Thursday, April 2, 2015

What's in a Name?

My husband was reading a draft synopsis of my novel-in-progress and he made many helpful suggestions. But one of his questions was, “Why is the character named X?” (I’m not using the real name…I’m not Kafka, naming people after letters…not that there’s anything wrong with that!) He didn’t think the name sounded appropriate to the time period.

I hadn’t expected this question, and yet: I was able to explain that I had looked up the 50 most popular baby names in the United States for the year this character was born and this name was on this list, not in the top ten (which I also consulted), but somewhere in the 30s.  I explained that I wanted this character to have a name that would be a little bit unusual for this time period, but not too odd.  I wanted her name to be a nickname that was slightly gender-ambiguous, a name that perhaps she had given herself to set herself apart from the name her parents had given her.  I wanted a name that was one syllable, that had a chopped-off sound without sounding harsh.

I explained all this just off the cuff, without having thought about this name for at least a year.  After that conversation, I knew that the name was exactly right—not FOR those reasons, but because I HAD all those reasons.  I had thought it all through early on, and the name wasn’t randomly chosen. 

Please don’t chose names at random! I hate when I’m reading the work of a beginning writer and a twentysomething man in New York in contemporary times is named Bob. I mean, it’s not impossible, of course…but it just sounds like a random name for that time and place.  Wouldn’t Noah be more likely?  Or Jason?  Or Adam?  Or when everyone’s names sounds sort of the same: Linda is the grandmother, and Lisa is the mother, and Carol is the grandchild. Those three names all sound like they come from the same generation.

And if I haven’t persuaded you, let’s go to the master, John Gardner, from The Art of Fiction:

“Subtle details change characters’ lives in ways too complex for the conscious mind to grasp, though we nevertheless grasp them.  Thus plot not only changes but creates character: By our actions we discover what we really believe and, simultaneously, reveal ourselves to others. And setting influences both character and plot:  One cannot do in a thunderstorm what one does on a hot day in Jordan.  (One’s camel slips, or, from homesickness, refuses to budge; so the assassin goes uncaught, the President is shot, the world again is plunged into war.)  As in the universe every atom has an effect, however minuscule, on every other atom, so that to pinch the fabric of Time and Space at any point is to shake the whole length and breadth of it, so in fiction every element has effect on every other, so that to change a character’s name from Jane to Cynthia is to make the fictional ground shudder under her feet.”

My emphasis. 

P.S. The name I chose is Jess. I also happen to like names that begin with J, but we don't need to mention that to my husband!


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.