Of all the things I do as a writer, I find creating character names difficult and baffling. Except when it’s not. Some characters have arrived in my life with names affixed. Tess Monaghan, the Bethany girls. Others, as explained yesterday in the comments section, were drawn from newspaper bylines. If I were a historical novelist, I might use cemeteries for names. I have consulted phone books to find surnames and Googled the popular names lists of particular years.
Whenever I fantasize about hiring an assistant — a fantasy that quickly dies when I realize I then would have to train an assistant — the first task I think I would assign would be a dictionary of my character names. I have a hunch that I have repeated myself here and there and that I am disproportionately drawn to certain letters of the alphabet. (P and W, for example.)
I also have to be conscious about using certain family names, especially as my parents’ names are unusual, or used to be. (My mother’s name, which is my middle name, has come roaring back into fashion.) I don’t believe I have ever used my sister’s name in a novel, although I think I have used a variant. While I take a dim view of those who think they can see themselves in my work, I think my family has the right to be a little more sensitive to such issues.
The one name I feel I can never use is . . . my own. In fact, I won’t even reference the neighborhood known as Lauraville, fearful that readers would think it was a self-referential joke. (There really is a Lauraville in Baltimore, and it’s a lovely, idiosyncratic place.)
The names in LIFE SENTENCES came easily, in my memory, but all novels seem charmed in hindsight. I also feel the same way about I’D KNOW YOU ANYWHERE, in which names are extremely important. But then — names are always important, it’s a theme to which I’ve returned again and again in my work. Our names shape us to some extent. Shortening one’s name or deciding on a nickname are often the first ways in which we struggle to define ourselves. My mother made it clear that she did not want me to be “Laurie” and I was rigid about this. (Although, come to think of it, no one really tried to foist that nickname on me.)
I’m at the beginning of a new work and many of the characters’ names are tentative at this point. But two are not. Two characters arrived with their names intact, which means their characters are intact.
Oh, and this is a reason I very, very, very, very, very seldom auction off naming rights (or Tuckerization) for one of my novels. I have found it exceedingly difficult to start with names and then create characters.