Legends surrounding my birth abound. I’m sure I’ve even added to them at some point. I can confirm that I was born ten days late, but hey, the Kerr clan motto (Scottish on my mother’s side) is Sero Sed Serio (Late, But In Earnest), so I figure I was just following directions by overstaying my welcome and keeping mom up until 1:40 a.m. to bring me into the world. In fact, I was so indignant at being evicted from my nice, comfy womb with a view and being smacked unceremoniously on the behind that my first act as the youngest person on the planet was to poop on the doctor. At least you can say I made an entrance.
I can also confirm that my dad, who, upon hearing that afternoon that it would likely be a long labor, decided to head home until he got a call, filled out my “Notice of Birth Abroad” without consulting mom about what was going in the “Name” space on the form: Mary Alice. No middle name, as I was named after his favorite aunt (though I didn’t find that out until 22 years later, after all of my legal documents were incorrectly issued as Mary with Alice as my middle name. Heavy Sigh… Dad’s answer to that was “I’ve always called you Mary Alice.”).
I hated my name with a passion. Mom’s name was also Mary, but she had the coolest middle name ever: “Sonora”. But Mary was such a boring name. And why did I get stuck with Alice? Had I been a boy, as I was supposed to be (even the birth announcements dad sent out were a graph with a blue line going up and a red line going straight that announced “A deviation in plan…”), my name would have been Garrett Arthur, after mom’s maiden name and my paternal grandfather. How cool is that?
But no, I was a girl, and went to school with cool-named Kirstens and Malias and Elizabeths and Sherrys and got the whole “How does your garden grow?” and “Where’d you leave your little lamb?” taunts… And then to make it worse, two television shows got very popular in grade school…Gilligan’s Island and the Waltons…so that added “Hey Mary Ann, where’s Ginger?” and “Goodnight, Mary Ellen!” to the mix. Oh, how I desperately wanted a different name.
So, when I was particularly grumpy after a name-calling day in second grade, and mom asked why I was in a bad mood, I admitted that I hated my name. She said she hadn’t named me, that I was named after dad’s aunt. She also told me that, even though Mary is plain, having grown up with it herself and having faced the same problems, that Mary wasn’t a bad name…only four letters, easy to write, easy to spell. And I retorted that at least “Sonora” was cooler than “Alice”.
Her answer to that was that I should consider myself lucky, because I could have been named America Emmaline if she had gotten to the “Notice of Birth Abroad” first. Whether that was true, or whether she was making it up to make me feel better, I’ll never know. She sat with me as I thought it through. I thought the name would have been cool for about five minutes, then imagining what my classmates could do with “America Emmaline” shut me up. Can you even think how rotten it would be to have people yelling “Auntie Em Auntie Em” or “Miss America” all day? Shudder.
Though I didn’t complain anymore, I still wanted something different. About the only cool thing I could do was, when someone asked how to spell my last name (which also got messed up as all sorts of things like Wycliff, Whitehoff, and Writecliff – I kinda liked that one), I would say to spell it “Like the White Cliffs of Dover”. And so, in freshman year, I got my wish. A classmate who shall remain nameless wrote in my yearbook “Hey Dover, maybe you should try drinking diet Pepsi!” I had found my name, no matter how ungraciously it had been given, and never looked back.
So why are names so important to us as humans, and also important, as writers, to our characters? William Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” The Immortal Bard being who he was, I’d dead sure that we all would have been reading that play in high school even if the title characters had been called Gideon and Hortense, but still.
I read the most wonderful blog post by counting ducks that answers a part of the question: http://countingducks.wordpress.com/2013/07/11/whats-in-a-name/. It illustrates precisely what name means to character. You can tell exactly what kind of sweet, wonderful person Sunshine That Colours The Mist Margaret Potts is just from her name. Her deliberation at how to fill out the passport application and the reason she wishes to do so is a wonderful insight into her character and motivation. She would be a completely different person had the author named her Mary Margaret Potts.
Names do part of the work of building our characters. Because it’s the first thing about the character you generally read, the name sets the scene of the character if you will. When starting out, I didn’t realize the importance of meaning, so I chose names that sounded cool to me, only to find out later that the name meant something totally opposite to what I wanted to convey. I would go through the phone book (remember when we had those?) or pick names that were puns like “Red Pepper” and his sister “Cayenne”, or “Lee Ving Yu”.
Then, as I became more well read, I saw how other authors practiced their craft: Tolkien with his invention of languages and absolute meticulousness in everything linguistical, Robert Heinlein and Orson Scott Card in taking names into the future, Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword, and Beauty (both of which inspired me greatly with their take on names). I went out and invested in a bunch of different Baby Name books, so that I could be as careful with my own names. I even got a “New Age” baby name book for all those really esoteric names like Yuttciso (Lice thick on a chicken hawk) or Toloisi (Hawk tearing a gopher apart with his talons). Still looking for good places to use those two…
But it’s not only the meaning of names that can set your character. You can also use the name to compare and contrast the character’s profession. Take for example the characters in these absolutely awesome urban fantasy series. Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden is the only wizard in the Chicago phone book in The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, and is appropriately named after three magicians. In Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty Norville series, Kitty is a midnight DJ and also a werewolf. In Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series, Mercedes Thompson is a VW mechanic (and also a shape shifting coyote that kicks booty).
For a real writing challenge, have your character go on a name quest. I wrote a story about my Dungeons and Dragons character, Forrin, to get extra experience points. I took all of her birth names away at the beginning of the story. Fortunately, I chose to write it in first person or it could have really gotten messy. But having her find her own name based on her adventure was a great exercise and really got me into role playing her character.
And name stories are fun for things as well as people. In the same story, Forrin explains to the people she meets that even though she hasn’t earned her name yet, her weapons all have names. They’re all named Skippy. Everybody in my game group laughed at this, thinking I had followed my own trait of naming all my electronic devices Skippy (otherwise they might get jealous and stop working). But I explained it in the story differently.
Forrin’s grandmother came from our world (in a previous game), and brought with her two randomly rolled items: a combat knife and a jar of peanut butter. The jar was later used by her grandmother to put adventures in to tell the kids at bedtime… the Story Jar. My character took the name from the jar for her weapons so that they would help her to have adventures worthy enough to earn a place there.
Names may not make or break your stories, but they can certainly add depth to your characters. How a character feels about his or her name can be just as important as how you feel about yours. A character by any other name may not be the same character whose story you set out to tell.