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    Bridge Ladies Sometimes I think a meteor could strike the earth and wipe out mankind with the exception of my mother’s Bridge club — Roz, Bea, Bette, Rhoda, and Jackie — five Jewish octogenarians who continue to gather for lunch and Bridge on Mondays as they have for over fifty years. When I set out to learn about the women behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, and most of all the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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They Call Me Her

Have you ever met a couple who are about to have a baby and haven’t yet picked out the name, claiming they can’t give the kid a name until they see it? You know, he may not look like a Bobby or Billy. He might be a Preston or a Chandler. Personally, I don’t get it. A newborn basically looks like Mr. Potato Head without the mustache. But whatever it is these parents think they are seeing before they brand their infant forever is akin to work of a novelist trying to name his main characters. You have to know something about your character before you can give him a name.

When I think about some of my favorite names from fiction, it’s pretty clear why they work. The names themselves hold a key to the character’s identity: Dick Diver, Augie March, Jo March, John Self, Oscar Wao, Mrs. Dalloway, Hazel Motes, Esther Greenwood, Lily Bart, Rabbit Angstrom, Nathan Zuckerman, Anna Karenina. They are memorable. How they sound, what they mean, imply, or infer. What is in a name? Everything.

How do you come up with names for your characters. What makes a name memorable? What are you favorite names?

23 Responses

  1. You’ve really gotta stop writing what I’m thinking. In lamaze, one couple told us they wanted to “meet” their baby first. I accidentally laughed outloud.

    My problem is I can’t remember how I come up with my character’s names. The story is dependent on it but I can’t remember how/when it came once it has.

  2. Dorothea Brooke, Pecola Breedlove, Lisbeth Salander, Seymour Glass, John Rechy’s youngman, Pip, George and Lenny, Candace “Caddy” Compson, Benji and Quentin. Surnames or given, formal or place holder, names describe where our characters come from and where they might be going.

    I start with the person in the world who most has my charactor’s dna, then I write them into another.

    Great topic.

  3. While doing research for my novel The Librarian of Ponary Wood I found a reference to the fact that Lenin use the pseudonym Jacob Richter when he used the British Library. So I used the name for a key character – loved it both as a name and as a sneaky reference to hidden identity.

  4. Compared to naming my babies, naming my characters is dead-easy. Two of my babies have been “baby boy” for over 24 hours after birth and only got named because we had to tell people what to call them.

    (BTW, if I wanted want to “meet” my baby first to see what name fit, I would have ended up with Peanut Dumpling. We just couldn’t find a name we liked for nine straight months, and all discussions would devolve into laughter and ridiculous suggestions like Hrothgar Gawain.)

    The characters do tend to pick up names as they form, though. A name will pop in while their personalities are forming, and it all swirls up together at once. Last names are usually more problematic, but I keep an old Queens phone directory on hand because it’s the best compendium of international surnames I could ever imagine.

  5. Naming my kid, naming my characters…EASY.

    Coming up with the perfect title? I’d rather stick a fork in my eye.

    A rusty, dull fork.

  6. I have a love/hate relationship with naming my titles. Love the process, hate that I can’t move on with the story until the name clicks. It’s like love, you know it when you feel it.

    Finding characters names was almost just like naming my kids, except hey, no joking around please–these are my characters. So while my daughters had temporary names like ‘Doctor’ and ‘President’ no such joshing with my paper girls. And with my characters, I didn’t consider dead relative names.

    Methods:–tons of baby name books, going on baby naming sites, and the Social Security Administration . SSA has a terrific site showing top 500 names by year.

  7. We were all set to name our guy Henry — a jolly, ruddy, easy-going name — when he came out long and slender with a secretive, turned-down mouth and tragic eyes. NOT a Henry.

    I often give characters a provisional name and then change it when it doesn’t fit anymore.

    One time I misread a name on a funeral home and pictured a character fully formed. Never did find the right story for her, dammit…

  8. Needing a code name for my WWII hero in a hurry, I chose my sister’s cat’s name — Frost. As the writing continued, the name became integral to a top secret network. So fun how it all began with such whimsy.

