Naming Names

By Victor DiGenti

“It’s your editor,” my wife whispered in urgent tones, one hand covering the mouthpiece, the other swatting me across the head, waking me from my mid-afternoon power nap.

“Tell him I’m not here,” I whispered back, rubbing my head before grabbing the phone she thrust into my face.

This happened not long ago, and my end of the conversation went something like this:

“Hey there, Sammy. What’s up?

“Uh-huh.”

“Not really.”

“No problem.”

“I’ll get right on it.”

“What was that about?” my wife asked after I’d hung up.

“Nothing. He just wanted to know why he hadn’t received my column for the upcoming issue of The Florida Writer.”

“When was it due?”

“Ahh …” I suddenly found I had a tickle in the back of my throat, and coughed into my shoulder as I answered.

Instead of walking away, my wife stood her ground, her eyes narrowing, her toe tapping as though keeping time with some invisible brow-beating metronome. “What was that you were trying not to say?”

She had me cornered, and I had to ‘fess up to she who must be obeyed, as Rumpole of the Bailey was fond of saying. “Three weeks ago,” I answered meekly.

“Three weeks ago? You must be kidding.”

“Do you think it’s easy coming up with a subject and write 1,000 words for every issue?” She certainly didn’t understand the pressures writers lived with on a daily basis.

“Every issue, huh. And how many times a year is the magazine published?”

“Well …” I studied the crack in the popcorn ceiling that I’d been meaning to patch.

“Yes.”

“It’s a quarterly, but—”

“A quarterly? You mean you have three months to write a 1,000 word column, and you still can’t get it done.”

“Hey, don’t forget I have other responsibilities. I’m working on a novel, I have my duties as FWA Regional Director, and then—”

“I get the picture. Why didn’t you tell him you were suffering from writer’s block?”

“What writer’s block?”

“The one that keeps you glued to the TV watching anything with a ball. Let’s face it, you’d rather watch the Four March Mad Men than sit down and write.”

She had it all wrong. “That’s March Madness and the Final Four,” I said, tilting my chin up in a show of defiance. “It’s only the greatest sporting event in the world, and you can’t even get the name right.”

“Haven’t I heard you say the same thing about the Florida-LSU game, the SEC Championship, the NBA Playoffs and whatever else happens to be on the tube at the time.

The situation was deteriorating rapidly, and I decided it was time to take the high ground. “You know what? You’re right. I spend too much time watching sports and not enough time writing. Maybe you can help me come up with an idea for this column before Sammy has to call me again.”

“What’s Sammy’s last name?” she asked, apropos of nothing.

“Smith.”

“Hmm. Smith. Don’t you talk about character’s names in one of your writing workshops? What about that as the subject of the column?”

I had to thank my dear wife for the brainstorm. And thank Sammy for his name.

Bringing a character to life on the printed page involves more than selecting just the right name. A character has to be molded, like a piece of sculpture, giving them form and substance. Too many novels are plot-driven, with characters coming off as cardboard cut-outs. Writers should spend some time getting to know their characters, building a history for them, and most importantly, identifying what each character wants. Kurt Vonnegut said, “Every character should want something. Even if it’s a glass of water.”

A writer takes on the role of a deity, since she has the power to create people. Of course, they’re only story people rather than real people, but still, the reader should see them as living, breathing beings in order to keep the fantasy alive.

After breathing life into the character, you should spend some time considering his or her name. This is most important for the major characters, who will be there for the majority of the story. Give this a lot of thought. You don’t want a Mary Smith (Sorry, Sammy) or Tom Jones. Too ordinary. Think about some of the memorable characters in your favorite books. Sue Grafton’s private eye, Kinsey Millhone, Hannibal Lechter, the suave cannibal we love to hate from Silence of the Lambs, or Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. All of these names reach out to us and set that character apart.

Some other things to keep in mind:

  • Is the name age-appropriate? Young people these days may be named Hunter, Madison or Tyler. But you wouldn’t find these names thirty or forty years ago.
  • Avoid similar names. How many times have you read a book filled with multiple characters and become confused? One of them might be Sara, another Samantha, a third Sammy. Help your reader by making each character easy to recognize.
  • Avoid names that are too exotic or hard to pronounce. This only frustrates and confuses the reader. Even in fantasy and SF stories, try to give the alien a name that’s easy to recognize and perhaps even have the character pronounce it to another character, “No, you idiot. That’s pronounced Neh-fer-iss-tu, not Nay-fru-ice-to.”
  • Consider the character’s family background and culture. A character with an ethnic history, such as Hispanic or Italian, would probably have a different name than someone from the mountains of West Virginia.

Most of all, don’t forget one of the sacred rules of writing, “Thou shalt not confuse the reader.” With that in mind, you will create distinctive characters that will resonate in the reader’s head.

“Honey, I finished the column,” I yelled to my wife as I trotted to the living room. Flicking on the plasma TV, I urged her to, “Come on, it’s about time for the kick-off.”

This article first appeared in The Florida Writer, the official magazine of the Florida Writers Association. My column, The First Million Words, has appeared in the magazine since 2006.

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