What’s in a Name?

Stained glass depiction of Salmon in Columbia River - Kootenay National Park Visitor Centre - Francis Guenette photo

So much to learn, so little time. As I edit the third and the plan the fourth novel in the Crater Lake series, I have come to the conclusion that naming characters has more to it than I realized at the start of my fiction writing days. Looking back, I have no idea how the characters in Disappearing in Plain Sight got their names. Where did Beulah come from? I have never met or heard of anyone named Beulah. The group of people who came to life in my first novel seemed to have arrived in my head with names.

I don’t necessarily advocate such an approach as I sit and ponder passages where I have Beulah, Bethany and Brigit at one table and Jeremy, Justin and Jesse all showing up in the same scene. I only wish my son had asked me sooner, “What is with all the names starting with B and J?” But the dye was cast, or the cast was cast … I was already into the second novel in the series and stuck with all the names from the first.

That doesn’t excuse Brigit, a character in the third novel, Chasing Down the Night. I definitely know better. But Brigit is Brigit and, strangely enough, she resists the urge to be called anything else and cares little that she must exist alongside of a Beulah and a Bethany.

I was shocked to realize, as I worked on the initial drafts of Maelstrom (my mother’s unpublished manuscript that I am making my own) that there were two characters named Chuck. Shocked, not because my mother had stepped into such a writer faux pas but because I was into a third draft of my reworked version before I noticed.

When making a conscious choice for a character’s name, I have resorted to strange rituals. Here’s a good one – I open up my twitter feed, scroll down and grab a first name and then scroll a bit further and grab a last name. I’ve deliberately chosen names I liked and names I didn’t like. I’ve plucked a last name from a family friend and a first name from the air. I’ve thumbed through the phone book – oh, come on now, you do so remember what a phone book is. I’ve checked out Google lists of common and uncommon surnames as well as popular girls and boys names by birth year.

If you are a fan of literary fiction (and, seriously, who isn’t? But we’ll put that debate aside for now) you’ll know that authors can put a great deal of thought and effort into naming characters. A reader can burrow down through layers and layers of meaning pondering a single character’s name. I’m going out on a limb here, but I’m sure Joseph Conrad put some thought into giving names to Marlow and Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. And if you come across a modern-day novel (or TV series) that has a character named Kurtz and one named Marlowe, rest assured, the writer plans for you to float down a metaphorical river that takes you into a heart of darkness.

Or perhaps he or she simply used the twitter feed method of character naming or thumbed through the phone book.

If you write and are willing, tell us one of your preferred methods of coming up with a character name. If you’re a reader, tell us what gets your goat when it comes to how authors name their characters.

First daffodil at Winter Harbour - Mar. 2, 2015 - bruce witzel photo