Friday, June 3, 2011

Writing in the Time of Google (or How I Name Characters)

I imagine it was easier to write before the web. Less information makes choices easier. I think the place I've seen this most is when I name characters. When I was writing in junior high and high school, I would borrow my mom's baby name book and the white pages to come up with new names. Now, every time I name a character, I have to run a search through Google and Wikipedia to make sure there aren't any associations I don't want. I changed Emma's last name several times before finding one that felt right, sounded right, looked right and did bring up anything I didn't want in search engines. To further complicate matters, I have three other characters with the same last name. Three more searches for conflicts.

I put a lot of thought into names. Maybe too much. It took me and my husband two days to pick a middle name after our son was born. We'd picked out his first name before we even met. (Yes, we picked the same name for our firstborn son totally independently. See why I agreed to marry the guy five months after we met?). He almost ended up with Danger as his middle name. I was afraid it would be a self-fulfilling prophesy. Turns out I was right. I can't imagine what he'd be like if we'd gone with Danger.

Anyway, there are a lot of factors that go into choosing a name. I believe very strongly in the power of words. I think what you call something has a huge effect on what that thing becomes. I name cars (I drove a VW named Herr Heinrick Von Fritzenwagon in college) and all my son's toys. It's much easier to ask for Percy than "that one toy with all the jingly arms and the nose with the squeaky."So when I name a character, it has to be just right. Some times a name suggests a character, sometimes names change as characters get clearer.

Emma was an easy name. I've always loved "Em" names for girls. I went through a phase as a kid where I named everything Emily. I even had a fluffy, orange tabby named Emily. She turned out to be evil (as cats tend to be), but I still love the name. However, growing up as a Jenny in the 1980s, I refuse to name my kids anything in the top ten most popular names. So Emma (#3) and Emily (#6) are out for kids names.

Also I picked Gabriel and Damian because I love those names but wouldn't want to saddle a kid with either one. Both have very strong associations, which play into my writing. When you name a character Damian, people immediately jump to the Omen, so it works as a way to create opinions about him before he really says or does anything. It also helped me understand his backstory. What would it be like to grow up with those assumptions? How bitter would you feel if everyone assumed you were a bad kid just because of your name?

I also chose Emma and Gabriel because of their nicknames. There's something special to me about friendships that go back far enough to remember childhood nicknames. My husband hasn't been Joey since he was ten, but I've had the pleasure of meeting several people who still remember him by that name. I have friend who still goes by his big brother's pet name for him. I like history and I think those names and the memories tied to them recall history. To the rest of the world they might be Emma Hawthorne and Gabriel Blackburn, but to each other, they will always be Emmy and Gabe. That makes me smile. And I hope it makes you smile too.

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