Monday, December 05, 2016

What's in a name?

Sometimes it's not until I change a character's name that he/she comes to life.
Another thing about names, if a character has a name that is too modern or old fashioned for the time period, it bothers me. Although names from the turn of the last century are back in vogue to have a four-year old named Heather today would not seem right. Her name would more likely be Ella, Grace, Harriet, Marion. Although class and region also play a part.

When I first submitted SHOT IN DETROIT to an agent, he balked at the name Violet. He said it was too old-fashioned. Well, he was partially right. It was not the right name for a 40 year old woman but it would have be okay for her grandmother or daughter. At the time I had a section in the novel about how as a kid people called her Violent instead of Violet. I eventually took it out but the name had stuck by then.

Certain names have too great a connection with a famous person to use unless you are commenting on it.

What are some of your favorite character names? I am going with Merricat Blackwood (WE HAVDE ALWAYS LIVED IN A CASTLE and Bo Radley (TO KILL A MOCKINBIRD).Has a chartacter's name ever ruined a story for you?

27 comments:

Jeffrey Meyerson said...

When you said MOCKINGBIRD, I thought you were going to say 'Scout' (though I know that was not her real name).

Ignatius J. Reilly, A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES

We actually had this very discussion on September 1, 1972! (I know it seems nuts that I can give you the date, but I can explain.) We'd spent 9 1/2 weeks in Britain and Western Europe that summer, and were coming home from Amsterdam when our charter flight (we used to take these crappy teachers' charters because they were cheap) had a problem and we got stuck in Schipol Airport for 7 hours. (Let's just say that the food vouchers didn't go far and many of us broke the rules and got into the duty-free booze.) Jackie started talking to an embittered older teacher (remember, we were 23 then!) whose husband had left her for a younger woman. Her theory was that her mother had "ruined her life" by naming her Gertrude. It had colored everything, according to her, and that was all there was to it.

Jackie asked her why she didn't just call herself "Trudy" or change it all together, but that was her story and she stuck to it. Besides, she was more a Gertrude than Trudy. I'm sure you could have gotten a story from the discussion.

It is a little jarring to hear a child called something from what I consider my grandmother's generation (though my cousin named her daughter Molly after my grandmother). I still haven't heard anyone named Yetta, however. (She was my grandmother's older sister.)

pattinase (abbott) said...

Now if you were a writer, Jeff, this would make a wonderful start to a story. The names of my father's sisters, all sounding hopeless to me as a kid, are all popular again. It took more than a hundred years though.

Jeffrey Meyerson said...

Mine too. My father's mother was Eva and her sisters were Lillie, Gussie (maybe Augusta?) and Beattie (Beatrice?). My mother's mother was Molly and her sisters were Yetta, Tillie (not one you see these days either!), Lee, Ruthie and Evie (Evelyn).

Gerard said...

I cannot think of character names but I've heard a couple older names for younger children. "Archie" for one. I forgot the other.

Older names from relatives that won't be used any time soon.

Clyde
Myrtis
Prince
Doyle
Adus
Rex

J F Norris said...

I think of this all the time when I pore over the admission reports to our unit in the pediatric hospital where I work. I see names like Zenophon, Obadiah, and Malachi. Granted often this is a reflection of the religious or cultural background of the parents but I'll never understand naming children after obscure figures in the Bible. You don't think they're going to have a hard time growing up saddled with a name like that for the first two decades of their lives?

Worse are the eccentric misspellings of names I've seen usually because the parent is young and has never seen the name, only heard it and spells it just like it sounds: Xzavier, Dontae, Yurhynest, Daune (pronounced Dawn), Jawyan, Geovanny... I could go on for another 200 names.

Someone once named their boy Riddick. I can only guess he's been named after the graphic novel character later played by Vin Diesel in the movies. I've never seen the name anywhere since.

A doctor once told me that had a little girl named Syphylis. The mother pronounced the name "SIGH-fill-us". That's just plain sad.

When I was writing stories and plays regularly the names of each character were to me the most important part of the story. In fact, the first play I wrote (which ended up being a finalist in several theater competitions) the names of each character are intrinsic to the story. They are discussed in several scenes. I can't imagine any fiction writer arbitrarily naming characters. When I get the idea that they have been chosen that way it makes me think that the writer hasn't a clue what he or she is doing.

Atticus Finch is even better than Boo Radley, if you ask me. All of the characters in TKAM have perfect names: Calpurnia, Mayella Ewell, Dolphus Raymond, even Tom Robinson -- a name so plain that it makes that character seem like an Everyman.

I read an awful book years ago with dreadful names and I've always remembered them. There was a servant character named Ewe Sinclair and another female character named Perony Osborn. Those names are so ridiculous it turns the book into an unintentional self-parody.

Jeffrey Meyerson said...

Yurhynest? Really? How is that pronounced?

When my wife was teaching she'd get some kids with amazing names too. One year she had Shawanna, Mashanna, and Shaquanna, plus Iasia and Iesha (not sure on the spelling on that). You have to wonder what the parents were thinking.

pattinase (abbott) said...

