on either Sarah, Berry, or Molly, so that she can pair up with Rocky and be a good sister to Gary - who changed his own name, by the way.

But that's another story.   

1 comment:

  1. The change from Betty to Stella...what a huge difference, and how fascinating to watch her evolve on the page. Favorite line from this blog: "Florine sprang out of my head fully named. I reached up into the sky and pulled it down as if I'd had a balloon attached to my wrist, all along." Beautiful, deah.