Naming Your Characters and Your Book

Jack Dorsey

My oldest brothers are twins. One of them is named after my father, the first and middle names swapped because my father decided he did not want a junior. James is named after the song, “Sweet Baby James.” Because my parents didn’t find out beforehand if they were having boys or girls, they had decided on four names—two boys’ names, two for girls. When my mother was heavily pregnant with me she asked my father if he had any ideas for names, in case they had a girl. “Didn’t we already pick out two girls’ names? Why do we need more?” The decision of which name to use went to my brothers, who were three at the time—a risky endeavor but if your options are Heather and Ashley I guess there is only so far wrong you can go and it’s a risk my father was lazy enough to take.

So now here I am, sourcing names for my manuscript. My book about a selkie has only ever been called, in my mind, “The As Yet Untitled Book About A Selkie Who Really Hates Fishermen.” I think I enjoy it about as much as my father enjoyed choosing names for all of us. “Haven’t we already picked names,” I want to ask my class. “Can’t I just call it Clara or Robert or. . .” My voice trails off because I can’t think about it anymore. I want to drink a gin and tonic and make crass jokes that downplay the seriousness of tone in my story and that distract from the fact that naming your book is fundamentally optimistic.

People have a lot of ideas about it. My husband jokes that I should call it Loose Seal, because she is, for all her hatred of fishermen, not all that sexually inhibited and who doesn’t love an Arrested Development reference. “Or,” he’ll follow up, “Seal of Approval? Signed, Sealed, Delivered?” I like the puns more the serious suggestions, maybe because choosing a name for my book means that it is closer to finished. Each time someone suggests something, I feel exposed and ashamed. I don’t deserve for this story to ever advance out of the “Untitled 8” phase, do I? Does something really need a name if it is only ever read by my circle?

I’ve changed the name of a character in my book three times. I’m thinking of changing it again. She’s not on stage for more than a handful of scenes but her name matters because she is my main character’s strongest link to the human world. It is the name my protagonist selected and it says something about her values and where she finds beauty. It is not as hard as naming the dog, who has several names—Mircea (for Mircea Eliade), Ondine, Dalton. I wish I could see the daughter’s face in a photograph and tell you for certain that she is a Roseanne or a Mhairi or a Jenny. I now know that she is not a Billie, though for many months she presented herself as if she was.

Three names in my book have not changed. Clara, the protagonist/selkie, and the names of her fishermen captors. Robert and William are brothers, both monstrous in different ways, but not in terms of naming. That triad of names was the easiest choice I made in the entire writing process.

When people who read my manuscript realized that my grandfather’s name was Robert William Clogston, they immediately assumed that I used his name for the murderous brothers because I had disliked him. I protested in the usual way, “Oh, no, I really didn’t even think about it,” and “The truth is where I’m from there are only like four choices for boys’ names.” But I did name my villains after him. I loved my grandfather more than anyone I’ve ever known. I feel his absence on a daily basis. He was a deeply flawed man who did the wrong thing more than half the time and who could be cruel with his neglect. But he was also loyal and generous and fearless. He believed in me more than anyone ever has.

I named the bad guys after him because I wanted to remind myself that no matter how dark things got on the page, I must be compassionate. Flat characters—all evil and all good— are not interesting and they are not human. Each time I see the name Robert, a flicker of love warms me and it stops me from drawing him flat. He has his reasons. Each time I see William in my story, I think about my grandfather telling me what it was like growing up. How when he was sixteen, his brother died in a POW camp and from then on, he was lionized. His father told him so many times that it should have been him, that his brother was a better man than he would ever be and my grandfather was selfish for not fighting in a war he was too young for. Seeing his name reminds me that the things we do for our family often contradict what we believe and that a grieving man often wields his pain for destruction.

I named my worst characters after one of the most complicated people I have ever known to remind myself to be kind to them, to allow them their grief and to understand their reasons.

As it turns out, when your last name is Weckbacher, it doesn’t really matter what your first name is. With the exception of a cousin who called me “Ashtray,” the rest of my nicknames came from my last name and were shared with my brothers. “Woodpecker.” “Weed-whacker.” “Weckinator.” “The German.”

I recently stood in the town hall, staring at the line on the marriage license that asked what my married name was going to be. We had agonized over this decision. I didn’t want to change my name. I didn’t want to hyphenate or hyphenate our potential future children’s names. I liked the idea of having the same name as my new husband. Months had been spent going round and round in circles, feeling guilty, changing my mind.

When it came right down to it, there was never any choice. I knew the right thing to do, just like I knew the right names for my three main characters. I just hope it is that easy when it comes time to give my book a title.

1 comment

  1. Joe Long

    I read this just moments after changing a character’s name yet again.

    When I was outlining I modeled the love interest’s family after a relative of mine, in that she had three kids by three different men, and then married a fourth. Those facts do influence the story. She was married to a doctor named Igor who’s parents came from Russia, so I named him Vladimir and called him “Doc.” Being a doctor was a good plot device in that he had money and sometimes worked evenings and weekends.

    Then I decided some darker plot twists for Doc, and although he’s since passed, I didn’t want his good name sullied by want anyone who might recognize him in the story. So I needed a new name and occupation. I picked a surname that was out of the ordinary but does appear in our area. Realtor met the criteria for an occupation, and Donald, “Call me Don” was generic enough while still being similar to “Doc.”

    I did a search and replace through 88,000 words and it was fixed – until I realized that “Don” was probably too similar to his step-daughter’s name “Donna.” Okay, how about Richard and Dick? Still in the ballpark. Search and replace again.

    Then yesterday I recalled a joke I had scripted for the next scene to be written. I confess I stole it from Twitter, but while they are at a Mexican restaurant the protagonist says to his love interest about her love of “tacos, ***, and Star Wars” to which she replies, “Who’s Dick?” If her step-father is named Dick it totally ruins the joke. His name is Mickey. “Michael, call me Mickey.” Search and replace. Lather, rinse and repeat.

    PS I do have a spreadsheet with a list of the top 50 boys and girls first names from around 1960, as my story is set in 1979. Including all the bit and extra characters, I’m up to around 85 (only around 15 lead, supporting and recurring)

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