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Names and the namers who name them

Posted on April 6th, 2010 by annakjarzab

I just read this post author Alex Flinn put up on her blog about choosing names for characters, which I thought was really interesting and got me thinking about why and how I name characters what I name them, so I thought I’d throw in my two cents.

I have owned the same baby name book for 10+ years (probably closer to twelve). It’s called The Last Word on First Names, which makes very little sense as the authors, Pamela Redmond Satran and Linda Rosencrantz, went on to write several other books about baby names, so really it’s not the last word on first names. And it’s actually not the best baby name book in the world–I would really prefer if it told you what the meaning was behind all of the names, not just some of them. Mostly it’s just the authors’ commentary on the names, putting them in a contemporary context (although, you know, contemporary circa 1997, which is no longer contemporary), talking about popularity and literary/historical context, etc. It’s useful in many ways, and quite the crack up. The entry for Hortense just says “No,” which is still a big joke with my sister and I (who knows why).

One might ask why I purchased a baby names book (because I definitely purchased it with my own dollars) at age thirteen or fourteen–obviously, I was not considering having a child, and there were no siblings on the way. I bought it because I was a writer and needed a naming resource, considering the Internet, though it had been invented (thanks Al Gore!), wasn’t really the intense repository of information that it is today. I read that thing cover to cover like a novel, and it shows–its pages are ripped and creased and tea stained beyond what is normal. I used it for a really long time. Now I use the Internet, in the form of Behind the Name, which was actually a website my mother told me about (she’s very hip to the jive). It’s very useful, especially when I want to name peripheral characters–I usually go for names that were on the top 100 lists in the year that the characters were ostensibly born (usually about fourteen to eighteen years prior to the year in which I’m writing the book, which I guess now is about 1993/1994 or so), because they have them for every year post-1990 and for every decade before that until the late 1800s.

I tend to be attracted to classic names myself, especially for boys–saints names, basically. Your Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Michael (although even I have to admit that one’s pretty played out), James, Thomas, Christopher, Stephen, Joseph, Anthony, William, etc. With girls, I tend to be the same way. I like how old fashioned names are coming back into style–Ruby, Mary, Emma, etc.

But if you look at what I’ve written recently, you can tell that my personal preferences for actual human children living in the flesh and blood world (especially ones that might someday carry my genetic material) are a little different than the names I actually use in my books. The characters in All Unquiet Things have rather odd names, most of them. Neily’s name sort of comes from a teacher I had in high school, an English teacher that I really liked, and that was her last name, although spelled differently. If you look up the way she actually spells her name, Neely, it means “son of the poet” in Gaelic. I thought that was rather appropriate for Neily, actually. I don’t know why I changed the spelling, but I did decide that “Neily” was actually short for Neiland, which was his mother’s maiden name. I knew a girl in high school who shared her middle name with her brother, and it was their mother’s maiden name. I thought that was kind of interesting, but I took it one step further and Neily was born. I’ve thought about Neily’s name and what it means for him a lot. When my editor acquired my manuscript, she suggested changing his name, thinking it might be too effeminate, a criticism that I understood because I’d recently read The Valley of the Dolls and there was a main female character in that book named Neely. But in the end I was so attached I didn’t want to change it, and she was fine with that. The thing about Neily’s name being a little effeminate, and probably too young for him, is that that is a part of his story. When he was younger, he was sort of a shy, lonely kid that everyone treated like he was a baby. The diminutive form of his name shows just how small and besides the point he felt all the time growing up. He really should just go by Neil, and I think that if he thought he could get people to call him Neil he would, but he knows that would never happen. In the “sequel” I started writing post-AUT, just as a little diversion and a place to put my ideas for where the characters would be in six or seven years, Neily has changed his name to Neil–he’s gotten away from Empire Valley and everybody who knows him as “Neily” and he takes advantage of that to forge a new identity. Except then he goes back to Empire Valley and of course Neily resurrects, even though he tries to maintain his new Neil identity.

