Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Name Games

By Mike Crawmer

Names are funny things. At once memorable and forgettable. Lyrical and unpronounceable. Full of meaning and import on the one hand, vapid and tasteless, like salt-free V-8 juice, on the other.

How long did Charles Dickens fuss and fret before settling on “David Copperfield”? Why did Agatha Christie decide on “Miss Marple” and “Hercule Poirot”? Why not “Sarah Shortbread” or “Avant Maintenant”? Would Laura Lippman be as successful if she wrote about the adventures of “Adele Schlotterbock” instead of Tess Monaghan?

I’ve been thinking about names because I’m still not all that happy with the name I gave to one of my two protagonists. “Andre” originally was “Devlin,” then I decided that “Devlin” had to be African-American, and “Devlin” is not an African-American name. “Andre” is, sort of. Maybe. In some circles. It’s certainly better--that is more resonant, more identifiable with the person--than the name for my other protagonist, his partner Greg. Solid sounding, yes, and one syllable, but oh-so-white-bread.

But I’m comfortable with “Greg,” the name and the fictional creation. “Andre”--or “Dre,” as Greg nicknames him--is still causing me to doubt myself.

Not so with my other characters. I named Greg’s bete noire “Proctor” after seeing that name painted on the side of a decrepit brick building in Lower Greenfield. I dubbed my Eileen a “Shackleford” because it just fit her well and I liked the sound. (There’s that “sound” thing again.)

My day job at an international human resources training and development consulting firm (no other way to describe it in shorthand) requires careful attention to names. Because our products are sold in countries where English--or a reasonable facsimile thereof--is in common use in the business community--the U.S., the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa and a few others--the names we use for characters in our case studies and videos must be acceptable in all countries. Conrad, Marcos and Spencer are fine; Blair, Ed, Lloyd and Ike are not. As for women, we can create an Anita, a Jayne or a Rhonda, but Brianna, Cheri, Jeanne, or Paola are no-no’s.

Assigning names is one thing; having to work with the weird and unpronouncable is another. On the third floor of the building where I work, a large crew of assessors deals daily with client companies populated by people with such first names as Chrysostome, Jonantony, Crege, Daquanda, Turron, Trustin (as in “You can ‘trust in’ me,” perhaps?), Taquoila (pronunciation, anyone?), and Jamessa (guess Daddy James wanted a boy and when his wife produced a girl, well, “Jamessa” was born).

Names fascinate me. I love the images that pop into my mind when I hear names like Dorothy, Scarlett O’Hara and Bilbo Baggins. On a personal level, I'm a dismal failure at remembering names. Go figure. Now, give me the last four digits of your Social Security number, and I’m bound to remember it til the day I die. But, your name, sorry, what was that again?

11 comments:

martha reed said...

Mike, I'm reading Agatha Christie's autobiography right now, and she said she picked "Hercule Poirot" because the first name (originally Hercules) was in such contrast to his appearance, and Poirot because there were a lot of Belgian refugees in England at the time (WWI) and it sounded right.

There's the sound thing, too. Interesting post! Thanks.

Joyce said...

Great post, Mike. (Gina, yours was too, but I didn't get time to comment yesterday.)

I named my character Summer because I wanted something a little bit different, but not too off the wall. And it fits her. I like naming characters. It's fun to toss around different names until you come up with just the right one. I've also come up with names before I wrote the character.

One of my favorite characters (that I came up with) is an elderly African American named Isaiah. He has an ancestor named Mordecai and a daughter named Esther.

Annette said...

Several years ago I attended a talk by author Stephen White who made a point that has stuck with me ever since. He uses mostly memorable names so the reader can easily keep track. In MISSING PERSONS, there's Hannah and Raoul and Lauren and Darrel and Cozier. But I remember him also saying other names make the reader tend to overlook that character and as a writer you can use that to your advantage.

Watch out for those guys named Bill. At least in Stephen White novels.

Wilfred the Author said...

I have trouble keeping track on my own names, let alone my characters. I have My name and my writer's name (just my real non-nickname.) I also have a Chinese name since I travel and do business there and I adopted a Spanish name, while I was down in Mexico for an extended period of time.

I took a few unique approaches to naming minor characters in my book. For terrorists, I went to the FBI website and mixed and matched first and last names off the "Most-Wanted" list. For a bunch of minor characters, I played name games with St. Louis' NHL hockey team.

JennieB said...

Don't forget Freddy and Sven, Will!

Names are fun things (although I have problems remembering mine, too. Plural.) For me, the character names are some of the most important aspects of the books. If the names aren't right, the story doesn't go right, because the characters don't behave the way they need to. Maybe that's just me, though. I use baby name books, baby name websites, obituaries, the phone book... anywhere where there are names. Most of the time characters come into my head fully formed, though, with names and all, so it's really only the secondary and minor characters I name that way.

Great post, Mike!

Annette said...

Wilfred, or whatever your name is today, I also have a variety of names. I have one friend who calls me Irene (don't ask) and two more who call me Annie. If my publisher (when I get one) wants me to assume a pen name, hey, no problem.

As my dad always said, I don't care what you call me as long as you don't call me late for dinner.

Mike said...

I've used the phone book too...a tip from a writers' conference years ago. Great source, if even just for inspiration. Never thought to check out the FBI most-wanted list, as Wilfrid suggested, but I will someday.

Annette--now you know you'll have to explain how you got stuck with "Irene." And I've long subscribed to your Dad's approach!

Joyce said...

I'll pretty much answer to anything, too.

They call me "The Queen" at home. Not sure what they call me here, but I'm guessing it ain't queen. Same number of letters though.

Annette said...

Mike, it's too long of a story for here. And probably not as funny as you'd think. It was one of those "you had to be there" things.

And for the record, I use phone books, too. And the obituaries, especially when looking for a name for an older character.

Joyce said...

You can also look for names on the social security website. Somewhere on there they have a list of the most popular names for a given year. It's pretty cool.

http://www.socialsecurity.gov/OACT/babynames/

Wilfred the Author said...

Well, I have a variety of nicknames that I've picked up from working in the oil and gas fields where everybody has a nickname. Most of them aren't repeatable in mixed company. Funny thing is, I respond to my Chinese name (Bai Li Wei) better than Wilfred.

Annette, the Irene story sounds like a Seinfeld episode.

Joyce, thanks for the link. that is way cool.