Monday, November 7, 2011


It's always seemed to me that naming something, or somebody, is a tremendous honor.  Naming a child, of course, a dog, even a car -- and maybe this is the best: no bad effects, eminently changeable -- naming a character in your story.
If you're writing history, the names are there to be slipped into, given life, like air suffuses a balloon.  But in fiction, naming is demanding, delicious, and has, like real life naming, consequences.  A Serafina is not the same as a Susan.  Never mind Stacey.  What was Jonathan Franzen thinking of to name his FREEDOM heroine Patty?  (Well, I might be able to figure that out, but look what it does to her chances of being heroic?)  A Warren will have to be serious.  A Jonathan can be anything, but he is young, and maybe handsome.  A Gloria "rings"!  A Mimi sings.  An Amy cooks.  A Herman can never be President....

All right; maybe I'm going too far.  But naming a child can be accomplished even before birth; there's an ancestor to be honored, or a parental name to be juniored.  With a fictional character, so much can be implied, intuited, from a name.  Scarlett!  I wish I had thought of that.

My current heroine is, for the moment, named Anna.  What does that conjure up to you?  For me it is serious, grownup; not a kid, or she should be Annie.  Anne is prettier.  Anna is a bit more homespun, maybe stolid, maybe not as dainty as Anita or Annette.  Anna is married, and maybe not happily.  Where Anne might be carefree, Anna has problems -- at least as I imagine  her.  Anna is a woman, not a girl, unless she's a girl from an immigrant or  backward family.  You can see how different her life would be if her name was Annabelle, or how much there'd to tell be in the background of an Annabella.

In my last and current book, my heroine is Vicky, and I've stayed awake nights knowing it's the wrong name for her, not right at all.  She's the child of dumb, young parents; would they have named their baby Victoria?   No, they would have chosen a name like theirs: Rita, Roy.  Her name should have been Grace, or Marie, or maybe even Anna.  But Vicky came to me in the first lines of the book, and nothing else had quite the same rhythym, the same differentness; maybe what was right about it was that it was so wrong.

Neal, the anti-hero of STEAL ME! seems like the right name for a slick, handsome, adulterous older married man.  Neal has a shine to it; you can slip right off it.  Meanwhile, the narrator is Val -- what kind of name is that? Her parents were educated and old-fashioned, her father a college professor who did a little slipping around himself.  Valerie...not a pretty name, but a college professor's daughter?  I think so.

So the process of naming characters can take place under a writer's hands, like bread dough, sometimes after months, even years of thought, sometimes instantly, intuitively.  Those names carry with them something you will know, or maybe already do know somewhere in your subconscious, where so much of our writing is done anyway, about the person's inner life, appearance, past, qualities.

I wish I had thought up Nicholas Nickelby.  I wish I had thought up Jane Austen's Emma -- how pursed her pretty little lips are, this Emma, how bright her eyes, watching and judging everyone, knowing everything but her own heart.

But I thought up, or dreamed up, Val and Neal and Vicky and Jason and Sam and Gladys and Larry and Dina and Roy and Rita too, and Rita's sister Paula --

What name, I wonder, will Anna decide to marry, who will she turn out to be, and will she stay named "Anna" to the end?   Stay with me.  When I know, you'll know.


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