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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Picking Names For Fiction

Recently on Goodreads, I came across a post by an author who is working on a novel. One of her minor characters had a name the publishers didn't like, so she was inviting her fans to suggest names. It made me think about how I choose names for my characters. I'm not -

Interruption! We have our first Children's Laureates, just heard it on the news! About time. They've had them in England for YEARS. Did you know, at one point, there was serious danger of there being no money to run the Children's Book Council of Australia awards? That hasn't happened, fortunately, but it goes with the attitude of folk who ask me when I'm going to write an adult, i.e. a "real" book. (My response is always, "Never!") The first two Aussie Laureates (for two years) are Boori Monty Pryor and Alison Lester. They will have the job of getting kids to read. I will be following this with great interest, and mention it on this blog whenever I hear about it. I am thrilled to bits! Here's a link to a news article on-line, though there must be more; today's Sydney Morning Herald.

Now, back to the topic of this post - names, as I do them. In a previous post I discussed names in Harry Potter (and recently I wandered back to Insideadog and found, to my delight, that a young reader had commented on that post after all and liked it. Which reminds me, I owe Cara some bookmarks, must email the CYL and ask for them to pass them on, as I don't have the young lady's address.). I noted that the names in JKR's novels generally have meanings that are appropriate for the characters concerned. I think it's wonderful the way she has worked them out, but me - I mostly pick names because I like them.

This was mostly the case for Wolfborn, though I did have some characters with names that meant a little more than that. The wise-woman was called Sylvie because she lived in the forest. The werewolf knight's fief was originally called Lupin ... until I read the third Harry Potter novel and realised that it was no longer an in-joke - someone else had got to it before me. I called him Geraint, even though it didn't fit in with all the French names, because I liked it and because it was a name associated with mediaeval romance.

Eglantine, another of my characters, was named for Chaucer's Prioress for reasons I can't reveal without spoilers, but also because I thought it a good, soppy name for a soppy character, and from what I've read, it may be that Chaucer also thought it a nicely soppy name. ;-)

The Faerie characters were originally named after the ones in Shakespeare. "Come on, Sue, you KNOW Oberon and Titania didn't appear till much later than this story!" said my editor (it was my own universe, but yes, it was meant to be a sort of twelfth century Europe) so, grumbling to myself, I found them other names - the names of a couple of Celtic gods who were appropriate for these two characters - a horned god and a goddess of the grove with whom he was associated. But personality-wise they remained Oberon and Titania.

My short story called "Brothers", which is being published in the Specusphere anthology Mythic Resonance, early next year,  was based on Snow White. I called the princess Blanche (White) and because I'd decided that my seven dwarfs were going to be seven Dwarves a la Tolkien, I gave them Norse names.

You do have to be careful with name choices. Justin D'Ath wrote his novel Pool with a heroine called Audrey who had nearly drowned in a pool as a child and had miracles associated with her. All he had in mind, he tells me, was Audrey Hepburn, but some of my students, researching for their creative responses to the book for English, stumbled across information about an American girl called Audrey whose story was uncannily like the one in the book! Now, it may be he read about it in the news some years ago and forgot, but as far as he knows he had never heard of the real-life Audrey.

At least he got to choose his names. Try writing for the education publishing industry and thinking carefully about your names!

Publishers there will change your names at the drop of a hat, without consulting you; the first you know of it, often enough, is when you get your contributor's copy!

I wrote two chapter books for the education industry, The Sea's Secret and Grey Goo. The former was about a hunt for a painting donated to the school before the artist arrives for a visit. Nobody knows what happened to it, since it was twenty years ago, and there are rumours about the Principal of the time having kept it. I had three siblings, Ariel, Hanna and Nehama.

Ariel became Adam, Hanna became Hannah. Oddly enough, even though these and other names in the book were Anglo-ised, the youngest sister, Nehama, remained Nehama. In the American edition, the Principal's name and gender were changed. I wouldn't have minded so much if they hadn't been changed halfway through the book! I remember reading my contributor's copy of the US edition and saying, "Hang on, who's ... ? Oh. The Principal? " The thing is, somewhere in the US, someone is reading my book - a teacher, a librarian, a parent - and thinking, "What sort of an idiot can't remember the names and genders of her own characters?" Sigh!

Grey Goo had a heroine called Amelia, named for my little niece. In the original manuscript and right up to the page proofs, her brother was called Max, the name of the real-life Amelia's brother. Proudly, I showed the kids the page proofs, promising them a copy of the book when it came out.

Problem: when I got the book, the heroine was still Amelia, but she now had a brother called Mark. When I inquired, I was told that there was a character called Max in another of their books, so they had decided to change this one. I still can't see any reason for it, but there you are. They weren't the ones who had to break the news to Max that he had been bumped from my book. I let him keep the page proofs.

Whenever I need a teacher, I call him Mr Pearl after my brother-in-law, who is the best primary teacher I know, but as it happens, he will appear in my short story "Call Him Ringo" in Trust Me Too, being put out next year by Ford Street Publishing, for a different reason. It's about the Beatles' visit to Melbourne in 1964, and my brother-in-law, long before he met my sister, was at the Southern Cross on the day the fans gathered outside the hotel because their heroes were staying there. How could I not give him a walk-on?

There are plenty of on-line name generators which are no doubt fun, but even choosing a name just because you like it is no reason to choose one at random, without caring about the character, however minor. I am never going to do that.


Lan said...

I'm actually stuck on picking names at the moment (even though I should be finishing my NaNo project) and am trying to decide if I should give my characters names with meanings or just random names. Sometimes I think authors can go a bit over the top with their targeted naming. I mean Remus Lupin is such an obvious name for a werewolf but it only works because lets face it, J.K could have named him anything and it wouldn't have mattered.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Remus Lupin is an obvious name to you and me, but not necessarily to children and not back then, before everyone started writing articles about Harry Potter. She could certainly have called him anything she liked, but it would have been inconsistent with her practice of giving her characters names with meanings.

Give your characters names you like and worry about the rest later. You can't go wrong if you like the names, can you? :-) Harlan Ellison said once that he'd named characters after his enemies and then killed them off. [g] Hopefully, though, you don't have too many enemies.

Lan said...

Harlan is a cool name in itself. And I like his style. I'll admit I am drawn by the idea of naming characters after people I don't like and killing them off! But It's be very very obvious if I did that! Oh and I've been meaning to ask you this for a while Sue, where do you get all your research info from? I keep thinking I'll go to the state library but then I've never been before and wouldn't know where to start! The internet seems a bit of an easy way out and I don't know if the information I'm getting would be correct.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Well, you can always use just the first name and believe me, if your book is popular, people will be BRAGGING about having been worked into it! ;-)

The other thing I'll email you about - and perhaps even think up a post some time on the subject.