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Friday, May 16, 2008

Naming Names

Choosing names is a lot more fun than picking a title. Early on I learned from the best. My friend and critique buddy, Leslie Guccione, guided me as I wrote a mid-grade novel in my first critique group. At first the sisters were named Virginia and Alice Ann. Nope, kids might be confused by Virginia. Even though the story takes place in 1964 and Virginia was more popular then, we (my critique group) decided most kids nowadays think of Virginia as a state. Then Jesslyn popped into my head, and it was the perfect name for a bossy, big sister. Alice Ann was working just fine until I read a new book, set in approximately the same time, with a main character named--you guessed it-- Alice Ann! So Alice Ann became Gloriana, Glory for short. Great name changes. Both girls grew into their names and were better for it.

In my current manuscript, the character is a 12-year-old boy who longs to play the piano. His uncle forbids him to, but he manages to find a way around Uncle Chester's rules. He started out as Shelton. Don't ask. The name appeared to me. I began this manuscript in the amazing Writing for Children class at the New School, taught by Bunny Gabel. A Southerner like me, she understands how wonderfully unusual Southern names might be but she pointed out that, on the first page of the earliest version, she didn't have a clear idea of whether Shelton was male or female. It took me over a year to go back to the drawing board and find him a new name. This piano-playing character is now named Theo, short for Thelonious Monk Smith. Destiny!

I love names, collect them in my head and in notebooks and on pieces of paper tucked into boxes. Southerners seem particularly adept at names. Names like Squirrel (it's true!), double-named girls, Big Jack and Little Jack (my brother and dad). Play around with the USA DeepSouth website if you want to know everything there is to know about Southern names.

Perhaps choosing the perfect name for a character is my way of avoiding the perfect plot. I could create names forever, but without a problem to solve, thorny issues to get in the way, and an interesting backstory, it's just a group of kids and their grownups sitting on the porch under the ceiling fan.


Barbara O'Connor said...

OMG! I have a MINOR character named Glory in my next book! I swear, I had forgotten you had a Glory!! I swear it! But she's just minor. So....will you still be my friend?


Joyce Moyer Hostetter said...

Love this article. It's always great to see the process other writers go through for plotting, characterization, nameing et. And I love how names influence character or the other way around.

Thanks for the link to southern names. Awesome!

A character named Holiness. Now that's an idea! (just one of the list)

Augusta Scattergood said...

And PS to this post.
My character's last name was not working. He's now Theo Thomas.Not Smith.
Thelonious Monk Thomas. And yes, he's named for the jazz musician.