I love names and I love naming my characters. I’ve often wondered if we become our names? If you name a child Rose, do they grow up to be sweet pretty things? What about Lily? Will she be sweet and pure, or the harbinger of death?
But what about names like Phoenix? Are they impossible to keep down? Do you put those Phoenix children down for naps and they rise up refusing to take one? There are lots of names that are virtually genderless. I’ve seen plenty of Shawns that were girls, and now Michel or Michael. Then those with names of cities and places, Paris, Dallas, Asia, and London. We have a few Houstons in our family but it’s pronounced house-ton and it was the last name of some distant relative and is used now as a middle name.
Then there are the names that make me giggle because no one asked about the spelling. One that I often see is Francis instead of Frances for a girl and Beverly for a girl when the feminine form is Beverley. There are the states of mind: Hope, Faith, Free, etc. The nature nouns: Brook, Ocean, Rock, River, Desert, Forest, Snow, Rain, Oak, Daisy, Tulip, Pebble. Would you really name your child Pebble? Is he or she a chip off the old block? Maybe Chip is, but Pebble?
The updated and converted spellings of names; Leroy is now Leroi – it’s much more regal. The soundex generated ones: Jaimai, Ladancia, Sharazza, Lamonda. The medical terms, which I won’t even bother to mention. I’ve barely scratched the surface of names and naming. And how did we get nicknames like Muffy?
The USA is a huge melting pot of people from all over the world with lots of ethnic names. Names change and evolve. When our west was settling, many of the people who went there were escaping criminal charges in eastern cities, some just wanted to get away from the life they had, others just didn’t like the opportunities in the east and wanted something different. Names changed. Throughout history, the last name was often the occupation. And it happened in the west. The young cowboy from the French family that joined the cattle drive as a cook in Phoenix, became Phoenix Cook and that probably evolved again into Nick Cook.
People who came to America from other places wanted to be accepted as Americans. So hard to pronounce last names were changed to things like Brown, Black, Smith, Jones. Then thanks to people working in places like Ellis Island, more names were changed as these new arrivals were registered. Overworked and understaffed, the workers didn’t have time to decipher what people were saying. A friend’s grandfather came from northern Europe and when asked his name he gave it, then began to spell it, C-first then a… The worker wrote Seafirst. So the new immigrant immediately wrote his family and said when you come to America, your name is Seafirst. He had a new American name to go with his new status as an American.
The BIA, Bureau of Indian Affairs, stepped in and wanted all the American Indians to have English sounding names to make the paperwork easier and as a way to “civilize” these people. Of course, many of these natives ignored the names, others accepted them. There’s a long story as to why Bia became the last name for so many, but it’s not hard to figure out. I used that information in A Rancher’s Woman when Many Feathers was given the English name Mark Hunter and how his friend became Robert Hunter.
Names clue readers to backgrounds. If I say Bianca Valdez, you probably just pictured a beautiful dark-haired Latina. But she could be a lovely blue-eyed blonde from Panama. Lydia Schwartz could be from a Pacific Rim country. We’re not the only melting pot!
But I like to use names as clues or as surprises. In my River City novels, Tess Martinez is a petite blue-eyed blonde who is married to a man from Mexico. Amy Schulster married Berto who is from Mexico. And in Campaign, Kathryn “Ryn” Demary has South American roots, but her family has been here for several generations. When you read my River City books you will discover that the city is filled with people from all over, and in many ways, resembles quite a few cities near me where there is a very diverse population. With it, comes unusual names.
And like many cities, people from different backgrounds wind up living in areas where there are others from the same places. Maybe not as pronounced as Chinatown, but the pockets exist. If you see an Asian grocery store you know there is a high population of Asians nearby.
Along the way, we have gained and lost names. Some names just have a good ring to them. When I come across one, I often write it down. The problem is, if I’m not at the computer, I’ll write it on anything handy. Six months later, I discover the name on a piece of paper and wonder who or what. Was that the name of the guy I was talking to when my Internet connection went down? Or is it just a name.
Names are a way of not only identifying characters but making them stand out. It allows diversity as I write. We’re not an all-European nation and never have been. Heroines come in all sizes and colors as do heroes. Walk into any of our Chinese buffet-style restaurants around here and you’re apt to find kimchi, sitting next to lumpia, tacos, and pizza slices. There’s macaroni salad, bourbon chicken, pulled pork with Carolina BBQ sauce (it’s not what you are thinking if you think it’s that sweet sticky sauce), next to the kung pao chicken, and hunan beef, and collard greens, mashed potatoes, tofu, and ham with pineapple. Add a little food from the Midddle East, and every imaginable kind of seafood. I’m just waiting for the day I find sauerbraten! Just as all the foods are different, our characters should be, too!
Naming our children can be harder than naming our characters. When we name our children, we are giving them a piece of us. When we name our characters, we are giving them a background and a point of focus/reference for our readers. If our children become their names, then maybe our characters names must become them. The name needs to reflect who they are.
There’s a whole world filled with names. Make your characters unique and allow them to stand out in your readers’ minds. Set your heroes apart from the crowd and give them some individuality, then do the same with the heroines. But choose wisely. I don’t see too many men with the name Simon Diamondstein signing onto a cattle drive. That young man would drop his first name in favor of a nickname and only keep half of his last name. “Hi, I’m Buck Diamond.”
When my heroine in A Challenge discovered she was pregnant, she referred to the child she was carrying as PeeWee. As her due date approached, she knew she had to have a name for the baby. She and Ari quickly settled on the name Pamela Wendy. And PeeWee? It’s a pet name for their daughter.
Enjoy picking just the right names for your characters, because there’s a whole lot more to name than just being a name. And that includes all the minor characters within our stories.