My favorite real life name from when my mother worked at a social service agency that did adoptions was Ortho Novum-which was a birth control med at the time.
I have heard of two girls named Micah recently. Wasn't Micah a man in the bible?
My father's sister were Ella, Bessie, Leona, Marion, Helen, Miriam, Mabel and Martha and another two I forget. I have heard most of these lately.

J F Norris said...

OMG, the drug one is unreal. Tops any others I could offer up.

Jeff-- Yurhynest is a poor phonetic spelling of "Your highness" with a superfluous T at the end which must come from mispronunciation and misunderstanding. I later discovered this is a somewhat popular name for boys in the black community. Apparently the "regular" spelling is Yurhiness or Urhiness, sometimes one S at the end.

Jerry House said...

Atticus Finch, yes. Also Huckleberry Finn, Leroy Jethro Gibbs, Mike Hammer/Mike Danger, Lemuel Gulliver (so close to "gullible," don't you think?), and Simplicius Simplicissimus (from the 1668 novel by Grimmelshausen -- also a great name).

One great name from real life is La-a, pronounced "Ladasha."

And there's the story of the immigrant who named his daughter for the most beautiful-sounding word in the English language that he had ever herd: Diarrhea.

A number of names in my own family are unlikely to come back any time soon -- my uncle Horace, my mother's uncles Homer and Quincy as well as my mother's -- Millard Harriet (Millard was a mash-up of her parents' names, Mildred and Bernard, and was seldom used. She also changed Harriet to Harriette for some reason I could never figure out.

Jerry House said...

Jeff, if it's really dark out and you squint real hard and have some cotton in your ears and some marbles in your mouth and there's a lot of traffic noise in the background, I suppose Yurhynest could also sound a bit like "Ernest."

pattinase (abbott) said...

Male names seem to come back less. My grandfather was Clarence; his brother Lester. Haven't heard them again.

Elizabeth said...

My father's sister was Ruth. My mother named me Betsy (supposed to have been a family name) & my original middle name was even worse. I kept thinking I would get used to the name Betsy, but I never did. Finally, at the age of 44, I changed it to Elizabeth. The name change was worth every dime & more.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I know the feeling. I would love to be called something other than Patti, which seems like a name for a child. Yet I don't like Pat much either.

Anonymous said...

In the film Heat I was never able to take the master-criminal played by Robert de Niro seriously. A master-criminal named... Neil, for God's sake?

pattinase (abbott) said...

I agree. N is a soft sound. You want a hard one.

Jeffrey Meyerson said...

Your Highnest.

Love it.

My wife's first AP refused to call this boy by his pronunciation, and insisted, "It’s spelled Jesus, not Hay-sus. I'm calling him Jesus."

Jeffrey Meyerson said...

Our friends in England had a daughter who didn't like her given name, which I believe was Susan, and insisted on being called by her middle name, Bindley.

I've never heard of another

Steve Oerkfitz said...
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Steve Oerkfitz said...

I did not leave the response about Roxanne and Nadine.

Steve Oerkfitz said...

My father was Chester. His twin Lester. I had aunts named Minnie and Margery. A grandmother named Berta and a grandfather named Archibald Daniel Allen. Needless to say he went by Dan.
Just some names don't sound right on a baby. Like George or Ralph.

The tv show Justified had cool names for some of their characters such as Raylan Givens, Dewey Crow and Boyd Crowder.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Father was Ralph. The kid in Christmas Story was Ralph. It worked for him.

Margot Kinberg said...

Names always tell you a little bit about a character, I think, Patti. Even if it's a 'regular' name like Susan, Joe, or something like that, it gives a character identity. I don't really have a 'top' choice for a name, but I do notice them.

George said...

My favorite names of fictional characters:
Sebastian Dangerfield (The Ginger Man)
Sir John Falstaff (HENRY IV)
Huckleberry Finn
HolLy Golightly (BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S)
Lisbeth Salander (THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO)

Richard Robinson said...

Sherringford Holmes, Mycroft Holmes and Sherlock Holmes. The three Holmes brothers. I've not read any other fictional characters with those first names. (except in some kind of parody)

There seem to be a lot of boys named DeShawn these days, and other similar names for black males.

Anders E said...

George, Lisbeth / Lisbet really is one of those names that are too old fashioned. It went out of fashion ca 1950 I guess, and it has not come back in vogue ever since.

Anders E said...

A few books into their series, Sjöwall & Wahlöö would start using rather bizarre character names. Gunvald Larsson (Gunvald???) is just the start of it. Honest, a lot of the names used might as well have come from MAD magazine. It's a bit as if Ed McBain would have named some character Fonebone.

Don Donovan said...

Chili Palmer is one of the coolest names ever. So is Scarlett O'Hara. And so is Slim Dundee (CRISS CROSS by Don Tracy, made into the film noir with Burt Lancaster and Yvonne DeCarlo. Dundee was played by Dan Duryea).

I've had to dig deep for some of the character names in my novels, like Mambo, Sharma, and Bebop (a Jamaican drug dealer whose "real" name is Glenroy Charles).

My novel-in-progress is set in 1951 and, ironically, I named a character Violet, but she was born in 1898, so I felt it was appropriate. Another from that same novel is Doris, born in 1927.

BTW, Neil McCauley the Robert DeNiro character in HEAT) was a real person, a bank robber who was killed in a shootout with his cop nemesis, very similar to the movie.