Naming characters in our stories is almost as important as naming our children. In either case, the names we choose are always with them, whether they fit or not. Could Margaret Mitchell have envisioned that Scarlet O'Hara would live forever? Would that enigmatic southern belle have been as memorable if she had been called by any other name?
A thing that annoys me, and many other readers with whom I've discussed this, is a story with two or more characters with similar names. A case in point is Ordinary People. Conrad and Calvin were two main characters with names beginning with "C" and containing six letters and two syllables. I try to avoid this easy-to-fix problem by vertically listing the letters of the alphabet on a page, then adding each first and last name beside the correct letter.
In days gone by, pre-internet (Yes, Virginia there really was a time), I often scanned phone books for interesting names. Sometimes I have "sprinkled" in the first or last names of friends but I don't do that often now. The name always conjures up an image of the person and their personality gets in the way of the character's traits. I wrote an actual person into one of my holiday books and used her nickname as a compliment for sharing the information I needed about guides in a state welcome center. Sandy participated in one local book signing and signed that book with me.
|Book signing at The Beas Christian Bookstore'|
Seated L-R: Linda Swift, Cassandra (Sandy) McEwen
Standing: Mary Beasley, Owner
Excerpt: Let Nothing You Dismay
Just as Kala thanked Rex for the ride, Sandy Hodge parked beside the Corvette, looking over at them with frank interest. The two women exchanged greetings and walked together toward the side door.
“Hummm, nice car. Nice-looking fella, too,” Sandy remarked. “Old friend?”
“Oh, no. He’s the instructor of my class,” Kala was quick to reply. She was aware that Rex Ruffner had looked even more rugged and handsome in his navy turtleneck sweater than he had in a tweed jacket, and her co-worker’s appreciation confirmed it.
“Well,” Sandy looked amused, “nice going.”
“But,” Kala began, stopped, took a breath and went on, “it’s not wha...my car stalled again, and he...well, he’s going to look at my transmission.”
“Your transmission, huh? Sounds good to me.” Sandy’s broad smile teased at Kala’s discomfiture with knowing approval. “It’s about time you got on with your life.”
There was that reference to time again. Was there an invisible calendar marked with the stages of widowhood?
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Another annoyance easily remedied is characters whose names cannot be pronounced. No matter how beautiful it looks on the page, or how much you love the sound of it, if readers can't say it silently when reading, they will become annoyed. This lesson was brought home to me when my novel This Time Forever was adapted into a film. Malcolm's mulatto mistress was called Ruane, to rhyme with "Jane" (but the actors were saying it to rhyme with "Ann.")
Ruane (Danelle Corbin)
Standing, center: Ruane (Danelle Corbin), and other cast members.
It is also very important that characters have names that fit the time period of their stories. History books are excellent references for finding popular names of the day. Our own family trees are another handy source which I have often used. For example, my paternal great grandmother had the unusual name of Dove Demanda which I used for Clarissa's and Philip's daughter in This Time Forever. There are now many links online that provide this information as well, including names appropriate for all nationalities.
Scenes from Clarissa's War, the film adapted fromThis Time Forever
L. to R.: Clarissa (Allee-Sutton Hethcoat) and Philip (Jack Young)
Excerpt: This Time Forever
She heard the soft thud of horse hooves on the dirt road and wondered who could be traveling at this time of night. When the landau came in sight, then turned into the drive that led to the house, her apprehension grew.
"Whoa. Whoa, now."
She recognized Lukes's voice and stood, clutching Demanda to her breast, as a tall figure got out of the landau and started up the brick walk. It looked like ... but it couldn't be ... Philip! Her heart soared and tried to escape the cage that held it prisoner. Too stunned to move, she stood and waited as he approached the steps and stopped.
"I went to Chattanooga looking for you."
He must have heard of Malcolm's death. But how?
"I was headed for Oklahoma Territory and I wanted to – no, had to know – if you were all right before I left. I thought to speak to Nathan and learn about your welfare."
"And did you?"
"Yes, and what I learned persuaded me to seek you here."
"I wish you hadn't."
"Because nothing can come of it. I truly am a widow now, but the circumstances of my husband's death have besmirched my name and left me nothing."
"You have a daughter now." He came onto the veranda and stood close enough to touch her, but his hands remained at either side.
"Yes." She turned the baby so her tiny face was faintly visible in the shadows. "Her name is Dove Demanda."
"She's beautiful." His voice was choked with emotion. "Like her name."
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This Time Forever
Expanding on the subject of names, not only do we need to take great care naming our characters, we need to give even more attention to "naming" our books. With some publishers, the author has no say in the matter of titles but with independent publishers, the choice is usually left to us. We are cautioned to use as few words at possible, never more than five. This is a good idea since the fewer words, the larger the print can be on the cover. A short title is also easy to remember.
I have only three book titles with five words: Nathan, the Buttercups are Blooming; Give It All You've Got; and The Twelve Days of Christmas. All the above are novellas. The shorter the story, the longer the title? Most of my titles are four words, although this was not deliberate. My shortest are Single Status; Full Circle, Take Five; and Charlotte's Resurrection.
For me, sometimes the name of a book appears and the story evolves from it. Other times, I write the book with no idea what it will be titled. But somewhere along the course of its creation, a phrase spoken by a character, a few words of narrative, or a vivid image will evoke instant recognition that this is its rightful name.
What's in a name? For an author, it may be the most important thing you will choose for a character or a book. It would be a mistake to slough it off with "close enough."
When buying a book, is the title important to you?
When reading a book, do the names of the characters matter?
Thank you for visiting. I look forward to reading your comments.
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