That which we call a character
By any other name smell as sweet?
Juliet may have been trying to soothe her lover’s concerns over their warring families, but I completely disagree with her notion that a name is a meaningless convention. One of the greatest gifts – or curses – a parent can bestow upon their child is their name. The same is true for fictional people.
Sure, Buffy works if you’re a vampire slayer, but would a brain surgeon named Buffy be taken seriously? Or, would Severus Snape be nearly as slimy if J.K. Rowling named him Ben Thomas? Should writers stress over a character’s name, or just pluck something from a baby name book and move on? Maybe both.
When I started my first round of edits for Phoenix years ago, there was something about the main character that really bothered me. She felt directionless, meek, and quite frankly, was not my favorite character in the book.
To remedy this, I “interviewed” her … I also call this “talking to the voices in my head.” During this interview, I asked her what she wanted more than anything in the world.
Her answer: to be loved.
I hopped on BabyNames.com, did a search and found the name Amanda meant “worthy of love.” That was the day Amanda Martin was born. The name also worked perfectly for the alter-ego with her going by her childhood nickname, Mandy.
The other characters in the book came to me pretty easily. Shiloh, a wounded young woman who has dealt with loss her whole life, came fully formed and her name means His Gift. (Maybe she was my gift as she is probably a character I have more in common with than the others). Amanda’s love interest, David’s name means “beloved.” Her criminal ex-boyfriend’s name Josh means “God is salvation.” Um, yeah-no, but I couldn’t find a name that meant “lying thief.” Alex, the SEC agent chasing Amanda, was likely named Alexander by his Greek parents, a name that means “Defender of the People,” and quite fitting for his role in the story.
For the times when names are hard to come by, there’s this great site (thanks Carol!). This random name generator gave me the name of a character in the follow up to Phoenix, Pardon Falls, Eldridge “El” Calchera. The minute that name flashed in front of my eyes the character solidly formed in my mind.
But should we strive for names that fit our characters, or names that will find a place in history? Nabokov’s double named Humbert Humbert is immediately cast in our minds as a creep, and what of his sexually-charged, yet youthful Lolita nickname for his stepdaughter. Are the names what stand out, or the characters?
Is it a literary chicken and the egg? Does a memorable name make for a memorable character, or should the character of Severus Snape stand on his own, even if his name was Ben?