What’s in a Name? by Augusta Scattergood
Most of the writers you and I know agree: giving a character just the right name is crucial to her personality. Motivation, appeal, distrust, dislike, or whatever we’re trying to make you feel as a reader turns on finding exactly the right moniker. Most of us love that process.
Two examples hop quickly to mind, from my own books. And please, don’t be offended if yours is one of my rejected names!
I learned a lot about writing craft, character motivation, plot—you name it!— while writing my first novel, GLORY BE. But I also struggled with naming the sisters. Glory had a different name early on, until I read a book set in the same time and place with the SAME EXACT character name. I quickly renamed her Gloriana, for the better. Her sister was Virginia, and I could not get a handle on her. A big sister who wanted fancy majorette boots and a fire baton needed a different name. Jesslyn was born.
Thelonious Monk Thomas started off as Shelton Smith. (Don’t ask. Bad choice.) Then the perfect name hit me and an entire subplot was born around the musician Theo was named for.
We sometimes change character names merely because they begin with the same letter. Too many “A” names, especially if they contain the same number of syllables, can confuse young readers, no matter the heritage or the language.
Consider Grace Lin’s dilemma: “The names I use are Chinese…I always try to make sure that the real meaning of the names are true and a hint of the person’s character…and that they won’t be too difficult for an English reader to pronounce or remember…In ‘When the Sea Turned to Silver’ I changed the main character’s name from Anyi (quiet and resolute) to Pinmei (concerned with fairness) because the other character was Amah (grandmother) and I thought two Chinese names beginning with A might make it hard.”
Possibly the best name-change story yet? J. Anderson Coats changed one character’s name because it belonged to an “Adult Film Star.” Go ahead, google Jane Darling.
We can’t have that image in our middle-grade novels, now can we?
Picture book authors don’t get off easily either. Rob Sanders sold two books about a girl who dances her way out of every problem. He named her Dyamond, with a nod to one of his students. Something wasn’t right. She needed a double name. Perhaps something alliterative? The publisher’s team and Rob brainstormed and came up with Ruby Rose. Everyone agreed— a perfect name.
There are obvious ways to research a character’s name. If you’re writing historical fiction, popular lists exist on many websites, including the U.S. government’s baby names by decades site.
There’s even a name generator, if you’d like to have fun and play around with character names.
Or go ahead, choose names like Apple or North or even Betty and put them in the wrong decade. But if you do, and you want your character to tell you his proper story, have a good reason. A randomly placed 18th century Jaxon or Mackenzie might need a little explaining!
A recent non-writer Facebook group shared some funny names gleaned from their (southern and mid-western) newspapers’ obituaries. Here are a few too good to keep to myself:
John Duffus Weiss
Kate Messner found and used the name of a real Oregon Trail diarist. Cynthia Lord often checks local newspapers when she visits schools and discovers a name off the honor roll. Most writers, no matter our settings or time periods, borrow names from book signings and school visits.
See how hard we worry over our choices?
Many young writers whose stories I’ve read gravitate toward names they know. But what fun it would be to encourage your students to choose a name that changes a character’s personality. Turn a Charlie into a Gatsby. An Emma becomes Etienne. What happens to the story then?
And don’t stop at character names. What if that big oak tree was on Rattlesnake Bridge Road or Opposumtown Pike, real places I’ve listed in my “Names Notebook.” My list is endless. Yours can be, too.
So choose a great name. Or two. Give them heavy duties.
Be sure they’re easy to say out loud. Make them alliterative if you like the way that sounds and reads.
But hands off my brother-in-law’s friend named Taxi Jones. I’m saving him for something special. He’s too good to share.
Augusta Scattergood is a former school librarian, now middle-grade author. Her new novel, MAKING FRIENDS WITH BILLY WONG, published by Scholastic, is based on the history of the area she grew up in—interestingly and perhaps surprisingly, a place with a large number of Chinese immigrants, the Mississippi River Delta. One of her main characters in that book, Azalea, was named for a bush outside her Mama’s hospital room, blooming on the day she was born.