  9. My characters tell me what to call them and I usually go with that. However, one character morphed from slimeball to good guy and now I’m stuck with his original name. To change it would be like renaming a child just as he was about to be bar mitvahed. As for titles, I’m with Lola on the dull, rusty fork in the eye. My current work has had I think five titles. For the time being, the title is simply the name of the narrator.

  10. Van Veen.

  11. Two fabulous names I would love to use in a book – Sawney Bean and Christie Cleek. Both are historical cannibals, but I can’t get the names out of my head.

  12. Ellsworth Toohey.

  13. I named a character Rue and the story went nowhere. I renamed her Molly and the story took off. Rue was depressed; Molly is funny. After writing for a while, I discovered Molly’s name is really Mary Olivia–she’s a southern girl–but she doesn’t share that info with anyone but Social Security and the IRS. Meantime, Julia became Jo became Stephanie became Claudia. She’ll probably stop there.

  14. ‘They call me Ishmael’

  15. Myrtle Kootzmeier.

  16. I wish I could put into words some kind of process for naming characters, but hell if I know how I come up with their monikers. It’s really more that their personalities dictate the name, as you begin to suggest.

  17. I try to come up with names that fit their personalities. I don’t know how it works but I definitely know when it is not working. The name just sounds WRONG. Whenever I type it, I cringe. Whenever that happens I usually just wait for the character to tell me what the name is (and I realize that makes me sound crazy!).

  18. Denis Johnson’s “Fuckhead” works for me.

    Also, Travis Bickle.

    And Katie Scarlett O’Hara.

    For tv, everybody names characters after their friends or their bosses. (Just a little bit of trivia.)

  19. Long-time lurker, first-time commenter. You have an amazing blog, Betsy.

    Much of my fiction is set during or after 1933-45 and is in some way connected to the Holocaust. For this work, I’ve often returned to a volume compiled by Serge Klarsfeld, “French Children of the Holocaust: A Memorial” (NYU Press, 1996). Not all of the children listed there were French by birth; many belonged to families that had sought refuge in France from other European countries. I’ve often selected first and/or last names from this book for my characters. It has seemed a way to honor and memorialize the individuals and families who were lost. Similarly, I’ve often gone back into my own family history to come up with character names.

  20. What I’m working on now has characters based on real people. I took their names and put them into a baby name search and it gave me other names that “match” the original name either for meaning or origin. Worked like a charm. I sometimes almost slip and call the real people by their character names.

    Oh, and for a couple of them, I used the names of two of our cats.

    I love the name Nathan Zuckerman, too. Enough so that I named my son Nathan.

  21. My responses might be much different tomorrow or next week, but at the moment some of the names I’m fondest of come from English drama. A few examples come quickly to mind: Supervacuo, from The Revenger’s Tragedy, by Middleton (the play abounds in other deliberately label-like names, such as Vindice for the revenger, but nothing tops Supervacuo)… Sir Fopling Flutter, from George Etherege’s Man of Mode… Perdita, abandoned as a baby in Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale.

    I’ll echo Betsy in saying that Lily Bart is a more recent name I like a lot. There’s more than one implication in her association with the lily (spoiler alert): along with more familiar meanings, it’s connected with death.

    I’ll stop there. I could spend an hour recalling others.

  22. Just yesterday I was choosing a name for my main character. I like unusual names but not for every character in a story. There has to be a balance. Hopefully. my main character’s name to be memorable. Last names, are always a struggle. I usually check out the obituary column or the phone book.

  23. I love reading this blog. It’s probably about time that I try and comment on it as well.

    In my last short story, I was stuck with this one, nameless character for a long time. I worked on the first name. I worked on the last name. Nothing seemed to fit. Finally, it clicked! It just came to me! I pat myself on the back for being original and clever.

    The next week, while correcting/critiquing a pile of papers from the class I was tutoring, I realized that I had unintentionally used a student’s name. First and last. What are the odds…

    I ended up changing the name. No one but my professor would read that short story, but it just didn’t feel right using that poor girl’s name for a completely vile character.

    Even if it did fit perfectly.

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