Wednesday, December 3, 2014

What's in a Name?

By Georgia Ruth

Five years ago, I tagged the main character in my WIP (Work in Progress), the warm, sturdy, uncomplicated name of “Maggie.” After several agent rejections, I did an extensive rewrite, during which I critically considered every facet of the story, including names. At that time, Maggie was already the name of a main character in two popular recent novels. I didn’t want anyone to think I was trying to steal part of their success. More importantly, it was the name of a new critique partner. I didn’t want her to think that my fictional friend, particularly some negative characteristics, had anything to do with her. So I decided to change the name.

How about Samantha? Excellent choice. For many months she was Samantha. The name was smart, snappy, and her friends could call her “Sam.” But Samantha sounded like somebody who knew what she wanted, and my character did not.

Then I heard the name “Vanessa.” I thought of soft and vulnerable, a southern name that her mother would have chosen for an only child. To her coworkers, she could be “Van,” short and direct.
I looked up various naming websites and learned that, in Greek, the name meant “butterfly.” Perfect, because this lady undergoes a change from battered wife to confident partner. Another opinion: “hot, beautiful.” Just what I wanted. Then I found an unusual philosophy website seeking to prove that names shape life and suggesting “Vanessa” had an expressive, affectionate nature and responded quickly through her feelings. Yes, that’s her. Somebody on the Urban Dictionary said it perfectly: “not in favor of rain, but loves thunderstorms.” None of this research would become part of the manuscript, but it gave me a connection to the image in my head. For this character, the decision is emotional. She continues to be Vanessa.

In other stories, I have named characters based on historical data. My Fiji story boils with tension between three characters who represent three ancient cultures in 650 AD. The names are an imaginative reference to types of people with different lifestyles. In this novella, Bahram is the survivor of a shipwreck who wants to industrialize a tiny island where the tribe is weakened by smallpox. “Bahram” was a name of a Sassanid king in ancient times when Muslims overran the Persians whose main religion was Zoroastrianism.

There is continual conflict between Bahram and Lapita, the natives’ royal descendant trying to hold on to the legends of her ancestors. Her name represents the mysterious lost culture that migrated out of East Asia around 500 BC and whose artifacts are found on Fiji and the Solomon Islands.

Melane is the chief’s widow whose child will lead the survivors in a new era. The name “Melane” calls to mind the possible evolution of contemporary Melanesians, an ethnic group that inhabits the islands in this region. None of this information is necessary to understand the plot, but it helped me frame a premise for a collision of nomadic tribes. The fantasy is titled Rampart of the Phoenix.

There are no hard rules for naming characters, but I advise caution using protagonist names that start with the same first letter. As a reader, I have often had to backtrack to make sure the character on the page I am reading is not the same one introduced earlier. For example, Martin and Mason.  Besides, that sounds like a law office! And two main characters like Brian and Brittney sound like a dance team. Also, I have noticed that multiple characters with a “y” ending tends to fluff the mood of the writing. As in Stacey, Christy, and Holly, or even with the “ie” as in Angie. I also avoid names that rhyme. Of course, this is all my humble opinion polished by reading a book a week.

Sam Hilliard’s mystery novel The Last Track published by Buddhapuss Ink is an example of what I try to accomplish. The main character is a psychic tracker named Mike Brody, a strong American name with a dash of Irish intrigue. His ex-wife is Jessica, a distinctive but feminine name calling to mind a mother fiercely protective of their child Andy. The reader expects a no-nonsense approach from a detective named Lisbeth McCarthy, a modern twist to an old world favorite. One protagonist is named “Crotty”, a harsh, ugly name that indicates his character. Sam Hilliard has developed a legion of fans who are requesting a sequel, and I understand from his website that it is on the way.

I have a speculative story coming out in the Sisters in Crime 2015 anthology Fish or Cut Bait. The main characters are an elderly couple who live on “The Mountain Top” and are visited by a couple of backwoods neighbors in a scenario possible in a government breakdown. One of the bad guys is named “Cooter.” When I was at Dollar General one day, the clerk waved goodbye to a Cooter who looked exactly like the character in my head. The good guy is Jeff, a retired electrician from Atlanta. At the time of the first draft, I knew there was a Jeff’s Electric in Atlanta! When I have real people to be concerned about in a dark future, the story becomes real to me.

In other words, I get my names from all over. When they have meaning for me and fertilize my imagination, I can step into an alternative world and take my reader along because I know my way. 

Writing is so much fun. Enjoy!

© 2014 Georgia Ruth

Georgia lives in the foothills of North Carolina and writes a historical blog about her neighbors who have deep roots in the area: She is a member of Short Mystery Fiction Society and has short stories published online for Stupefying Stories and Bethlehem Writers Roundtable and in print Mystery Times Ten 2013. New stories for That Mysterious Woman from Mozark Press, History and Mystery, Oh My, and the Sisters in Crime anthology Fish or Cut Bait will be published soon.

Our thanks to Georgia, for a terrific piece on what can be a difficult task for writers - finding the right name for their characters!
REMINDER: The dealine for entries in our Mystery Times 2014 Writing Competition is drawing close! Check out the rules HERE, then get your entry in!
READERS: We hope you enjoyed this week's edition of our #WW Writer Wednesday Series and that we'll see you again next week when Linda K. Siekiewciz makes a repeat appearance to discuss the topic - Small vs. Large Presses.
Till then: "Butt in chair, WRITE!"

~ The Black Cat


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