does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Sunday, July 24, 2011

What’s In a Character's Name?

With only two chapters left to finish the first draft of my work-in-progress novel, I have changed a main character’s name. That may not seem to be a big deal, but it is the first time I have ever done it this late in the process. Usually, by this stage, the characters in a novel or short story have become like real people to me. On an ongoing basis, I have been thinking about and having inner dialogue with, for example, a Juan or a Juana or Abigail. So to now change a Juana into a Miriam is disconcerting [not the names I used].

Names are not mere bagatelles, it turns out. Think what these fictional names evoke:

• Ishmael (Moby-Dick)
• Santiago (The Old Man and the Sea)
• Sancho Panza (Don Quijote)
• Hester Prynne (The Scarlet Letter)
• Scrooge (A Christmas Carol)
• James Bond (Casino Royale et al.)

These names have turned into archetypal giants. Were they whims of the authors? I don’t know. I just know what their impact has been after publication. Would James Bond have been as evocative if his name had been Walter Qwiatkowski? Hmm, I doubt it, though I really can’t know.

So names are not insignificant, and when my inner sense kept nudging me that there was something wrong with the name I had given my character, I finally paid attention. Thank goodness for Microsoft Word’s Find and Replace function. With a few keystrokes, the deed was done. Interestingly, as I have started writing the next-to-last chapter, using the new name has made the writing easier. I had not realized my shoulders had been tensing up the whole time I was using the old name.

What still remains a question for me is whether the unease with the name happened because it was a poor choice in the first place or whether it resulted from the character’s growth within the novel. If the latter, am I being short-sighted in not letting her have the original name since after all that might help signal the character’s evolution? I don’t know. For now, I’ll just go with the fact that it makes the writing easier. After all, I still can use Word’s Find and Replace again.


Judy Croome said...

Judith, this happened to me with Dancing in the Shadows of Love. I was already finished the novel and I realised the three main character names were just wrong! All other names stayed the same, but I had to overuse "Find & Replace"! BUt very glad I did, because the names are "right" now.

To answer your question...I think the characters grow through the novel. As they become more "real" to us, their energy changes and sometimes, too, their names need to match that change.

But somehow "Qwiatkowski, Walter Qwiatkowski" doesn't have quite the same ring as "Bond, James Bond!"

Judy, South Africa

Cynthia said...

Names are very important.
I love playing with different
names in prose as well as when
hanging out on the weekend-
certain names bring out certain
qualities within me.

After my aneurism I gave myself the
name Nia, because that name means
purpose - which now I feel so
strongly about this: being here
for a distinct purpose.

Judith Mercado said...

Thank you, Judy and Cynthia. We seem to be in agreement about the importance of names. And I didn't even touch on the numerological consequences of choosing one name over another! :-)

Sun Singer said...

Ah, changing a character's name is late in the game is a brave thing to do. When you mention the epic names out of great fiction, I wonder how the choice of those names impacted the way the book was written and the way it was edited, promoted or received. Could "Gone with the Wind" had characters with different names? Hard to say whether somebody named Ruby McDonald could have been just as majestic as Scarlett O'Hara.

If you feel a higher comfort level with the new name, that's probably a good sign. Of course, if we find out later that you turned somebody named Fiona MCarthy into Sue Smith, we may want to have a meeting about ot. :-)


Anne R. Allen said...

I've changed names of main characters a few times. Once, the whole book came together in a magical way. But another--just died. With a different name, the character didn't have a self. She fell apart. The book is still in pieces in an old computer.

You'll know soon if it's the right move or not. Characters tell us these things.

Judith Mercado said...

Malcolm, how in the world did I leave Scarlett O'Hara's name out of my list? What an egregious oversight which it took a Georgian to point out. And, no, ex post facto, Ruby doesn't quite evoke what a Scarlett does.

Anne,I'm glad to report that the name change continues to work for me. But, if it didn't, it would be Find and Replace to the rescue! How did people write before word processors existed? It boggles the mind.