Thursday, September 26, 2013

What's in a name?

I first read The Great Gatsby in college. My literature teacher dissected everything about the book, including why F. Scott Fitzgerald selected the names for his characters. I remember wondering at the time if my teacher was simply guessing or had the train of thought he attributed to Fitzgerald been on track or off the rails.

When selecting names for my characters I give it considerable thought. One factor that always influences me is the people I knew by whatever name I am considering. If I was to name a character Hilda, she would probably be a sweet, kind hearted person like my grandma Hilda, whereas another writer might think of Broom-Hilda, the green cartoon witch who smoked cigars, chased men and drank beer.

I’m currently working on two new Coulson books, Coulson’s Wife, and another that has no title yet.

In Coulson’s Wife two of the main male characters were initially named Randall and Robert. I gave Randall’s character his name when I wrote Lessons in the mid-90s, so there was no changing that name. I felt Robert fit his character, and so did my beta readers.

However, one beta reader had serious reservations. Was Robert and Randall too similar, would it confuse readers? Afraid she might have a point, I decided to change his name. After much back and forth, we decided William would fit the character.

The other day I told my mother I decided to go with William. Mom is like me in that she relates names to people she once knew. 

Mom, who is 85 years-young then related a memory of a William she once knew when she was in elementary school. Apparently this William was always getting into some sort of mischief. One day, during show-and-tell, he brought to class a very explicit book (with illustrations) on making babies and childbirth.

Apparently the teacher was not paying attention, allowing her mind to wander to more interesting thoughts while young William stood before the classroom sharing his fascinating book. I imagine the teacher finally noticed something was funny, when the class was so quiet, and the kids were sitting on the edge of their seats.

It did not end well for poor William. Once the teacher figured out what was going on, the principal was called, and William was taken outside and given a severe paddling. Mom said as she and her classmates sat in the classroom, they could hear young William wailing in pain. 

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