Friday, July 11, 2008

What's in a name?

The life of a writer is full of unseen perils. Cats that walk across the keyboard, viruses that eat our manuscript. Since we’ve given up the typewriter for the word processing, we’ve come to rely on our software to make our lives easier. We cut and paste with impunity. We delete with abandon. We create macros for oft-used phrases. (Hey, you would too if you had to write Fourteen Annual Quilt Extravangza over and over again.)

But some of Word’s helpfulness can get in the way. Anyone was has tried to clear a document of wacky formatting can attest to that.

Remember Pat, the gender ambiguous SNL character? Her name was no clue as to her identity and frustrated people who were meeting her for the first time (I always thought she was a girl). Well, Pat is a name that frustrates the Word user, too. More about that in a minute.

We name our characters carefully. In real life, I love a girl with a guy’s name—I’d always wished my name was Frankie, Bobby or Jonnie. In fiction, it’s just an obstacle that the reader stumbles on. The name must sound age appropriate (no Grandma Tiffany yet). The name can evoke masculinity (Butch). It has to have the right etymology (there is no Sanchez in Gone with the Wind, for example). The name can tell us right away about a character’s basic essence (Are you going to get into a car alone with Spike if he’s not a dog?) or we can name them against type. I’m not sure I considered Stephanie tough girl’s name until Stephanie Plum came along.

As a reader, one of my pet peeves is characters with the same letter or sound beginning their name. A best selling author confused the heck out of me giving his main character friends named Claire and Cindy and the boyfriend, Chris. It took too much energy to keep track and I gave up. I try to avoid this. Try being the operative word.

We want our characters to be memorable, to make it easy for the reader to distinguish one from the other. I like to give my characters somewhat unusual names. A former critique partner complained that there were no Dick or Jane in my books. (There are however, a few dicks. Sorry, couldn’t resist.) I’ve used Lark, Ina, Vangie, Pearl, Buster, Deana, Rocky, Clive, on purpose so the reader doesn’t have to work so hard.

And then there’s the not so subtle reason. Reasons that matter only to a writer who has to proofread 80,000 words and three hundred pages. If you don’t think that’s a big deal, just remember I’ve written four books to date. 300,000 words and 1200 pages. Imagine what Nora Roberts or Danielle Steel must go through.

A name like Pearl causes a problem that is not anticipated. The author is typing as fast as she can (Thank goodness I only flunked the first semester of typing in high school.), trying to save every keystroke so as not to wear out her wrist before she hits the NY Times Best Sellers list. She types Susan and Word automatically changes the s to an S. Nice. She writes the word pearl. She doesn’t notice that Microsoft Word hasn’t recognized the word as a name and automatically capitalized it. The consequence is that author has to spend time going through the manuscript making sure every pearl is Pearl. It’s tedium and makes it easy to miss one or two.

So I go one step further. I try to find names that are not common nouns as well as names. No Pats. No more Kens. No more Buster (well, except for, you know, Buster). In the new stamping book, I have a character named Xenia. Xenia. Unusual, right? Exotic, yes? Pretty? Just like the character. And definitely a name, not a common noun.

Imagine my surprise then when Microsoft Word allowed me to type this: xenia. With no auto correct! Huh? What’s up? Checking their Encarta® World English Dictionary, I find that xenia (with a small x) is: the effect of genes carried by pollen on the food storage tissue (endosperm) of the pollinated seed.

What the heck? For that obscurity, I have to check my capitalization? I ask you. Is that fair?

So Xenia may have to be renamed. What do you suggest?


Camille Minichino said...

It gets harder and harder to come up with new names.
Here's one I haven't used that I'll donate to you:
Unless you already have 3 K's. Don't you hate that!

Sheila Connolly said...

Does Xenia have some meaning to you (a long-lost friend, a character from a book you read when you were twelve), or were you just trying to pick something unusual? Names that make you stop and try to sound them out in your head take you out of the plot. Odd names also make you stumble: what were his/her parents thinking? What's the story behind the name? Some names are particularly ethnic--is that what you intend? Do you want to give your character a pre-determined set of characteristics? And you also have to think about nicknames, either chosen by your character or dumped on her (what's a nickname for Xenia? Zen? Zee?)

And sometimes you pick a perfectly good name and the character just won't fit. Thank goodness for global replace.

Zenia? No, that sounds like Zinnia.

Kenneth Clarke said...

It wasn't so hard to come up with
character names. My big name issue
was in getting prospective publishers to take me seriously because of my name. I's
hard to be taken seriously as a mystery author when you're Kenneth
Clarke from Overland Park! The first question they tend to ask is
'What is the name of the children's
book you wrote?'

Betty Hechtman said...

I do have a Spike in my third book Death and Doilies, but he's a toy fox terrier.

Names are definitely important. I tried naming a cop Tiffany in a story I sold to Woman's World but they changed her name to Karen.

Yes, find and replace are great.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I HAVE to say it--I sure hope the macro said fourteenTH annual...not fourteen! :)

From what I know of the character, I'm trying to think whether you have to save Xenia as her name because there's some deep metaphorical/symoblic/allegorical/whatever meaning. Haven't come up with any so far, but I'll let you know. :)

Kathryn Lilley said...

I love it when odd names just pop into my head, but fit the bill. For my current WIP, I came up with the name "Heg Shrader." Don't know where it came from, but it fits the character perfectly!

Linda O. Johnston said...

Interesting topic, Terri. I gave a talk today at the Kern County Library in Bakersfield, California, and one of the questions I got was where the name Kendra came from--my pet-sitter mystery protagonist. I really couldn't answer--I think she told me that was what her name was! Although I did have an interesting insight about her last name that I prefer not to mention.

Terri Thayer said...

Becky is a great editor and critique partner, just in case you're wondering. She can't help it. Thank goodness!

I'm always being asked where the name Dewey came from and I realized having no good answer is not what the readers want to hear. I may have to make something up.

Xenia was a name on a name badge of a waitress, so no great meaning. I just thought it looked cool. That character is of Mexican heritage so I was sorta kinda headed that way.

Some things are just not believable in books even though they're true. Dewey's had a friend named Tiffany who's a lawyer, because I know a person with that name and occupation, but she's never made an appearance.

Thanks for all the comments. I think naming characters is great fun.

CilleyGirl said...

If you're using Word, you can do a Find and Replace (Edit menu, then Replace) that is cap-specific. Just click on the More button and select Match Case. Under Find what use "xenia" and under Replace with use "Xenia". Or you can set up an AutoCorrect (Tools menu, then AutoCorrect options) to replace "xenia" with "Xenia", then even delete it from the AutoCorrect when you're all done. Works for any name (or phrase) you want.