Friday, March 5, 2010

Please Don't Call Me Pete

I've just been to a baby shower, which has me thinking of names.  The mom-to-be knows she's having a girl and knows the name, but isn't telling anyone for fear of getting "the look."  Any parents out there know what I'm talking about.  It's the raised-eyebrows, jaw-dropping look that says, "Are you nuts?"  A tactful person might respond to the name by saying, "That's interesting," which is Minnesotan for "What kind of a whacky-ass-freak-are-you-anyway?" Others might just laugh in your face.  But, once that name is attached to a living, breathing, person, it's harder for people not to like it, or to accept it in any case.  Once the ink's on the birth certificate, it's done.

The same is true with fictional characters.  Once the book's printed, that's it.  But, during the revision stage, you can certainly mess with names as much as you want. When I'm starting a new project, I often throw in the first name that comes to me.  I'd say about half the time, the name gets changed, but the other half, it sticks.  The most important thing is whether the name "fits" the character.  It drives me crazy when people spend countless hours worrying over a name before they even have the character figured out. 

One of my pet-peeves while teaching writing is the type of student who sits through a whole workshopping session on their short story only to wail, "But what about the character's name?  Didn't you notice? The name means "beautiful" and she's really ugly, and so there's this whole ironic thing I had going..."  Yeah, no, we didn't notice.  As readers, we were too busy focusing on things like characterization and plot and setting and pacing that we didn't get the time to google the origin of your character's name.  I've come to think that this is a way beginning writers can feel some sense of control, when they're so baffled by the whole process of writing, at least they can feel like they "got the name right."  It's wasted energy.  Better off spending 10 minutes with a phone book, just scanning until the name that seems just right for your character jumps off the page.  And it will.  If you know your character.

During my first draft of my novel, when my protagonist's husband first entered a scene, I called him Jack because it's the first name that popped into my head.  I wrote about half the novel calling him Jack and knowing it wouldn't work because A) though Jack might have been a good-old-boy name years ago, it's now considered trendy, which my character is not; B) he's not in the proper age group to be named Jack.  He'd need to be under 10 or over 50;  C) there's another character named Jake, whose name fits him well, but that's too close to Jack

So, Jack had to go.  But, what name would fit this easy-going southern guy in his mid-30s?  Hmmm, nothing was coming to me.  I stared out the window for awhile running through names in my head.  I stared at my computer.  Dell.  His name would be Dell, and it's the most perfectly suited name I think I've ever come up with for a character.  I have a Dell computer, folks.  That's the mystery behind that one.  I haven't looked up Dell or Delbert in any name books; I don't care what the name "means."  I just know that it works.

So, why shouldn't you call me Pete?  Well, that's a name reserved for hubby's use.  We don't go for all the precious snooky-ookums and whatnot.  In college, my husband had a lazy roommate who didn't bother to learn anyone's names.  He just called everyone Pete.  We adopted it as our pet-names, and it stuck.  The next time you're stuck on a character's name, just use a placeholder.  Let the name come to you when you least expect it.  Until then, use Pete.