I love names! Especially ones we don’t see very often. I had a wonderful neighbor for years who had a long, very different last name. She’d just laugh and tell everyone she couldn’t stand the idea of marrying a man with a name like Smith or Brown. She wanted something different and wouldn’t settle down until she found a man with an unusual name. Which wasn’t the least bit true. She’d actually begged him to change it before they married. Even her mom couldn’t pronounce it. It had too many vowels and not enough consonants. She’d run out of those boxes that hold letters when you fill out a form. It was hilarious.
Her husband used to joke that his father been dropped at a orphanage with a paper attached to his bunting. The workers assumed it was his name but it was instructions in Lithuanian to feed him seven times a day and burp after each feeding. (And none of that was true!)
But finding the right name for a character is a fun process to me. It’s a good thing that we all don’t share the last name Smith or Jones, how boring and confusing that would be!
I know someone who grew up on a very small island. Most of the inhabitants were related. He said in his classmates had one of three last names. The teacher had them sit in class by first name alphabetical order. He said he felt sorry for his cousin, Andy. That boy sat in the same spot in every class until he graduated!
I didn’t know I grew up in a melting pot, but I did. Polish, Armenian, German, Spanish, Chinese, Eastern Indian…toss those names at me and I can usually pronounce them without hesitation. So what might sound very different to you, to me is a normal name.
But I also learned at an early age that just because a name sounded one way, didn’t mean that name really reflected that person. That person with a typical English name might look more Spanish than English. Why? Because people marry other people! So the name Billy Cho might belong to a guy with red hair and freckles! And Lisa Smith might be from India.
I’m such a people watcher! Many times I’ve looked at someone and wondered where their roots are. Did they have South American blood in them or Filipino? Then there are the Eurasians. Don’t ask me to figure out what mix they might be. If I guess, I’ll probably get it wrong!
I met a friend’s mom. Oh, she’s so tiny and petite. An absolutely beautiful, sweet woman who has raised wonderful sons that grew to be seemingly twice her height. Aside from a slight tilt to the boy’s eyes, you’d never know their mother came from that part of the world. One day, I asked her son if she was from China. Wide-eyed, he informed me that she was Korean. (Oops! I guess I was supposed to be able to tell the difference.)
I want names that reflect the characters who I have created. So giving a freckled-faced redhead a name that doesn’t fit our stereotypes can be a big mistake, but it can also be used as a tool.
I have a wonderful secondary character in my book, Coming Out of Hiding, named Tommie. It’s short for Thomasina. I can’t imagine her name as being anything else! Once I had named her, she grew into fitting the name.
Do names matter? I think they do. In the book, With this Ring, I have Larry Krabbits. DeeDee mentally plays with the mayor’s name before meeting him. It takes what might have been a dull scene and helps to make that scene funny. Haven’t we all wind up in some sort of meeting that we would have rather avoided?
She listened to Cody and smiled at the cranky rabbit with two front teeth that almost crossed at the bottom. To call the man homely was either a compliment or an understatement. The scene continues in a downhill spiral for DeeDee who doesn’t like beer, and is served a lousy grilled Ruben. She pulled her sandwich apart and tried to redistribute the ingredients that seemed to have been thrown on the bread from the far side of the kitchen. To make matters worse, she was certain she had a rye seed between her front teeth. She sipped her beer hoping to dislodge it. Then took a few more bites of the grilled sandwich before deciding it was a hopeless, greasy mess.
(Someday, I’ll have to tell you about the last time I drank beer. Let’s just say it’s a mark your calendar event for me to drink a beer. Just ask my girls! Back to the subject!)
Giving Larry Krabitts that last name added to the scene. As I toyed with his name, the scene developed. It shows DeeDee’s discomfort, and we’ve all been in those situations! It makes DeeDee more realistic, because we can identify with her. It wouldn’t have mattered if she had been sipping a vanilla milkshake or a beer, but beer was an easier target. (Hmm, have I ever had a bad milkshake? Wouldn’t that be like bad chocolate? Does such a thing exist?)
To me, names are important to my characters. I take time to find the right names. If Larry had had another last name, that scene would have probably been deleted. He was the perfect foil for DeeDee.
So names as stereotypes? Yes and no. Don’t depend on it. Not all my heroes are towering men with broad chests who can pick up a car barehanded. And my heroines don’t all wear a size three. I’d rather think I portray real life and the people who populate it.