I'm Just Saying…

April 28, 2010

What’s In A Name? (Character Name That Is)

Do character names really matter? According to Shakespeare, I guess not. I suppose in his mind, a Juliet by any other name wouldn’t have made a difference. Romeo would still have been hot and bothered. However, me thinks that if that had truly been the case, Shakespeare could have named his play Romeo and Gertrude. Obviously, he didn’t. (No offense to any Gertrude’s out there).

As I begin Deciphering Bella, one of the first items to consider is, of course, the names of the characters. I admit picking names has never been my strong suit. While I’m better naming women characters than men, every time I have to name a male character I immediately go to my standard list: Bob, Robert, Rich, and Michael. In Project Jennifer, I named Joan’s jilting fiancé Michael. When I wrote the first draft of For Better or Worse, Elizabeth’s untrustworthy lawyer boyfriend was… Michael. That was quickly pointed out to me and corrected; Michael became Nick.

Does a name of a character truly make a difference? I think so, obviously. I wrote an entire book about the importance of the right name. Project Jennifer was the hypothesis that women named Jennifer had the looks, poise, and grace that other women only dream of. Is that true? The jury is still out.

However, looking at books and movies, I find there are certain names that are used again and again, and those names imply certain characteristics, creating expectations of what the character will be like.

For women, Elizabeth, a name I picked for my heroine in For Better or Worse, seems to be popular. Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennett, Pirates of the Caribbean’s Elizabeth Swann, Elizabeth is a name that invokes the idea of the strong, opinionated, capable woman who can be tender and tough when needed. I particularly enjoyed playing with the use of Elizabeth’s name in For Better or Worse. She used her full name to invoke a sense of professionalism, capability, and responsibility. Her suitor, Ian, immediately chose to call her Lizzie, a deviation that suggests something more unfettered and wild, a glimpse into her hidden persona.

For men, Jack is a popular name. Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, Titanic’s Jack Dawson, and of course, Pirates’ Jack Sparrow. The name Jack conjures multiple possibilities, adventurer, rescuer, hero, even scoundrel. In any case, the name implies strength, resolve, and resiliency, all good qualities in a leading man. 

So how did Bella become Bella? Bella is actually Isabella and as I begin work on the first draft I am realizing that some characters call Bella by her full name and others, such as her husband, use her nickname. It will be interesting to work out their different perceptions of Isabella and if that is perhaps why they choose her full name or nickname. When searching for a suitable name, I always felt the name Isabella sounded quite romantic and formal, even regal. I liked the juxtaposition of a young woman like Bella having such a troubled background and yet having a name that would make one think the world was her oyster.

Bella’s husband, Mark, came by his name in a roundabout way. I had actually chosen a name, Tim. I described my story and characters to my mother. My mother is for me that one person every writer needs: the one that will tell you the absolute truth about the work. I mentioned Tim’s name. The response: “Tim? No! Not Tim! Pick another name.” I was surprised Tim received such a strong reaction (no offense to any Tim’s out there). Yet for the story and events I was describing, she felt the name Tim didn’t fit the man and would not go the distance. As Mom’s instincts are usually correct, I went back to the drawing board.

A question was put to me once: Do I visually imagine my characters by picking an actor or actress in the part? Good question. I do. But only for male characters, never female characters. Don’t ask me why. In that case, for me, the name becomes secondary, I already have a visual on what my character looks like. Perhaps that’s why my creativity light dims whenever I have to name my male characters.

In For Better or Worse, I knew exactly who Ian MacKay looked like: Ewan McGregor. For the record, I had no visual reference on any other characters in the book, only Ian. 

For Deciphering Bella, I have a visual reference for Tim. However, I don’t believe in influencing the reader, so I will keep the actor’s name to myself, for now, and reveal it after the book is published. 

In the end, I thought a while and decided on Mark, a name I have never used before. Mark seems a good solid name, and gives a sense of an upright, dependable man, although time will tell the tale if Mark turns out to be those things. Mark or Tim? Does it matter? For the record, I had no trouble switching the name and became acclimated to Bella’s husband as Mark with no hesitation. As Mark develops, it will be interesting to see if his character evolves in ways I could never imagine had he remained Tim.

J.

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1 Comment »

  1. It’s funny that you posted this to my Facebook wall. I have actually had the exact same conversation with my old college roomate concerning the protagonist character in my book. I had chosen Jane and she told me that it evoked the sense of plainess which is the exact opposite of the character that I am trying to create. Thanks for the new blog post. You just opened up my eyes to the endless possiblities.

    Comment by kaylamwade — April 29, 2010 @ 5:10 am | Reply


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