Monday, December 9, 2019

What's in a name?

RHYS BOWEN: Tonight I was at my health club when a small boy ran into the locker room, pursued by his mother.

“Luca, come back here. Will you calm down,” she begged as he jumped on benches and generally ran amok.

“Luca, we need to get your swim trunks on. You’ll be late for your lesson, and you don’t want to upset your teacher, do you?” And so on.

I’m used to obnoxious children at my health club. Too many BMW driving helicopter parents live in Marin County. But this one hit home. I had planned to call an enigmatic and possibly romantic lead in my new book LUCA. Now this child has ruined it. Every time I see the name I’ll picture demon-Luca jumping off the benches as his mother tries to catch him.



I like the name. It’s just right for the man I want… but I’m not sure if I can use it now. So I’m curious, dear Reds and Readers: have your character names been colored by people you’ve known? Do names have negative or positive connotations based on your experiences? I know I’m really influenced that way. And I confess… I have named horrible evil characters after people I have disliked. I named a butler Huxtep, because my evil headmistress was called Miss Huxtep and I wanted to put her into the role of humble servant.

I have named mean girls in the Georgie books after mean girls of my childhood. I have also named good characters after people I have been fond of.

So what about you? Do you choose character names based on your life experience? Have you ever killed someone you detested in your books? Confession time!

HALLIE EPHRON: Yikes. This is reminding me, I named a villain in one of my novels after an old friend, and she was very put out about it. It never in a million years occurred to me that she’d be anything but flattered. Because I only name characters after people I like. And I didn’t know she’d turn out to be the villain when I started writing her.

So this has come up for me when naming my children. Names that I loved my husband had negative associations with so those names were out. Fortunately, he was very fond of his graduate school adviser whose name was Naomi, so we settled on that for one of my sweet baby girls.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: That is EXACTLY the problem! I often do auction names for charity--and the people start out as good--but then what can I do, they turn into bad. But whenever that happens, I just change the names to something totally fictional, and use the auction name elsewhere as a good guy.

As for real people as bad guys or villains,uh, no, I have never done that. I have chosen some names as secret signals only understood by me or my husband, but no one in the public would ever know. And I will never tell.

LUCY BURDETTE: I got into trouble in an early book (not the Key West series) when someone bid on his name in the book and I made the mistake of having him turn into an unsavory character. “What, he paid good money and now he’s a pedophile?” John asked. Which was really an exaggeration, but point taken.

I’ve also had the problem of wanting to give a real person a cameo as a special nod. Unfortunately, the name was Eric. So now there are three Erics in THE KEY LIME CRIME.

None of that helps you Rhys! I say use Luca, it’s a good name. If you can block the annoying people out of your mind!

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I just auctioned off a character name to benefit my church, so naming is very much on my mind. I did once give a villain a real person’s name because the real person was a real SOB. Never heard anything about it, which is not to say I’d do it again, especially nowadays, when it’s so easy to Google names in a book!

I often slip in the names of friends and family members for spear-carrier roles - people who need to have a name to keep track of or have one or two lines before they vanish off-stage. It gives me a warm feeling to see their names pop up as I’m working.

One of the things I have to check myself on when making up character names is not slapping the wrong-era name on someone. As I get older (groan) I find my conception of young people’s/ older people’s names is increasingly out of date. I started to name a young woman Heather, and then thought… wait a sec. I looked up the name’s popularity. Guess what? Most Heathers are in their early forties now. And grandmothers have names like Karen and Cathy and Joanne, not Doris and Phyllis.

JENN McKINLAY: Oh, yes, I have a very long list of people whose names are saved for my villains or victims or, in the case of my unrequited crushes, my heroes. I think naming characters can be very personal and I do use it to exorcise some demons. But I’ve noticed that my strongest stories arrive in my head with the names already locked in. My July book PARIS IS ALWAYS A GOOD IDEA, came with every single character already named - Chelsea, Colin, Jean Claude, Marcelino, Jason, Zoe, Glen, Sheri, and Annabelle. Honestly, that’s never happened before. I’m going to take it as a good sign.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Rhys, I think Luca is a wonderful name. Forget about that annoying little boy and use it anyway!

My problem is that I have a really hard time giving bad characters names that I like. Some names, however, are neutral, and can be either a good or a bad character. And sometimes characters arrive full-blown, like Jenn’s in her new book, and I CANNOT change their names!

