Names are hard. I had a seasoned journalist ask me this week, how did I decide what to name my characters? There are ten distinct first person characters in my novel, LIE, and about ten additional secondary characters.
I said I had to create the characters first, and then name them. He pointed out that we name babies before we know them. So I've been thinking of this.
The difference between parents and writers and giving names is that when you're a writer you can create the character, the inner life, the psychological turmoil, the hair and eye color, whether they have bad breath or not, before you name the character -- and if you don't like any of this, or if you don't like the name, you can change it. Upon reading my young adult novel, a few readers have remarked that the teenage boy's names feel old-fashioned -- Jimmy and Sean -- and in fact both are named after their fathers. Jimmy is someone trying to prove himself to his father. He does this through sports -- and through the hateful actions against Hispanics. I wanted him to have a name that reflected his father, and to be all-American, hence he is James Seeger, Jr., or Jimmy, the popular Scholar-Athlete to all his friends. I wanted the father, James Seeger, to be filled with rage, bigotry and hate and to reflect that back on the son. I wanted an unbroken circle, the apple not to fall far from the tree. These characters practically named themselves.
However, when you have a baby, and you hold him close, you don't know much about this baby, even the hair or eye color can change from birth. You may have an idea about the name, you've researched some, discarded the one that is the name of your high school nemesis, been told that it would be nice, so nice, to name the baby after your husband's great-great grandmother. The fact is: you are totally unqualified, still in a fog from a 14-hour delivery, to name a baby, much less remember you're own name. Yet, you are commanded, by the nurse, to fill out a birth certificate, to name him. You think of all the names you've writen down, hope that one will work. Even more so, hope that this name will bestow good-- that he will go strong and smart and make a difference in the world. When he kicks his swaddling blanket off, you notice, again, his big feet. These are the feet that have been kicking you the past few months. For some reason, that reassures you enough to name him.
Or, if she smiles at you, less than a day old, the nurse will tell you it's gas. But you know it's her trying to tell you her name. You hold her mouth to your ear. Is she, this new born baby, trying to whisper her name? You smell her baby smell: milky and musty, as if that will give you a hint. I held my daughter this way -- and she spit in my ear as if curious to my reaction. I laughed, and I swear, so did she. Of course, she could have no other name than the one my husband and I gave to her.
So maybe it's not that different -- at the start. Maybe the only difference is that a writer can with a few clicks change a character's name, adjust the inner life or physical description to match, if they must, if the character insists upon it.
But once you give a name to a child, it's his or hers, even if they go to great lengths to change it, which people rarely do -- it's the name your mother and father gave you. You're running from something if you change that name, you have something to hide. Help! Why do I feel a new character coming on?
Am I onto something with names?
This post is dedicated to Michael and Sara, may they grow tall and strong, may they run fast, may they be curious about the world and be kind to others, and to themselves. Truly, from the author of LIE.