January 2, 2008

First Name, Last name, Shouldn't be a Pain

Martin Spratt, Jonathan “Jack” Chase, and Roger Price are three names you’ve never heard of; but, they are folks who are near and dear to me. These three men are each protagonists in my unpublished novels. For me they are as alive as my family members are. It is as if they always lived, and because they exist in my stories, they shall never perish even if nobody reads about them.

They were all born through my inspiration; each taking on a separate identity in spite of the fact that they all have some of my personality traits within them. Unlike my own children who already wonder aloud about where they will attend college, who they will marry, and what they will do when they grow up, I was sure of everything about my characters the moment they were born. For one of them in particular, I knew when he would die. The only troublesome detail in conceiving them was what to name them?

In real life, I had a partner in naming my children. My wife came into our relationship with unique thoughts on what to call our babies and she also had a family history which held some sway on how we would derive names for our kids. There were ideas which we drew from my wife’s ethnicity, and there were, of course, mothers, fathers, grandparents, and other ancestors from whom we could take names. Ultimately, as we decided on what to call our daughter, and then our son, they became their name.

It seems silly, but my son looks and acts like what we called him. Pardon me for not wanting to divulge too much about the identities of my little ones; but, look at your own kids and see if you know what I am talking about. A parent would know. In as much as writers give birth to their characters, that person living within the confines of the plot which you, the writer, originated acts like their name. "Milton" can be a bit of a softy and not very good at sports, if you will. "Rocco" might toss you out of a bar for hitting on the waitresses. "Jerry Cholmondeley" will most likely spend his days spelling his last name for everyone and explaining that it’s a French surname meaning “the place at the gorge or neck of the mountain.”

The same considerations must be given to your character’s names. If you notice, for some reason each of my protagonists has a one syllable surname. This was entirely by coincidence, not by design. Roger’s one-time significant other went from Claire Malachowski, to Claire Mundey after she married her high school sweet heart. Claire’s daughter remarks at one point about her father, a New York City police sergeant: “Sergeant Mundey sounds like the name they give the dumb cop on some stupid sitcom.”

Take your time naming your characters. Take from their families, their backgrounds, and how they will have to react to others learning their names into consideration. A name is an important thing and not to be taken lightly. It can be the difference between getting noticed and slipping through the cracks anonymously. I grew up with a kid in my neighborhood that was locked up by the local police because he gave them his real name, John Smith, and they thought he was lying to them. Be careful about being provocative because the character might have to fight off a negative perception or a sterotype. This is especially worrisome if your start to get a lot of readers. Mr. Grudge can tell you all about that.

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