Julia, I always look up age appropriate names, and UK appropriate, too. But you can sometimes squeeze in an older generation name as characters might be named after relatives. Also, names that seem really old-fashioned are suddenly becoming popular again. Our neighbors baby girl is named Clementine!

RHYS: Another complication now that my work is in so many languages is whether names have a good or bad feeling in that language. (Like the Chevvy NOVA in South America where no va means it won't go!) I've no way of knowing

So how about you? Are your perceptions of names colored by people you've met? Do character names present themselves, like Jenn's or do you sometimes find you've called someone by the wrong name?


44 comments:

  1. I know that my mom hated the name Arlene. She said it always sounded like a hooker's name.

    The name I've chosen for my character, should I ever write the book, comes from someone I know though changed. I dreamed up another character including name a few weeks back.

    I don't know if there's one single way for characters to be named. I'd guess it is just whatever works for the author.

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  2. Thanks for fixing the formatting, Hallie! Rhys, the only Luca I know is a very dreamy and hot local Italian cheesemaker. There can be more than one Luca in the world.

    My charity-named characters have never turned bad, thank goodness, although the first one I ever used surprised me by turning into an undercover DEA agent. The woman who donated the name loved that. Some of my ex-husband's unpleasant traits have definitely gone into villains, but I would never use his name - because my sons share it, and they read my books (but not this blog...).

    I love haunting cemeteries for late 1800s names - so many choices! Orpha, Huldah, Abial, Chloe (which sounds modern and isn't). I used my friend's great uncle's name in one book: Hilarius, and Barb Ross's ancestor Adoniram in another.

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  4. AM
    , Agreed, I always check the popular names to make sure they work. I also had a 15-year-old in 2002 to think about naming her daughter Dawson. Then I had to figure out whether in 2002, Dawson was used as a girl’s name. that is the math of naming!
    And here’s a double triple trouble: I also have to have a person change her name to something else, and there has to be a personal reason that she chooses her new name.
    OK then.
    But Rhys, I say go ahead and use Luca! You will give him a new personality.

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  5. Stick with Luca. Dynamite name.
    I delight in creating short story characters who have annoyed or wronged me in the past--either their physical attributes (a 40 year old with facial skin like an alligator hide) or names. One of my favorites is Miss Betty, an energetic community gardener and former elementary school teacher, who knows everything about everybody. Named for Mom.

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  6. Our darling DebRo is continuing to have a difficult time posting! But she is reading, and enjoying, and getting better… She is going to send me some comments and I will post for her!

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  7. I say go with Luca, lovely name.

    I can't imagine a greater compliment than being a character in a book. Those auctions are great but when the bidding gets into 4 figures, I bow out. $1500 will buy me book for a year, so I pretend that the odd Ann that might show up is named for me! Hero or villain, doesn't matter.

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  8. There is always someone who has to ruin everything, isn't there? I also say go ahead and use the name, Rhys. The reader has not had the name polluted by the bratty kid.

    Julia's comment made me think of the drawing class I just took. Seven women: two Karens, Linda, Barbara, Mary, Carol, and Nancy. When we were all introducing ourselves I said, "You can tell we were all born in the 40's and 50's!"

    Nancy Martin used my last name in a book, with a different first name. That was a sweet little Easter egg to stumble across when I read it. But Maslowski isn't one you can slip in just anywhere. Ann Mason, now, that's a good, solid name!

    Three friends' recent grandbabies are named Helen, nicknamed Hattie; Margaret, nicknamed Peg; and Olivia. All old-fashioned names. We also have two friends with daughters named June, short for Juniper. I love seeing the revival of actual first names, as opposed to surnames as first names, such as Cameron and Mackenzie, which was a trend for so long.

    Jay, your mom sounds like a hoot! My mother had a friend in the 60's named Arzella, aka Zell, and she was not a hooker, but far from an angel.

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    1. Karen,

      The funniest thing is that years later I coached a girl who's mom was named Arlene. It took acting skills of legendary proportions to not burst out laughing the first time I was introduced to her and learned her name. All because of what my mother thought.

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    2. I'm waiting for Edith to resurge! Hasn't happened yet. Eleanor, Harriet, those are all coming back. Edna and Ida, not so much...

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    3. Edith was my 3x great grandmother's name.

