Saturday, August 06, 2011

What's in a (character) name?

I’ve always been fascinated by names. I used to read baby name books and online discussion boards years before I got pregnant, and I still have a sneaking interest in them even though I don’t plan to have any more kids.
I always read those articles about each year’s top ten baby names, and when I get my alumni magazine I skim through the class news section for birth announcements. I’ve even gotten into discussions of what names each of us might choose if we had as many children as the Duggars.

So one of the small things I enjoy about writing is getting to name all those people. That might surprise you, since my heroes and heroines so far have had relatively ordinary names. In The Sergeant’s Lady, Anna (Wright-Gordon) Arrington finds love with Will Atkins, while A Marriage of Inconvenience stars Lucy Jones and James Wright-Gordon.

The ordinariness is a deliberate choice. I tend toward the realistic end of romance writing, so I want my characters to have names that wouldn’t seem out of place among all the Richards, Henrys, Georges, Charlottes, Janes, and Catherines running around the real Regency England. But within those bounds, I put careful thought into how each name enhances the image I’m trying to convey for that character.

For example, Anna got her first name mostly because it had the right sound for someone who’s feminine and beautiful, yet also tough and straightforward. But I also like the name’s etymology. It comes from the Hebrew “Channah,” meaning “favor” or “grace,” which just seemed to fit a character who gets the grace of a second chance to build a happy life for herself after her disastrous first marriage. Her maiden name, Wright-Gordon, shows both her Highland maternal heritage and hints that her family’s money is relatively new in that her father’s name, Wright, is an ordinary English occupational surname rather than a fancy place name or a vaguely French name hinting at Norman ancestry.

As for the Arrington part, well, Anna’s evil first husband, Sebastian Arrington, who’s also the villain of A Marriage of Inconvenience, is an Arrington because it sounds a bit like “arrogant.” He’s a Sebastian because it’s such a common hero name, and I was playing with the idea that he looks like a hero on the surface--big handsome cavalry officer that he is--while in fact he’s rotten to the core.

Moving on to my hero, he’s a William who goes by Will rather than, say, Bill or Billy because “Will” suggests, none too subtly, that he’s a strong-willed, resolute sort. And Atkins is because “Tommy Atkins” was for a long time a generic reference to a British soldier, so it felt right to borrow the last name for my common sergeant hero.

Lucy Jones is the one character I’ve written so far that I’d rename if I could. Not the Lucy part--the etymological meaning of “light” feels right for her. I also strongly associate the name with Lucy Pevensie in the Narnia books, and therefore a certain sweetness and sense of wonder--though, come to think of it, I grew up reading Peanuts comics too, and Lucy Van Pelt gives the name a whole different resonance. Anyway, it’s the Jones part I might change. I was trying to show how ordinary and common the heroine feels, especially compared to her arrogant Arrington relatives, but I think “Jones” hits the archetype a little TOO hard on the nose. If I were starting the manuscript today, she’d probably be Lucy Evans.

I’ve already mentioned why James is a Wright-Gordon. He’s a James because I love the way it sounds and because it has a certain Scottishness about it, especially once we see that his Scottish relatives called him Jamie when he was growing up.

Over to you. Readers, do you have likes or pet peeves when it comes to character names? Writers, do you have a naming process or does the Muse deliver your characters pre-named? And what would YOU name a baby if you had a new one today? I’d pick Eleanor Frances for a girl (it was runner-up when we named Miss Fraser) and either Malcolm Arthur or Miles Arthur for a boy.


Zee Lemke said...

While I don't insist that they all be Sophys, historical heroines with technically-period but odd names scream "Mary Sue" to me. Or the writer's being lazy: it's like they think the character isn't interesting enough to stand on her own without a big fluffy name.

For my own non-historical writing, I use the random name generator at behindthename, but I'll refresh the page a couple dozen times usually looking for something with a sound and meaning I like.

And if there's an apostrophe in your name, it had better have a legitimate linguistic reason for being there. (Steven Brust has some HILARIOUS apostrophe'd names.)

Susanna Fraser said...

I have to confess that years and years ago I started a fantasy novel wherein I abused apostrophes in my character names. I had a J'haan who could just as well have been a Jihaan or even plain old Jahn. That story will never see the light of day for other reasons, but if it did, I'd change the names.

Wendy Soliman said...

As I write I mostly go for short names for my heroes/heroines. I think long names can be awkward and clog up the story. Having said that, I once had a Saskia. Hum.

Erastes said...

Gah. Names! They are my biggest bugbear.

I can be writing happily away, fingers tapping busily and i have to introduce a new character and... screech! i grind to a halt.

I have a massive database of regency names now, and tend to pull it off them, even if it's not Regency. NOwadays I prefer realistic names, whereas with Standish I used more fanciful "romance" names with meaning for the characters' characteristics e.g. Rafe Goshawk and Mauvaise because it was a gentle spoof of the genre.

Susanna Fraser said...

I don't think Saskia is especially long, Wendy.

Whenever I need a last name for a walk-on character, if the character is British I go here:

I select the character's home region, pick an initial I haven't used at all (or at least too much) in that story, and find one that sounds right.

Taryn Kincaid said...

I chose Adam and Emma for my hero and heroine in Healing Hearts.

But as long as it's pronounceable in my head unlike, as Susanna notes above, sci-fi names with lots of apostrophes and consonants.

(I did a college term paper on the significance of names in The Great Gatsby, but it doesn't mean as much to me if I'm not receiving a grade or degree for it!)

Stevie Carroll said...

Names fascinate me. Today I've been pondering whether Poppy works for a Derbyshire mill worker at the end of the 19th Century. The name was first used then, and it would fit with her background, I think.


Shawna Thomas said...

I love names too. Because I believe names help define character, I usually have to name my characters before I can write about them. However, sometimes, in really rough first drafts, I will call them he and she until the names come to me. In one book, instead of calling the heroine she, I called her Elle. (Which is french for she.)It stuck. Her name stayed Elle through publication and it suits her.