Audrey’s name is simple; it’s my grandmother’s (father’s mother’s) name. But it’s a little old fashioned, although I personally think it’s really beautiful. However, I was not as plugged in to the YA community as I am now, and if I’d known how big of a resurgence Audrey was going to have in mainstream fiction, I’d probably have thought about changing it (and then I probably would’ve decided not to change it, because I like things the way I like them and I’m stubborn like that). That’s really the most thought I ever gave to the name Audrey, but it  means “noble strength”, which I like a lot and think describes my Audrey pretty well.

Carly…I don’t really remember how she got that name. She’s had it so long it’s all receded into the mists of antiquity. I do know that I went to school with a lot of Carlys/Karlys when I was a kid, mostly popular girls who didn’t like me. It’s not actually a name I particularly like all that much, it just seemed to fit her and I cannot imagine her being named anything else. It’s hard to pin down what Carly actually means; according to Behind the Name, it’s the feminine form of Carl, which is the Germanic form of Charles, which means either “man” or “army, warrior.” But according to BabyNames.com, it’s the diminutive form of Carlotta, which means “free.” I think both of those meanings are interesting when reflecting on the way Carly behaves in the novel and what her ultimate resting state is, emotionally speaking. It’s interesting to think about, but not my main intention when naming her that.

Wow, are those names so ingrained in my head. I’m moving on, though, to other books and other characters. My three main characters in Untitled Book 2 are Will, Jacie and Robbie. I really like the name William; apparently it means “strong willed warrior,” which Will is…not, really, although he is decidedly persistent, which you have to give him credit for. Jacie is a name I’m surprised I picked, honestly–it feels trendy and slightly made up to me, and I’m not into the trendiness. But her full name just sort of popped into my head all at once: Jacie Fisher. I didn’t even consider a different spelling (Jacey, which I guess is the accepted spelling, would be one option). Baby Names says it’s a shortened form of Jacinda, which means “hyacinth”, but I never for a moment considered that her name might be Jacinda. Her family is not the type to name a daughter Jacinda. Usually I’m very, very against naming children nicknames instead of full names, but it definitely would not have fit for Jacie to have any other given name than exactly that. Rob/Robbie is named after Robbie Turner from Atonement. They don’t have, like, a ton in common, but there are similarities. I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I’ve ever named a fictional character after another fictional character. And it’s not like Robbie’s mother named him after Robbie Turner from Atonement–I did. Because of my love for James McAvoy, OBVS.

2007_atonment_006

And now that I have another WIP in the works (that’s kind of redundant, huh?), I have a slew of new names, especially since what I’m working on has a lot of characters. I have some old school names, some nickname-y names, some nice normal names, and a name I just pretty much made up. For this one, I just started pulling names I liked or from people I knew/had met. The fun thing about being a writer is that your characters tell you who they are. Would I ever have named my daughter Jacie? No. It’s a perfectly lovely name, but I would never pick it for a child of mine–it’s not my aesthetic. But Jacie is totally a Jacie, no two ways about it. Neily is most definitely a Neily. In a way they choose their own names.

4 Responses to “Names and the namers who name them”

Kim on April 8th, 2010 at 7:01 pm Said:

What does it say next to Maverick? “Best Name Ever”?

Kim on April 8th, 2010 at 7:02 pm Said:

What does it say next to Maverick? “Best name ever and Kim should definitely name her first child this”?

annakjarzab on April 8th, 2010 at 7:36 pm Said:

Um, no Kim. Next to Maverick, it says, “THIS IS NOT A REAL NAME, KIM, AND BY NO MEANS SHOULD YOU NAME YOUR ACTUAL HUMAN CHILD AFTER A TOM CRUISE CHARACTER, AND ALSO LET ME REMIND YOU THAT TOM CRUISE IS A CYBORG.” It’s sort of judgy, to be honest.

Kim on April 10th, 2010 at 3:17 am Said:

LOL

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