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  9. Luca is a name of one of Audrey Hepburn’s sons so I’d say use it. She was so glam! And I’ve not loved the name Kathleen since there was a bully in grade school with that name.

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    1. Pam, did we go to the same grade school? LOL

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    2. Yes, Audrey Hepburn has two sons, Sean Ferrer and Lucca Dotti.

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  10. Jim and Sally arrived with their names already chosen. Betty from my upcoming historical did, as well (after my grandmother, who inspired the character). But the others...not so much. I usually discover them as I write. The Social Security names database is my friend for what was popular when, especially historically. My problem is I usually wind up with three characters all who have names with the same initial and I have to go name-hunting.

    I've never auctioned a name, so I don't have that problem. And although I've used traits of horrible people for villains, I've never used their names.

    I say use Luca. It's a great name for a romantic lead.

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  12. Perhaps spending time with "Luca" in the setting of your story will help exorcise the demon version.
    Naming is tricky business, whether children, pets, or characters.
    You never know what association may pop up later.

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  13. Speaking from years of teaching, "demon" Luca may well grow up to be a very nice person. I've run into formerly difficult students who've made a point of telling me how much good they are doing as adults, which makes me feel our efforts were worthwhile. My only fictional revenge involved a horrible assistant principal, but I changed name and hair color, just to be safe. ;-)

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  14. Shalom Reds and fans. I like the name Luca. When I hear it, I first think “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes” from The Godfather. I think of a large man sitting by himself at the wedding rehearsing with his broken English, the felicitations which he intends to convey to Don Corleone. (I don’t know why they didn’t use subtitles and have them speak in Sicilian. Maybe that was how to the book was written.) I remember his assassination. I’ve only seen the film twice when it first was released but many if not most of the scenes of the entire movie are very clear in my mind.

    The other usage of the name (Luka) is Suzanne Vega’s song. In this case, I also have a very clear image of the scene even though I’ve never seen a music video if there even is one.

    My best friend’s younger son is named Luke but I’ve never heard him called Luca. Perhaps, Lukee, but not Luca. Luke is a Biblical name, so I think that’s where his name comes from.

    I have a great deal of trouble remembering names. Either, I meet someone new, and can’t for the life of me remember it seconds after they’ve told me. Or, someone I know well, and I can’t get the name off the tip of my tongue. The mnemonic device, which I sometimes use, is to try to picture in my mind the name written with Hebrew characters. Also, I try, linking the name with someone I know with the same name.

    When it comes to reading books, I have a great deal of trouble remembering names. I often have to scan back through the book to figure out “who is who?” That’s both non-fiction and novels.

    My middle name is Edward. And even though it was before my time, I always think of Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David. He was the English King who abdicated the throne 18 years before I was born. If my mother used my middle name, I knew that I was in trouble.

    I like my name David but for some reason, a bunch of my close friends and cohorts are also named David. Some go by Dave. And some people insist on calling me Dave.

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  15. Isn’t it funny how the old names we hated are now fashionable again? Can you imagine nicknames Hattie and Peg and lots of Emily’s, Lily, Sadie etc
    I love that the classic names never went out of style: Ann, Elizabeth, Charlotte etc

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    1. My great grandmother's name was Charlotte, and she was called Lottie. It's an ironic name for her, because we always called her "Little Grandma", and Charlotte translates to "little woman". She was very petite and trim, probably weighing no more than 90 pounds.

      With many, many grandchildren and great grandchildren, no one else was named after her, except our daughter Robin Charlotte. Who also turned out to be trim and petite.

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    2. A relative named her daughter Emily because when Emily was born, her older brother started kindergarten and he liked his classmate. He asked his parents if they could name the baby Emily after his friend in class. So now we have an Emily in our family.

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  16. I have to add that I have written whole books and then realized a name didn't work and changed it, only to be previewing the audio version and hear the narrator use the old name (just once). How the heck did that slip in there and why didn't anyone (me included) catch it? ACK!

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    1. I’ve done that too, Jenn, or been halfway through and the character says “ why do you keep calling me Dan when my name is Mark?” And I say sorry and everything goes smoothly thereafter

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    2. Sometimes I find myself confusing two characters while reading a novel. Sometimes I cannot tell the difference.

