Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Name Game

When our group of writerly sisters met, Natalie, who writes speculative fiction, had a problem. She couldn't settle on a name for her main character.

"I'm stuck," she said. "I can't write on until I have a name." She needed one suitable to both her genre and her character. The girl no longer worked. The character was gelling in her mind, but the name eluded her. So we sat around my dining room table brainstorming names--alas, to no avail.

A couple days after our gathering, Natalie sent out a Facebook message to us that she had found the perfect name. We all celebrated her victory.

Character names are extremely important. Try to imagine The Adventures of Clarence Finn, Harriet Eyre, The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Joe B. Smythe, or Robert the Pooh. What if Old Yeller had been named Golden Boy or Because of Winn-Dixie were Because of Walmart? Would a rose by any other name truly smell as sweet? I'm with Anne Shirley on that one. If roses were called skunk cabbages, they couldn't be as fragrant. (And would you want to read Bertha of Green Gables?)

As with most words, a name carries with it connotation and denotation, the latter being its actual meaning (which the writer can discover by visiting baby-naming sites). The connotation is the baggage the name carried with it, for the writer, but also for the reader. The two may be quite different, depending on personal experience with the name. For example, I won't name a positive character Jackie because a boy by that name tormented me throughout my public school years. Bonnie is out for me, too. You likely have a list of off-limit names.

Soon after Natalie's conundrum, I had my own naming quandary while writing my third middle-grade novel, this one for the lower end of that readers' range. It's set in east-central Indiana in the 1930s. My mc is a ten-year-old feisty girl who dares to confront her step-father about his parental skills--or lack thereof. I was torn between Leora and Tillie (short for Matilda June). I put out a plea to my critique group, the writers' group, and on my Quirky Quill blog and Facebook. Tillie won by a landslide. (Her older brother calls her "June Bug.")

Recently, I saw a cartoon on Pinterest in which two characters were talking. One remarked to the other that he felt disoriented because the writer kept changing the character's name.Have you ever agonized over a name? How did you resolve the dilemma? What factors went into your final choice? How many times did you change the name before you found the one? Feel free to leave a comment.

Write on!
Because of Christ,
Sharon Kirk Clifton

Postscript: If you know of young writers in your sphere of influence, consider pointing them to Quirky Quill, a blog written for and by MG/'tween readers. Thanks!

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