Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Lily by Any Other Name

By Hilary Davidson

I obsess over character names. It's not unusual for me to spend days or weeks — or even longer — figuring out what a character should be called. It's a mix of sound, meaning, personal significance, and pure luck. Here are some of the names I've used for characters in my books, along with the reasons I chose them.

Lily Moore: Years ago, when I was living in Toronto and taking a fiction-writing workshop at Ryerson University, I had the germ of an idea for the book that became The Damage Done. I knew, without consciously thinking it through, that the sisters' names were Lily and Claudia. The last name was another matter entirely; I wrote much of the first draft without figuring it out. Then, in a conversation with another writer about the book, I said, "With Lily, there's always more under the surface." It was as if a light bulb went on over my head at that moment, and Moore became her surname from that point on.

Jesse Robb: Lily's best friend is the one person she really depends on... but even though Jesse is loyal, charming, and kind, he does have a roguish side. As Lily is well aware, he has no problem invading her privacy by opening her mail or listening in on her telephone conversations, and he will occasionally lie to her if he believes doing so is in her best interest. Jesse literally means "God's gift," but when I say the name, I can't help but think of the outlaw Jesse James, too. Jesse Robb's surname seemed right for a rogue with a good heart.

Bruxton: I love the fact that so many people have taken the time to write to me to ask, "What is Bruxton's first name?" Some of them make guesses, since there are clues in the books. (I thought my clues in The Damage Done were so obvious, but no one has guessed correctly... yet! There is a giant clue dropped in Evil in All Its Disguises, coming in March 2013, so I think Bruxton's secret will be out after that.) "Bruxton" is a name I made up — its root is the word brusque, which literally means abrupt in manner, blunt, or rough. When Lily first meets him, that's how she would describe him, too.

Norah Renfrew: Lily and Norah bond, partly, over a shared love of female singers from the 1940s, especially Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. While Norah Renfrew is an NYPD detective, I wanted her to have a name to match her rich, resonant voice — and, to my ear, this does. Norah means "woman of honor," and that certainly fits this character.

Tariq Lawrence: With a Pakistani mother and English father, Tariq Lawrence is a man caught between two words, and I wanted that tension to be visible from the start. Also, Tariq literally means "evening caller" in Arabic, and Tariq is very much a creature of the night (Lily first encounters him in the middle of the night in The Damage Done).

Leonard Wolven: Hmm, it's hard to write about this one without being too spoilery. Let's just say that, when I started writing The Next One to Fall, I knew that there was a man at the center of the story who was a predator when it came to women (and to many other things). His first and last names reference a couple of predators of the animal kingdom, the lion and the wolf. But there's a powerful tension in the character, too, and since lions and wolves are very different creatures, I wanted the reader to wonder which side would dominate. At one point in the book, another member of the Wolven family says, "The name Wolven is appropriate, because we are like wolves."

Bastián Montalvo: His first name is a derivative of Sebastian, but the real reason I chose it is because Bastián reminds me of bastard (if you've read The Next One to Fall, this may seem appropriate). His surname is from Spanish nobility, and members of the family were part of the conquest of the New World, settling in Chile (where Bastián hails from), Peru, and other parts of South America. Being nobility, a Montalvo traditionally could not be executed by hanging, but he could be killed by firing squad...

Elinor Bargeman: This woman is Lily's nemesis for much of The Next One to Fall, and while Lily detests her, she also develops a grudging respect for her tenacity. "Bargeman" describes the character pretty well — she barges into rooms, speaks without considering other people's feelings, and is generally overbearing. But I had to give the character a first name I love to remind myself that there is much more to her than meets the eye.

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Speaking of Evil in All Its Disguises... I'm giving away 10 advance reading copies over at GoodReads. If you have a mailing address in the US or Canada, enter now!


Meredith Cole said...

It's so much fun to read about how other writers choose names! I agree that it's totally personal... I sometimes get stuck for awhile if I can't figure out a character's name. It really helps me understand who they are.

Steve Weddle said...

Very cool.
Google translate is a nice tool for coming up with character names.

Hilary Davidson said...

Meredith, I'm glad I'm not alone on taking a long time to figure out character names! It's important to me to get them right, and it helps me understand the character, too.

Steve, now I have to ask... Google Translate? I've used it to translate plenty of phrases, but I've never used it for names. How do you do that?

Steve Weddle said...

Hilary, I had a character I wanted to be a tough guy. I knew that Italian was probably the way to go, so used http://translate.google.com to key in some English words to translate to Italian. Knife. Gun. Death. I even worked out other languages using similar words that seemed to fit the character and what he did for a living. I settled on the Italian word for hammer: Martello.

Ed Kurtz said...

Very cool, Hilary. I'm presently working on a story with a lot of Filipinos in it and was informed by a Pinoy pre-reader that I named a character "Stupid" in Tagalog. Oops.

Hilary Davidson said...

Steve, I had no idea that was how Oscar Martello got his name! Love it.

Ed, you've just mentioned my greatest fear with character names. It's so easy to go wrong in another language.

Canada's Boomergirl said...

Jesse for Jesse James was the easiest for me to guess because I did get a bit of that wild and woolley from him in Damage is Done. When I think of Lily though, I can't help think of you, Hilary. I think it is because he had a very elegant way about her in The Damage Done :- )

Canada's Boomergirl said...

SHE has a very elegant way!!!

Hilary Davidson said...

Now I am blushing! Thanks so much, Judy (AKA Boomergirl).

Bill Cameron said...

Last night I met with my crit group and they hammered me over a short story in progress. Deservedly so. But there was one thing I wouldn't budge on. One of my character names. They were all, "What a weird name," and I was all, "I will cut anything in this story except that character's name. I LOVE that character's name." And they were all, "You're a loonie." And I'm all, "I'm INVINCIBLE!" And they're all, "How did this turn into a Monty Python bit?"

And things went downhill from there.

Hilary Davidson said...

Bill, you know I have a soft spot for Monty Python. Thanks for making me laugh!