Writerly Wednesdays–Names

Sometimes names–like characters–drop out of the sky into our waiting laps. Sometimes, it’s a little more difficult than that.

But what’s in a name, anyway? A young wizard by any other name would enchant just as heroically. Or would he?

Some writers tend to give their characters’ names special meaning. Oh, this name means “strong and subtle” in an obscure, dead language. It’s perfect. Who cares that it’s bizarre and un-pronounceable? It has meaning. It says so much about my character. Look, they aren’t even a two-dimensional cut-out anymore! The name gives him/her at least two extra dimensions! Look at me, I bent time-space!

This kind of mindset, obviously, is more common amongst newcomers to the game of writing. I don’t want to sound too smug, but I decided a long time ago that finding a good name–a fitting name–was much more important than finding a name with meaning. The name just has to work with what we know of the character. It doesn’t have to have deep symbolic underpinnings.

So, instead of sharing what some of my characters’ names mean, I’ll just share the stories of where they came from.

My previous project, about the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, was thin on names that I myself got to choose. It was about real people, real people who had lovely French names–Toussaint de Beausire, Jacques Claude Beugnot, Retaux de Villette, etc. Some of them even had a plethora of delightful titles: Cardinal Rohan could also be Monseigneur, Prince Louis de Rohan, or if you were feeling overconfident, just plain Louis. There were only a handful of characters who were not lifted directly from the history books: Marie, Violetta, Angelique, and Charles. And where did those names come from? The sky, basically. Angelique is about as close to a “meaningful” name as I have ever gotten. She’s a child with a happy disposition–a bit of innocence in the life of the main character, Nicole. The other names simply popped into my head and stuck.

My more recent project is a much more interesting case study in names. None of the characters are real people or based on real people (okay, there may be a loose connection between the female lead and the 19th-century actress Fanny Kemble). And Americans in the 19th century gave their children such colorful names. (I mean, Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard? Elihu Washburne? Hiram Ulysses Grant?) I could have fun naming my characters.When I started writing this project, I picked names out of the air so I had something to work with. Somehow, with very little bidding from any source whatever, I came up with the name Caroline Hanleigh. Her brother’s name, Augustine, came not long after. I had to consciously look for names for their parents. I created a mental list, shrugged my mental shoulders, closed my mental eyes, and pointed my mental finger. The result was George and Louisa. I considered Ezekial and Elizabeth, but those got discarded.

“Colonel Redbrook” was also a conscious creation. I decided it should be an English-sounding name made up of two parts. I toyed around with a few combinations (mostly colors plus words like dale or wood) and came up with Redbrook. It fit well enough to keep.

Harry Daniels was, at one point, “Harry Nunnan”. I have no idea where that came from, but it’s silly, which is probably why I switched it to Daniels. For a short while, he was also  named Harry Abner and was the son of George Hanleigh’s business partner when George was still a merchant. (As you can tell, most of these characters went through many iterations.) Harry Daniels is a simple, innocuous name for a harsh, unpleasant character.

Everett Everly, like Caroline Hanleigh, came along with his name. He just was Everett Everly from the very beginning. Originally conceived as a Rhett Butler type (but a Yankee), he turned into something completely different. The name, however, remained, as did some of the snarky attitude and the fact that he is the main love interest. And the source of the name Everett remained the same, too: Edward Everett, the great orator. I don’t know why, but somehow that last name struck me as being a great first name for my male lead.

Like Everett, two other characters were named after real people: Jack and Pike. Jack, the character, is a young slave boy at Channing Plantation (place names are a whole different can of worms!). He rows out onto the river with Caroline, talks to her, and learns to read from her. He is, in many ways, the fictional counterpart of a real boy named Jack who lived on Butler Plantation when the aforementioned Fanny Kemble visited there in the 1830’s. The fictional Channing is analogous to the real-life Butler Plantation, just as the two Jacks are more of less the same person. The real-life Jack also went rowing with his mistress and was more or less her tour-guide. He is prominent in Kemble’s Residence on a Georgia Plantation. Pike, Caroline’s son, is named after Zebulon Pike, the great explorer. Somehow, it popped into my head that Pike–but not Zebulon–would be a great name. I wanted to name someone Pike, and it ended up being the little boy.

One name has a very peculiar origin. Ovington Benedict was a great-great uncle of mine who lived in New York, ran a successful jewelry firm with his brother, went broke, and died homeless in 1900 at the age of about 70. (Obviously, a bit of crazy runs in my family.) His story is sad, but I loved his name. It ended up being used on the white overseer, Ovington Day–perhaps not the most honorable character the name could have been appended to, but at least it was used!

There are various other fun and incidental names: Circe, Ophelie, Uriah, Ephraim, Archibald, Josiah. When in doubt, I chose a good Biblical name, preferably one that ended in -iah. I also used some of the classics, like William, Mary, Sarah, Billy, Charles. Most of those were conscious choices–except for Ophelie, whose name came to me in a flash of brilliance.

Name-giving can certainly be one of the most entertaining parts of writing a story. Most names end up having a story all of their own, even if they don’t have deep symbolic meaning.

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