Tuesday, August 18, 2015

A rose by any other name....

"Where do you get character names, and how important are they?”

By R.J. Harlick

        Sorry, sorry, late I know, but here it is, finally.

Sometimes coming up with the right name for a character takes a lot of thought. Other times it appears as magically as the character does. 
For me the most important name was the one for my series character. I wanted a name that had a number of variations that could be used depending on the speaker. So I decided on ‘Margaret’, my grandmother’s name. I shortened it to ‘Meg’ to make it simple and easy to remember. Throughout my books, I have some characters calling her ‘Maggie’, such as her mother’s cook. Another character refers to her as ‘Marguerite’, the French version. 
Inventing a last name proved a greater challenge. Again I wanted something that was short and easy to remember and had a connection to me. The road I grew up on in Toronto was Harrison Road, but I thought it too long, so shortened it to ‘Harris’.
The name for Meg’s significant other was easy. I liked the ring of ‘Eric’, so ‘Eric’ he became. And no, I’m sorry, he wasn’t named after any boyfriend in my life. I wanted a last name that was in keeping with his Algonquin roots. I perused the website of Algonquin reserves for community member names and discovered ‘Odjik’, which means ‘fisher’ in Algonquin. Though Eric is much nicer than fishers are supposed to be, there is a certain ferocity and intent about him. Besides I thought it would be an easy name to remember. 
For my Native characters I try to give them names that, like Eric’s, are in keeping with their heritage, so I use the internet and select appropriate last names from the relevant community website.  Most indigenous people in Canada have English first names, but often they will have a name in their own language, often called a spirit name. For important characters, like Eric, I will use these names, usually created from consultations with community members. Meg even has a spirit name that Eric gave her, Miskowabigonens, meaning ‘Little Red Flower’
I followed a different approach for Eric’s daughter’s name. Her mother was Dene, a First Nations community in the Northwest Territories, so I wanted a Dene name. I found a telephone number on the web for a NWT cultural organization and called them up. I’m sure the person who answered thought I was a nut case, but she took it in her stride and suggested Teht’aa, meaning ‘lily’ in the Dene language. I liked the sound of ‘Tootoosis’, the last name of one of the stars of ‘North of Sixty’, a TV show which took place in NWT. So ‘Tootoosis’ she became. Unfortunately I have since discovered the name is actually a Cree name, so in the just starting 8th Meg Harris mystery in which Teht’aa will have a major role, I will have to come up with a good reason for the Cree last name. 
I call on family member names for many of my secondary characters. It’s so much easier than trying to invent one. Besides they have a connection to me. But I often don’t use the full name, just the first or last name and sometimes the middle names. Meg’s immediate family names are from my own family. Her father Sutton is named after my grandfather, her uncle Harold after my great-uncle, her sister Jean after my mother and Jean’s two daughters after my two nieces. When assigning these names, I do follow one rule. If the character is intended to be a significant character in the story, with a complete multi-faceted personality, I only use names from deceased members of my family so as not to embarrass or upset anyone, particularly if the person turns out to be not very nice.
All other names come out of thin air. I try to come up with names that suit the role the character will play in the story. Plus I follow another rule. I try not to give names that sound similar or have the same first letter. I read a book recently, where a good 5 or more characters had names starting with the same letter. I was forever confusing them.  Occasionally I will change the name of a character partway through the writing. It then becomes a major challenge to ensure the old name is completely removed, which doesn’t always happen. Once or twice the old name remained until the final proof, despite repeated edits. But I don’t think they ended up in the printed book. At least no one has ever asked me, “Who in the world is so and so?”
On a final note, I see this is a bit longer than planned, but I will keep it short. I like to include my husband’s name ‘Jim’ in each of my books, but never as a character. I have named a lake after him and a pub. I will let you find the other references.

I also want to remind you that the next Meg Harris mystery, A Cold White Fear, due out in November or December, depending on where you live, is now available for pre-order.


Susan C Shea said...

It's hard enough sometimes to come up with a name that clicks, but to add a distinctively ethnic name makes it a challenge. And you have to cope with the impatience of readers, who want distinctive+easy to say and remember. Interesting post!

MahrieGReid.com said...

Well said. Nmes can be critical. LIke you, my characters sometimes choose their own names out of the air. Others required thought and context. For example, Devon in my first book, is named after Devon, England. She was a late in life baby, concived while her parents were on al second honeymoon... in Devon! Last names for me, like yours, come from the area and the culture of my setting on the South Shore of Nova Scotia. Naming can be fun - most of the time.


Paul D. Marks said...

Good stuff, RJ. And good luck with the book!

RJ Harlick said...

Thanks, Susan and Paul. I agree, Mahrie, that naming can be fun.