Monday Musings: What’s In A Name?

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by Kathleen Valentine

utherReaders often tell me that they love the names I give my characters. That pleases me because I put a good deal of thought into the names I choose. Of course, some characters name themselves. Joe Quinn (Beacon Hill Chronicles), my Boston Southie ex-cop was like that. He just popped right out onto the page and said, “Hi, I’m Joe Quinn,” and I knew everything there was to know about him in that moment. Sometimes it takes me a long time and several changes to get the right name for a character. When I was creating Maggie’s horrible husband (in Each Angel Burns) I went through about six names before I settled on Sinclair. The worst part when that happens is trying to clean up the manuscript because I never remember all the places where the name appears. Beta-readers would say, “I hate Sinclair but who are Morris and Preston?” Oh. Sorry. They are all Sinclair.

 Names are important. Studies have shown that people form impressions of people before they even meet them based on their names. I don’t know how many times people have assumed I write romance novels just because my name is Valentine. It really is my name—and my Dad’s and my Granddad’s and so on. Consequently, I take character naming seriously.

 My good friend, the Hawaiian novelist Kiana Davenport, recently read The Crazy Old Lady’s Secret and she said the names of my characters are “Dickensian.” Actually, one really is—the owner of the yarn store is Calista Defarge. There are also Ariadne Coffin, Fritzi Wiggelsworth, Anteus Roosevelt Jones, and Digger Doyle. I love those names because they are all old-time Boston names and they firmly settle the characters in their environment.

In my Marienstadt stories are two families with interesting naming traditions. The Winter family gives their children Biblical names—Jubal, Judah, Silas, Mathias, Rebecca, Titus, etc. Sometimes this is a challenge but it adds character to this old founding family. The Wilde family is a lot more fun. The patriarch, Zachary Taylor Wilde, called “Big Zach,” is from a Kentucky family where children are named after famous Americans. When he marries Minnie Werner she agrees to continue the tradition. Their three boys bear frontiersman names—Kit Carson Wilde (called Kit), Daniel Boone Wilde (called Boone), and William Cody Wilde (called Cody.) But when Big Zach tries to name their daughter Annie Oakley Wilde Minnie puts her foot down and Zach compromises on Emily Dickenson Wilde.

When I think back on characters I fell in love with in books so many of them had such great names—Uther Pendragon, D’Artagnan, Atticus Finch, Josephine March, Lady Dedlock, and Lady Brett Ashley. One of my favorite contemporary novels is Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. The main character is a Jesuit priest named Emil Sandoz and that name captivated me because it is clearly a merger of Emil Zola, the author, and Pierre Sandoz, his fictional self. Since The Sparrow is a devastating journey for Father Sandoz, the name Russell gave him is both clever and apt.

 Too often I read contemporary novels where the characters’ names are overly precious and just too adorable. The names may appeal to a certain type of reader but they tend to render the characters flat—they never seem to develop fully under the burden of names that are totally out of keeping with their character. Though Shakespeare tells us that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” I suspect that might be true of roses but not so much of people—and of characters. It is a good thing to think long and hard about the names we give our characters. Would Uriah Heep have been as obnoxious if his name had been Rhett Butler? Would Rhett Butler have been as alluring if he had been named Hannibal Lecter? Think about it.

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