Naming the characters in my next book
You’ve heard of Dennis Lehane, right? Since he’s a home town boy, my local press is all over him. So I wasn’t surprised to hear tv reports that his dog, Tessa (yup, that’s her pictured above), had disappeared on Christmas Eve and that he was offering to name a character in his next book after whoever gave him information leading to its return.
This isn’t a new concept. I’ve often auctioned off naming rights to the highest bidder at charity auctions. But that isn’t how I choose most of my names.
Remember back in November when I blogged about writing the proposal for my next book? At the time, I talked about Caroline and Jamie, mother and daughter, who would be the leads in the book. That hasn’t changed. Why Caroline and Jamie? First and foremost, rhythm. Seriously. There’s variation in syllables and sounds, yet they flow together. Second, they’re easy to pronounce. Ever read a book whose main character’s name you don’t know how to pronounce? Talk about a distraction from the story. Caroline and Jamie? No questions here. Moreover, Caroline has the regal sound that I wanted for this mom, who is a carpenter but a total role model and, yes, in her tank top and cut-offs, an elegant woman. Jamie has a softer, more gentle and vulnerable sound to me, which was what I wanted for this character, whose actual life has been nose-to-the-grindstone work focused.
Back in November, though, I was using Roy as the name for three pivotal male characters – as in, Roy Sr., Roy Jr., and Roy III. Family is important to this book, and these guys are part of a multi-generational family business. Then I started writing, and, whoa, was it cumbersome. If it’s cumbersome to write, how in the devil can I expect you all to comfortably read it? Still, I wanted the family connection. It seemed like something these MacAfees would do. So, blending their needs with yours, I made the grandfather Theodore – Theodore MacAfee – which sounds patriarchal enough. Roy Jr. became plain old Roy, which is brief and blunt and so fits the character. And Roy III, barely two years old? He’s now named after his grandfather Theodore, but called Tad. Say the names aloud. Theodore, Roy, and Tad. Does it work for you?
Another character is named Brad and another Chip. What do these names connote to you? And Dean? Oh wow, Dean. I don’t care how old you are, you’ve surely heard of James Dean. Then again, some of you may be thinking Dean Martin. Sorry. He’s not my model.
I used to keep books of babies’ names for use in picking the names of my characters. Now I use http://www.ssa.gov/oact/babynames/. The government lists popular baby names by year, meaning that if I have a thirty-year-old character, two clicks and I have a list of the names most often used in that year. Is this important? To me it is. I want my characters to be age-appropriate. Like with the pronunciation issue, this makes it easier for the reader to correctly picture the character.
Unisex names don’t work ultra-well for me, though some would argue that Jamie can go either way. Any question in the reader’s mind should be quashed on the first page, when she steps out of her car wearing a silk blouse, pencil skirt, and heels. From the get-go, she is feminine.
Last names are a whole other issue. The sports page? The obituaries? The telephone book? Your call (no pun intended). Here, too, I consider ease of pronunciation. Spelling, too. Too complex, and the pronunciation is shot.
What’s your favorite name? What characteristics does it suggest? Want me to use it?
Tessa’s a great name. I’ve always loved it. I’m debating including a dog in the new book, probably because I miss Bear (from Sweet Salt Air) so much. Bear was, well, a bear of a dog. What would I name this new one.
BTW, to my knowledge, Dennis Lehane doesn’t yet have his Tessa back. Last I heard, he was told to take down all the naming-rights notices he had tacked to trees and utility poles. Apparently, they violated town by-laws. Wise crime novelist that he is, he gave up without a fight. Perhaps you’ve seen Tessa, though? My guess is Dennis would still use your name in a book. 🙂