One of the first things that attracted me to Danette Haworth’s debut novel, Violet Raines Almost Got Struck by Lightning, was the title. Names of books – and characters and places – are important. Here, as part of Danette’s WOW blog book tour, she writes about how she came up with the names in her novel:
What’s in a Name?
Any of us who are parents know how important a name is. A name has the power to shape the impression others have of us before they even meet us. Would you ever believe that someone named Bill Bailey would be a rock star? What if his name was Axl Rose? Could Eleanor Gow rock the cover of Sports Illustrated? She did, under the name Elle Macpherson. Who would you be more interested in: Paul Hewson or Bono, Cherilyn Sarkisian or Cher, Mary Cathleen Collins or Bo Derek?
Planning your summer vacation? Why not visit Square Butte, Montana, or Elephant Butte, New Mexico? If those don’t sound good, you can go to Hell—Michigan, that is, about an hour west of Detroit.
The fact is that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but if it were called, for instance, limburger, we might not ever partake of the fragrance; the name alone would scare us off.
That’s a great deal of power given to us as authors. Being wordsmiths, it’s our job to bend words to serve the function we assign them. Character names and place names must do more than identify their antecedent; they must give us insight, whether subtle or blatant, for whom and what we’re reading about.
Take Scarlett O’Hara of Gone With the Wind, for example. Scarlett was originally named Pansy, which even in the 1930s carried undertones such as sissy or effeminate. On the other hand, scarlet is red, the color of passion and a keyword in one of the best-selling novels of all time, The Scarlet Letter. With its implications of sex and forbidden love, Scarlett proved to be the perfect name for Margaret Mitchell’s southern vixen.
All fine and good for Margaret Mitchell, you say, but how do I go about choosing names for my characters? Good question! Lots of people recommend starting with a book of baby names, but make sure you get to know your character first. When I wrote Violet Raines, I have to admit, her name just came to me; it was everyone else’s names I had to conjure up.
Violet’s best friend lives in an old farmhouse and is the eldest of four girls. This girl has lots of chores and rules to follow, so I wanted her to have an old-fashioned name, something that would make her sound loyal, hard-working, and clean cut. As I gleaned the baby names, Charlotte stood out to me because I could nickname her Lottie, and that sounded just right to me. (I had no idea then that her full name would come into play later in the story, but that’s how fitting the name turned out to be!)
The new girl is pretty, blonde, and tall. She’s also from the city. For her, I wanted a soft name, no hard consonants, yet it had to have a contemporary ring to it to match the character’s personality. But now there were a few conditions to her name: it couldn’t end in ie, because I already had Lottie and Eddie (who came with his name); it had to have more than two syllables because Lottie and Eddie already took that rhythm, and even Violet sounds like a two-syllable word. It couldn’t begin with V, L, E, or R. Finally, the name Melissa leaped out at me from the baby books—soft, contemporary, pretty, and three-syllables—perfect!
Last names were challenging, too. They had to provide rhythm, variety, and character. Nothing better than the white pages for last names. That’s how I came up with Violet Raines, Lottie Townsend, Eddie Brandon, and Melissa Gold.
Spend time on place names, too, even place names that don’t have a big role in your story. The grocery store in Violet Raines was originally Parsley’s; I changed it to Parker’s after reading the story aloud. Parker’s is just easier to say.
Violet lives in Mitchell Hammock. The town needed a name to denote its riverside location, yet it had to have a small town sound, something with a southern ring to it. (That’s why I didn’t use Riverside!) I resisted Mitchell Hammock at first; it’s actually the name of a road north of my area. I didn’t want to use real names because I wanted to put Violet’s neighborhood together the way I saw it in my imagination. Research showed me that Mitchell Hammock existed only as a road. There may have been a hammock called Mitchell at one time, but my search engines didn’t uncover it!
My mom tells several different stories for how she came up with my name. These are big, grand stories involving people we don’t know and odd settings. One of the more boring stories is that she found my name in a book of uncommon names. “I wanted something French,” she says when she tells this version. Somehow, I believe her.