March 30, 2014

What’s in a name?

I love being an author. Thank you, Random House for picking me up when I stuck out my thumb looking to hitch a ride. I love everything about the gig. When I meet with fellow story tellers and hear complaints about writer’s block or an abandonment by their muse, I’m afraid I can’t relate. There’s always some plot cooking in my head…some character just itching to tell me their side of things. I even enjoy the revising and editing process: putting my work out there to beta readers and manuscript editors to tear apart. There is, however, one part of writing that drives me nuts. A chink in my literary armor. A thorn in my fabulist side.


I can’t do ’em. At least not well.  Run me through an x-ray. Like Adam’s rib, you’ll find I’m missing the naming bone.

Names are important. They speak volumes about the character without much ink. Cruella DeVille and Gordon Gecko could never be thought of as romantic dreamers, could they? Before you were exposed to the earliest expositional hint of their characters you knew they were up to no good. Tess Trueheart is someone you’d trust babysitting your new puppy without checking references, right? Names are one of the most valuable tools an author has…and it’s missing from my belt.

When I was writing The Fixer I sat my sweetie down and told him I needed a name for the lead detective. I wanted it to be one strong syllable. I needed all the grit and steel of secure masculinity to punch the reader in the gut . Without hesitation he said, “Mort”. Of course he was swigging Diet Coke at the time. I’ll never know if Mort was born of consideration or a quick burp, but I liked it and Mort Grant became one of my favorite characters. Flash forward to an early book signing. The erudite woman introducing me very graciously raved about the book. She gushed about how darkly human the  story  was…so imbued with the ever-present existential threat. “Even the detective’s name, ‘Mort’, signals that death is ever with us,” she said. I smiled. I’m not that deep, I thought.

I just have a tough time with names.

When I gave the first draft of The Fixer to my agent, she asked me if I’d been frightened by the letter M as a child. It seems that nearly two-thirds of my characters had names that began with M and I hadn’t even noticed it. In addition to Mort, I had Meaghan and Michael and Monica and Marie. There were lesser characters names Margie and Millie. One of the dogs was named Mitzi. She warned of reader confusion. That’s when I discovered the genius of Words’ search-and-replace.

I name characters after family and friends. I always  have to be careful of who I kill off. I want neither bad mojo nor irate phone calls from some cousin wondering what she did to deserve being stabbed in the eye by a serial killer. I keep the Sunday obituary pages on file. I’ll grab the first name of one person and combine it with the last name of another. I don’t mean to offend. I like to think of it as a little immortality for the dearly departed.

Names take on personalities based on my experiences with identically named people. Any character I name Barbie will always have to be bright and warm and extremely dear because that’s the essence of the Barbie I know. Any Joe in my book will always be intelligent and kind. Likewise, I’ll never, ever name a character Karen or Melinda or Melissa (hmmm…more M’s!). Those names have cost me too much.

So help me out, dear reader. I need names. For heroes and for bad guys. For victims and for bystanders. Tell me what names will always bring a smile to your face and which ones will always make you cringe.

You know what I’m talking about. Romeo and Brunhilda just doesn’t work, does it?