What’s In a Name?

My friend Amy recently wrote a fun story about TV writers and how they get revenge–on diva actors, on those who tormented them as children, on annoying TV executives, and so on.

This got me thinking: Do novelists do this too?

Well, of course we do. Novels are full of thinly–or not so thinly–veiled depictions of people who writers have encountered in their lives, not always in a positive manner. Sometimes they even share names, though just as often they do not.

I must say, in my case, I didn’t set out with any axes to grind. Though I have what you might consider “villains” in my books, I don’t really view any character in such a simplistic, black-and-white fashion. Even the biggest creep on earth has some moment where you realize he’s a human being, though flawed, capable of depth of feeling. But certain people with certain names will always carry connotations, be they negative or positive. I’ve never known a Jared who wasn’t a bully. I can’t ever imagine naming a “hero” by that name. A few other names–to remain unmentioned here–are ruined to me forever. On the flip side, it seems like I’ve always had fond feelings for people named Matt or Matthew. I can’t think of a creep in the bunch.

I’d actually have to go back and read my book to see how guilty I am of doing this–that is, taking revenge out on someone by naming them in a novel. Some of the naming in my first book was a product of the subconscious. I know that sounds like a lame excuse. But when one is creating a fictional world, one gets totally wrapped up in it. And a “Betty Smith,” though she may share a name with an actual Betty Smith, pretty much becomes the fictional creation and stops having much of a connection to any actual, real person. Sometimes a real name acts as a simple placeholder, a kind of visual aid for the type of person you are hoping to create.

So, thinking of my own novel, for instance. Have I known a Tyler? Yes. A Valerie? Yes. A Clare? Yes. Do these characters look anything like the actual people who share those names in the real world? To be honest, not at all. Well, okay, Valerie may look exactly like the Valerie I knew in high school. But she is a tiny, minor character (a positive one at that), so it hardly seems like I have committed a grave offense by appropriating her name and appearance. As for Tyler and Clare, the names are the only things these characters share with the people I know who have these names. Seriously. Indeed, none of the major characters in What They Always Tell Us look like actual people I know or have known. (In other words, no, I don’t envision myself when I envision Alex.) What’s more honest is to say that they look like people I’ve glimpsed here and there throughout my life, but then they are given further shading and shaping by my imagination.

The one character in WTATU who people think they “know” is based on someone real is Jack Pembroke, who does share a first name and many characteristics with a prominent (or should I say “prominent”?) person in my home town. But despite the similarities and coincidences, Jack Pembroke is Jack Pembroke, a made-up character. Someone I created out of scraps and bits and turned into a different person altogether.

With apologies to any offended Jacks or Tylers, that is the joy–and mystery–of writing fiction. Taking those scraps and bits, those names, those faces, and crafting them all into something completely different, something of your own making.


One Response to “What’s In a Name?”

  1. Brenda Kahn Says:

    I recently had to remind myself to consider the names of characters when I booktalk books. I had booktalked Fat Vampire to some eighth grade classes. The main character is a fifteen-year-old, heavy, loser-ish person named Doug, who gets to stay fifteen and heavy and loser-ish for eternity now that he’s been turned into a vampire. The whole class is cracking up and I’m wondering why they’re laughing so hard, because it wasn’t that funny. Then I hear, “Thanks a lot, Mrs. K!” I totally forgot that there was a student named Doug in the class! He was gracious about it, but was I embarrassed!


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