Last week we pondered picturing our characters, and today we’re noodling about naming with author Lynn Kanter. How do you name your characters? Mine tend to arrive with name tags, meaning, I don’t get a choice. It was like that for Noah, Izzy Lane’s five-year-old son in The Good Neighbor. It was that way for Izzy’s eighty-five-year-old next-door-neighbor, Mrs. Feldman. But Izzy’s name was chosen by me. Sort of. The Good Neighbor is very loosely inspired by Christmas In Connecticut, a 1945 movie whose main character is Elizabeth Lane. That’s my main character’s name: Elizabeth Lane. Izzy is her nickname. To choose that nickname I Googled—you guessed it—nicknames for Elizabeth (there are so many). I also use the Social Security site for naming characters in line with the time and place a character was born. But more likely than not, they just tap me on the shoulder (or push me down) and tell me what their names are. I have more stories about the characters’ names in The Good Neighbor, but I’ll save those for another time!
How do you name your characters?
Please welcome Lynn to Women’s Fiction Writers, learn about her naming journey with her current novel, and add your stories to the comments!
Naming Your Fictional Characters
by Lynn Kanter
Novelists know this struggle intimately. We have to name every character in every book. Sometimes we get it wrong. Really wrong. Like I almost did with my newly published novel, HER OWN VIETNAM.
The book took me more than a decade to write. The main character – a nurse who served in Vietnam – is Della Brown. I named her sister Rosalie.
In a plot twist I could not have invented, my eventual publisher was also Rosalie – the writer/publisher Rosalie Morales Kearns. And she didn’t think a major character should be named after her.
So I decided it would be fun to run a contest and ask readers of my blog and Facebook page to suggest a new name for my character. People wrote in with amazing suggestions – 78 in all. Here’s how I selected a name out of all those options.
My choice was guided in part by writing issues. The new name had to have the same number of syllables and the same stress pattern as Rosalie, so it would not disrupt the rhythm of the sentences in which the original name appeared. It also had to sound good with the names of other characters in the book, and be appropriate for the character’s age, gender, race, class, region of the country, etc.
The name had to feel right to me. It had to convey strength, and it couldn’t be a name I associate with a real person. Among the suggestions were the names of my grandmother, my best friend’s mother, several friends, and an ex-girlfriend. Can you see why this might be problematic?
I finally selected a name that my publisher and I loved: Caroline Brown. I announced it on Facebook and my blog. I trumpeted the name of the contest winner who had suggested Caroline.
The next day, I had to take it all back.
Why? Because my book has another major character whose name is Charlene. And while the names Caroline and Charlene sound nothing alike, on the page they look very similar.
The reason I didn’t notice this immediately will seem ridiculous to anyone who doesn’t write fiction (and to most people who do). It’s because in the world of the novel, Caroline and Charlene never meet.
I had thought about all the people in Rosalie/Caroline’s life, what their names were, what nicknames they might have for her. But I forgot to think about the people who were not in her life, but were still in the book.
Luckily, I had 77 other names to consider. I chose Rosalind.
As in Rosalind Russell. And Rosalind Ashford of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. And the scientist Rosalind Franklin, whose crucial role in understanding DNA was ignored and erased, while male colleagues Watson and Crick won Nobel prizes for research they based on her discoveries.
I was embarrassed by my public mistake, but I kept my word. All three people who had suggested either Caroline or Rosalind won the contest, and I thanked them in the book’s acknowledgements.
If you read HER OWN VIETNAM, you’ll get to meet Rosalind Brown and, I hope, grow to love her. But just between us, I still miss Rosalie.
Lynn Kanter is the author of the novels Her Own Vietnam (2014, Shade Mountain Press), The Mayor of Heaven (1997) and On Lill Street (1992), both published by Third Side Press. She is a lifelong activist for feminist and other progressive causes, and has the T-shirts to prove it. Since 1992 Lynn has worked as a writer for the Center for Community Change, a national social justice organization. She lives with her wife in Washington, DC.
You can purchase HER OWN VIETNAM here: http://www.shademountainpress.com/lynnkanter.php It’s also available at Amazon and BN and all the usual book places online!
Want to learn more about Lynn Kanter?
Goodreads page for Her Own Vietnam
Goodreads author page