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  17. I have a prejudice against the name Tammy. I've never met a Tammy I liked. Sorry if any of you are Tammys! For the longest time I didn't like the name James. In fourth grade there was a James in my class: not Jim or Jimmy. James. He was the biggest slob I ever saw. The teacher had to force him to clean out his desk several times a year. It took Sean Connery and James Bond to break my dislike of that name.

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  18. Names matter, and if I come across an unpleasant name it can really throw me off. Rhys: I really don't like the name Luca, and I'm not sure why, but it sounds sinister to me. Might be fine for a bad guy.

    Joe Gores put me in one of his books as a bad guy and I was fine with that. I like his books so much I was happy to be there in any role!

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    1. I always ask my name winners what they’d like to be. Some like being villains

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    2. Actors like playing villains because it is more fun than being good.

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  20. I called my kids by the wrong names and there were only two. And God help you if you call your husband by some other husband's name. Anyway, I did an auction and made the character a cop. Figured they'd like that. Will find out in the spring.

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  21. My husband used to yell”Clare, Anne, Jane what’s your name?” To his daughters

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    1. My mom ran through all of our names and the dog's too before she'd get to the one she wanted.

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    2. My grandmother had six daughters. I lived with her for awhile when I was young, and she would run through all six before she got to my name. By then she forgot what she wanted me for!

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  22. Huh. Looks like the comment I posted early this morning got lost in the reformat.

    Go with Luca if the name feels right, Rhys. It's a lovely name despite the demon child. And I think, based on recent headlines, that anybody who writes British books is probably duty-bound to name a character Nigel some day soon. The name seems to be dying out, and is much too fine a name to go extinct. I had a very sweet dog named Nigel once, so I have a soft spot for Nigels.

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    1. when I was in England, I met a Nigel and his Danish wife.

      Nigel is a good name.

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  23. Rhys, I wonder how the world looks to that little boy. Lucca is a good name. Maybe you can name (in your mind) that little kid the gremlin like the movie the Gremlins (they look cute but are very mischevious).

    Yes, I have named murder victims who were people that I detested like that NBC tv station chief (in DC) who discriminated against my brilliant friend who was an excellent cameraman because my friend is Deaf. Not cool to discriminate against people who face physical challenges or any kind of challenges. This cameraman friend found ways to compensate for his Deafness and in my opinion, he did very well.

    Rhys, I am laughing at the naming the evil headmistress as a humble servant - the Butler in your books.

    Diana

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  24. Rhys, what a shame about your experience with the boy Luca. It's such a great name. Of course, you still have one of the best names, one of my favorites, for a character in Lady Georgiana/Georgie. I adore that name. I'm looking forward to seeing what name you decide on.

    I do love a great name in reading, like Lady Georgie or Flavia de Luce, Atticus Finch, Holly Golightly, Katniss Everdeen, Sherlock Holmes, and so many more. I am not going to go down that rabbit hole today. But, I will say that the Reds always manage to have great names, too, and not annoying names that I have to decide how I'm going to pronounce. That's my one gripe about names in books, ones that look like they could be pronounced more than one way. It interferes with my focus. I've even listened to an audio excerpt before to clear up the question so I could get on with a book.

    Naming one's children is an adventure for sure. With our daughter Ashley, we had that name picked out, and we'd only heard of one other Ashley. Did we ever get a shock when it turned out multitudes of other parents were liking that name, too. With our son Kevin, we had a hard time deciding. I'd think of a name I liked and my husband had a bad association with it, and vice versa. When we came to the name Kevin, neither of us could think of a negative connection, so Kevin he became.

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  25. Keep Luca! It's such a nice sounding word, and it works for a good or evil character. You can write a terrific one and will banish the obnoxious child from your mins. Names are always fun to think about. I have never used real person, but I have learned from real people how much a name tells about the character's background in just a second - generation, social origin, ethnicity. Italian trying to Americanize Philomena with Phyllis, East European Jews doing the same with Rachel to Rose...and how the grandkids went back to Rachel. The man with three names and a Roman numeral probably does not have a brother named Billy Joe. ( and if he does, we know there is a story) and how names that about disappeared for one generation come back down the road. IN time for a 20 year old character? A 40 year old? Very fun.

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  26. Luca is a great name! And it sounds perfect for your character. I know what you mean though - I could never name a female character Maureen (not that that name comes up much anymore) or Jeffrey...As I was saying. Good thing we can Google "modern" names.

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  27. <- I second that:
    Luca is an awwwsome name.

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