Tuesday, October 14, 2014

What's in a Name?

by Priscilla A. Maine

Danielle Alexander's life has suddenly turned upside down. On a wagon train to California to join her fiance, her father falls terminally ill. Add to that a motherless newborn half-breed baby boy dropped literally into her arms by a wise, ancient Indian chief, who wants her to be the baby's mother "just until" her fiance comes to rescue her.

Question from the e-mail:  I'm taking yet another class and people in it are criticizing the names I give my characters. Explain it to me, Arline.  What's wrong with naming your heroine, Pheobe?

Answer: Phoebe is great, if she's a comic heroine, something of a klutz, and someone who makes a lot of humorous mistakes.  If she's your romantic lead, who is supposed to inspire heart-wrenching love, that's something else.

Naming characters can be tricky. Personally, I feel that names should reflect character in some way and I believe readers feel this subconsciously, as well. People have concepts about names that have to do with our culture. We make assumptions about people we meet based on their names, and then once we know them well, that concept may change for us. Also the nicknames given to people may often reflect some aspect of our own conceptions of them.

Let's make up a character. Call her Christina. An old-fashioned name, or perhaps an ethnic name. If she's Christina Lawrence, her folks are old-fashioned (unless this is a period piece). If she's Christina DiNapoli, she's a far different person from Christina Lawrence. Okay, so far? So what do we do with Christina, whatever her last name is? Let's make her a high school student in New Jersey. What nicknames does she have?

Do her friends call her Chris? If so, she's probably something of a tomboy, may be interested in athletics or even cars. Whatever she does, she'll be competent and efficient. Chrissy, however is only interested in clothes and boys, though she's pretty niave about both. Christy may write poetry, or perhaps work on the school newspaper. Name your character Tina and -- well Tina likes to have a good time. Now don't get mad if your name is Tina. You may be as serious as eBola and as reliable as a Volvo. I'm only talking about how that name is usually perceived in fiction. When an avid reader meets a Tina on the page, s/he's not disposed to take her seriously. To like her, yes! To vote for her as president of the class? No.

We tend to adapt the names of the people we know and the nicknames we choose can tell us a lot about people and characters. In our society today we do this all the time.

I shuddered when an old highschool friend, Marge Percy, named her firstborn son "Percy." Now here on the Delmarva Peninsula, women often give their eldest sons their maiden names as first names and Marge's family had both old blood and old money, so it was expected of her. Nevertheless, "Percy" signifies "wimp" to many people in our culture today.

But when he was learning to talk the kid couldn't say Percy. He said, "Berky" and that got construed to Bucky, and later, Buck. Buck was president of the National Honor Society, graduated near the top of his class at the Naval Academy and flies jets for a living. I wonder what Percy would have done?

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