Tuesday, April 06, 2010
Hello, my name is ...
And I thought I had trouble with character names.
Charles Dickens called the sickly character in A Christmas Carol “Small Sam” and “Puny Pete” before settling on “Tiny Tim.” And until her editors at MacMillan intervened, Margaret Mitchell had been calling the woman we all know as Scarlet by the name of Pansy.
I try to tell myself that I shouldn't worry about the names of a character when the book is in progress. After all, the important thing is the plot and the story and the character. Right?
Uh, no. The wrong name will worry me like a toothache until I get it right. It will stop me dead in my tracks. You'd think, after four pubbed books and untold numbers of "trunk" novels, I'd have a system worked out.
I sort of do, but it's not a fail-proof one.
I'm a stickler for accuracy. One reason I can't watch soaps is because of all the weird names. Back in the 90s there were just way too many Hunters and Chases for guys, and I can't even remember all the strange names for the ladies. Now, of course, Hunter and Chase are perfectly commonplace names for little boys.
So I start first with the age of the character. A 28 year-old woman? My handy-dandy calculator tells me that the woman was born in 1982 (a mere child. An infant almost, but still.)
Then I let my fingers walk right on past all those baby-naming books. My clicking takes me to the absolute best naming website: The Social Security Administration.
Yup. The SSA has on record the most popular baby names, girl and boy, for any year or decade after 1879, and most popular names by state. It appeals to the geeky nerd in me. I just type in the year and pick the name that appeals to me from the top 25 names.
Now sometimes the name will come first, or I'll have a special reason for naming a character a particular name. For instance, I have a women's fiction MS where the woman's name is Glory. I love that name. It's just perfect for the character, and even more perfect for the wacky parents who named her that. And in my first pubbed book, THE BABY WAIT, I named my heroine Sara, after the barren Sarah in the Old Testament.
Or sometimes I'm just so desperate that I take the ultimate shortcut, like I did with WHERE LOVE GROWS. I was beginning the first chapter on my laptop, as I waited for The Kiddo to get out of ballet. Another mom was flipping through a magazine. The name I'd picked (by my aforementioned method) just wasn't working. I couldn't write.
So I turned to the unsuspecting mom. "What's your favorite name for a girl?" I asked her.
She narrowed her eyes suspiciously, gazing at my very flat (well, it was back then) belly. "Rebecca," she told me.
"Hmmm, Rebecca. Becca." I rolled it around on my tongue to see how it fit. And voila, it worked.
So, the storel of the mory is, if your careful and systematic approach fails you, just ask the mom in the ballet studio's waiting room.