I skirted this topic a few months ago in my post, A Cat by Any Other Name. But today I want to talk less about pets or real people and more about the characters who keep us glued to a story. Just how important is their name to the reader?
I like to think that most readers are like me. When I encounter a name I don’t personally care for or one I can barely pronounce, I imprint it visually on my brain so I can glide right past it. I recognize who the character is, but I don’t even pronounce the name in my brain anymore. I think I first learned this habit reading Dr. Seuss and it may be what trips me up when I try to read pure fantasy books.
But I’ve been tripped up by contest judges, reviewers and even my editor, who has questioned some of my character name choices. I had one literary agent reject LYING EYES because “even the character names are clichés.” Well, um, yeah. If you read the story, it’s pretty far-fetched and a little cartoon-y. I chose character names that fit that world. Cosmo Fortune the magician, Iris the heroine and owner of Lying Eyes, Mickey the petty thief, Jock and Pebbles the not-so-bright thugs, and Justin Hunter the cop seeking justice. Maybe they are clichés, but they were selected with reason.
My editor had a bias against men’s names that ended with -y sounds. She wanted me to change Mickey to Mick. Actually, Mickey is his undercover name. Truth to tell, I don’t care for the name Mickey at all. The character’s real name is Michael. But trying to change him to Mick made him sound too British for my Las Vegas setting. And it also sounded too much like Nick. And this may be a personal bias of mine, but I’ve read dozens of books with heroes named Nick.
In a recent review of AMBERSLEY, the reviewer felt the need to point out that Regency period characters would never name their children Amber or Derek. Well, for the record, my heroine is named Amber after her father’s estate (an estate she cannot inherit), and she then goes through the book known and commonly referred to as Johanna, her middle name. Okay, admittedly, Derek wasn’t common in early 19th century, gaining prominence in late 19th century, according to The Cassell Dictionary of Names (a great resource, btw). Here’s another case where I actually hate my hero’s name. But I tried for years during revision to find another name for him and he refused to allow it.
You see, that’s the thing with characters. Eventually they become so real in our minds that we can’t just railroad them with our opinions. They start to talk back—a bit annoying, really. But that’s when you know you have a character worthy of demanding a story.
I’m working on PORTMAN SQUARE right now, the second book in my Lords of London series. I’ve known all along that Harry would fall in love with St. John Trevarthan’s sister. In early drafts, I named her Marianne. But as I got down to the serious writing and developing all the characters and relationships, I couldn’t quite rid myself of my association with the name Mary Ann–you know, the cute castaway on Gilligan’s Island. I tried for over a week to rename this character. Miranda was my first choice, but I’ve actually got a story plotted with a Miranda heroine, and I don’t want to go changer her name. Then I thought of Melicent, and I even tested it in a number of scenes. But it was no good. While I’m not crazy about the sound of “Harry and Marianne,” this heroine is solid enough in my mind that I cannot change her name.
So, tell me, do you notice character names? Do you care whether you like them or don’t? Do you make automatic associations with names? Are there names you feel are overused?