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SHAREN FORD ON: THE POWER OF NAMES

July 26, 2010

I recently started outlining my second novel. Having revised my first book more times than I care to remember, I’m well aware that this means I’m, once again, at the beginning of a very long journey, and a completed first draft will be only the first of many steps still to come. But working my way through the myriad frustrating aspects of honing the first novel to completion did teach me that this early stage—the one where I get to literally conjure my characters out of thin air—is the fun part. As I piece together the physical appearances of my cast of characters, and feel my way towards understanding the strengths, weaknesses and motivations that will bring them to life on the page, I experience the joy of pure creation…even though I know that, later on, I will probably discover that I’ve given birth to naughty children who refuse to follow the destinies I envision for them.

As part of this process of developing my characters, I find myself devoting a lot of time to finding the “perfect” name for each one. I consider this important because names can help to paint a mental image and I don’t want the ones I come up with to steer a reader in the wrong direction. Whether or not we should, we often make assumptions about people based on their names. On hearing the name Dita Von Teese (born Heather Renee Sweet), most of us probably would not jump to the conclusion that the lady in question is an accountant.

In some cultures, names are thought to have magical qualities, but even if we don’t credit them with the ability to attract or ward off evil, every new parent makes a list of potential names and researches their meanings. After all, it’s far better to be a Cullen (meaning handsome) than a Calvin (meaning little bald one). But literature and movies have the power to transform the original meaning of a name and banish it to notoriety and unpopularity. The name Jezebel, for instance, actually means pure and virginal but, thanks to the Biblical story of a wicked Phoenician princess as well as the eponymous Bette Davis film, no one names their daughter Jezebel for fear she will be branded as promiscuous and manipulative.

In addition to suggesting character traits, names also help to establish a novel’s era and setting. With the title of his masterpiece, Thomas Hardy alerts the reader to the fact that his heroine Tess is a simple 19th century country girl, while also hinting at the tragic irony that lies within her oddly aristocratic d’Urberville surname. Likewise, could the newborn vampire protagonist of Stephanie Meyer’s latest, THE SHORT SECOND LIFE OF BREE TANNER, be anything other than a 21st century American girl?

I first came to appreciate the power of the literary name through reading the works of Charles Dickens. In his DICTIONARY OF BRITISH LITERARY CHARACTERS, John R. Greenfield notes that Dickens created names for 989 characters. Some—like Uriah Heep and Ebeneezer Scrooge—are among the most memorable in all of literature and have even entered the lexicon of the English language as the very definition of a particular human trait. If, like me, you love you some Wilkins Micawber and Nicholas Nickleby (I named my son after him), you will probably enjoy David Perdue’s wonderful Charles Dickens Page with its comprehensive list of character names and all things Dickens.

My new novel is set in England and Wales not long after Dickens’ Victorian era, which definitely rules out the possibility of calling one of my characters Bree. Instead, I suspect I’ll be getting to know a Winifred very well over the next year or so. I haven’t yet made my final decision, but the name seems to suit the headstrong, self-centered young woman I see in my mind’s eye. Then again, the main character of my first novel endured three different changes of name before I settled on the “perfect” one: Amanda. It means “she who must be loved”.

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