Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Name Game

by Clare O'Donohue

Q: Do you give careful thought to the names of your characters or do you draw them out of a hat?

My mother wanted to name me Madonna, after her eldest sister who had become a Franciscan nun. My father didn't care for it, so I got named after the county in Ireland where he had been born. Explaining the spelling of my name has taken up a fair amount of my time, but at least no one suggests I wear a cone bra and gyrate on stage, so a bullet dodged.

As a result, I take the name thing pretty seriously.  Though, I have to admit, naming characters is usually one of my least favorite things. It feels so important - especially in a series, because I will be stuck with my choice for book after book - and yet it's so hard to embody everything you want to say in just the right name.

Many times I've taken names from people I know. Kate Conway, for example, is named after Kathleen Sweeney, my aunt, who is an incredibly kind woman with a very sarcastic wit. I wanted Kate to be similar. Conway is my grandmother's maiden name, and it felt right to honor that part of my family. After I published Missing Persons, I heard from several distant cousins in England who I had not met, or known, before. Two of them, you guessed it, were named Kate Conway. I thought I was being clever but really I was just using a name that had, apparently, been part of my family for generations.

Vera, the girlfriend of Kate's late husband, is actually the name of my Aunt Kathleen's sister. Though they share no qualities in common, it sort of slipped into my consciousness as a good name, and thankfully the real Vera felt honored by the inclusion rather than offended to be the other woman in my book.

Andres Pena and Victor Pilot, the other main characters, were specific choices. I wanted Andres to have a Hispanic name so I kept mixing and matching the first and last names of friends, and did a Google search on names, until I found what I wanted. I knew Victor's last name, Pilot, would be a lie - something he made up to sound cool, so I played around until that popped in my head.

On the Someday Quilts series, I did less work. Nell Fitzgerald just was... and Eleanor Cassidy, her grandmother, also came to me as a name, fully formed. When I realized Nell could be an abbreviation for Eleanor, I decided that Nell was named after her - a happy accident! I pulled the other names from a combination of first or last names of friends and relatives (Maggie Sweeney is a cousin's first name, and my mom's maiden name), or just "out of a hat". Jessie Dewalt, though, is my quiet homage to Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote. I decided to use an abbreviation of her first name but give it to a male character to remind myself that, though he isn't my main sleuth, he's pretty darn good at detective work.

Right now I'm planning a new series, a husband and wife team, and I've changed their names half a dozen times as I've tried to come up with the right monikers for two very connected, but very different people. Just like with a child, you never know if the name you choose will really fit the person they become, so you have to pick what you like and hope for the best.... or have someone intervene so you don't end up having to say Madonna O'Donohue for the rest of your life (Try it, it's a mouthful.)


Kristopher said...

LOL. Madonna O'Donohue. That would have been unfortunate. Quite a tricky name, doesn't roll right off the tongue.

Meredith Cole said...

Isn't it interesting how some characters just come to you, names and all, and others you have to work hard to figure out! I have done the same thing with character names, Clare--started out with a name and then changed it if it didn't feel right.

Alan Orloff said...

"...but at least no one suggests I wear a cone bra and gyrate on stage..."

I find that hard to believe.

Catriona McPherson said...

I'm still laughing. Living up to the first Madonna would have been one thing but living up to the second one . . . yikes.

There was a girl in my village called Ave-Maria, poor thing.

Susan C Shea said...

Could have been much worse if your genes had come from a different pool: Try Chastity Bono, for example.

Unknown said...

I think being named Madonna would have changed the entire direction of my life.... And BTW, Alan - I'm not saying I haven't done it, just that I haven't been asked.

Unknown said...

Love this post, Clare! Remind me to tell you what I was almost named. Hint: I was born on Easter Sunday.