Monday, January 18, 2010

A Rosie By Any Other Name

Hannah Moskowitz's post got me thinking about character names.

And I've been reading a lot of Alice Hoffman books lately (I yield to no one in my love for Alice Hoffman's writing,
Boston Globe debacle or not). Hoffman seems to choose great character names. I'm currently re-reading Here On Earth, which is a modern retelling of Wuthering Heights. I love Wuthering Heights, and Hoffman handles the material brilliantly. She keeps the family structures and the relationships, but by moving the setting to a strange small town in New England, she turns the story into something new. This isn't an isolated rural outpost on the moors, where Cathy and Heathcliff's only contact with the world was peeking through the windows of Thrushcross Grange. Here, husbands can arrive unexpectedly from California. There is a high school that has dances. And to get to Logan Airport in Boston, you just ask Ken Helm to drop you there in his truck. But insane passions and requited love that really ought to be unrequited still rule over all.

The names seem especially well chosen. The Catherine Earnshaw character, who doesn't die young but lives to share main-character duty with her daughter, is called March (short for Marcheline, which she hates). It suits her perfectly, somehow. Her daughter is named Gwen (Gwen Cooper, actually, which sent my inner Torchwood fan into squeals of delight), which also works- it's old-fashioned, classic, and seems all wrong for the rebellious, moody Gwen we meet at the start of the novel. By the middle, Gwen has grown into her name, and it works.

My own main character, as you may know, is called Rosie. To me, the name Rosie sounds like an upturned nose, and it suits Rosie, who answers back. She isn't a Rose. She could never be a Rose. I was also a little restricted in choosing character names for my WIP - in Ireland in 1920s, when most of my characters were born, children were overwhelmingly named after Catholic saints or members of their family, so I needed something either saintly or traditional. Rosie seemed to work, although it wouldn't have been an especially Catholic name at that time, simply because the name Rose is so old that her parents may have chosen it for any number of reasons.

It is difficult to get names exactly right. Several placeholder names in my novel have stuck and become part of the character and now I can't get rid of them.

How do you choose names for your characters? Even picked the wrong one? What's the best name you ever came up with?


  1. Hi

    I did write a story once called "Itzi the cat" where the cat's owner known by the local yoofs as "Magdelana the witch" would have constant arguments with the cat's vet (whom she frequented on a daily basis and they humoured her) and say "It's spelled with an i not a y!" And the vets surgery people would think "what's the big deal"? I think I got maudlin in the end because it turned out "Itzi" was the petname she used to call her husband who was killed during WW2 and that's why it was important to her that they got the name right.

    Sorry, probably doesn't answer you question! But I do like how you say "Rosie sounds like an upturned nose." And it really does.

    p.s. Gwen Cooper?? Are you serious??? Why??? Why?? Bring back Ianto!!

    Take care

  2. Let me just get this out of the way first: BRING BACK IANTO!

    Okay, back to business. I look to my bookcase for inspiration. I tend to choose surnames from authors I really love, and people who annoy me have the inglorious honour of having nasty characters named after them! I absolutely adore picking names for characters, although I did have to go through an entire mss once and change the name of one particular character. She was named after a friend of mine, but then out of the blue I killed her off! The name had to change - and it took a bit of work.

    The name Rosie is beautiful.

  3. I use baby naming books, names I come across, and the Character Naming Resource book, gravestones, football player names (poor Colt McCoy who lost his national championship but proposed on the field to his College sweetheart), you name it. I had one name and changed it, but kept the same first initial. Whew. Great post!
    I think Rosie will be fun to read!!

  4. Kitty, I like that :) I love when character names are used like that, when a character has strong feelings about a particular nickname or spelling. It can say a lot. Both of my parents' names can be shortened several ways and I can always tell how someone knows them based on what name they use!

    Donna, I agree, picking character names is one of my favourite things, hence this post - I want to know how other people do it! I have to change a few names in my current WIP - I used my mother's name as a placeholder for one character but it just suits her so well that it will be very hard to get rid of it.

    I remember you mentioning Colt McCoy, Christine, I often wonder about him!

    OK, now for the Torchwood-y bit: Agreed, Bring Back Ianto!! I didn't like him *at all* until I saw Children of Men, but he was so great in it that I was incredibly upset at the end! BRING BACK IANTO!

  5. Well, yes, I must add to the cries of 'Bring Back Ianto!'
    And then I must also say that Rosie really does suit that character perfectly. I also have a few placeholder names that have stuck. As you know, one of them is the name of a famous I will have to make rearrangements for that!

  6. Adam, I still think there is something weird about the attraction humans have for the name Eric Foreman. There's one in House, there's one in That 70s Show, and the I find out you're contemplating putting one in your book!

    It must be like 'cellar door', one of those innately pleasing combinations of sounds that exerts a mystical pull over us all. . .

  7. In once sense I don't thin kyou can ever get names "right" as readers will often have their own set of associations to a particular name that colours their reading. My younger daughter, for example, happens to be called Rosie, so all I think of is her when I see the name. I don't even think Rose Tyler!

  8. That's a good point Simon - and nice choice of name for your daughter btw :)

    What's with the high concentration of Doctor Who/Torchwood fans that seem to have found me? No complaints, mind, just think it's odd!

  9. Hi, Interesting post! I called my daughter Rosie, and I was told she wouldn't thank me for it! I suppose world leaders don't exactly come to mind when you think of that name! But, except for a brief spell at eleven when she changed her name to "Summer," she's been pretty happy. I love the name, even how it feels to say. I check out the local graveyard for my characters, esp when I was working my novel set in the 1940s. For something more up to date I check popular baby names on the web. Sometimes I find myself using the same names over and over again but if no other names come to mind I don't force it. Often I've sat there whispering - tell me your name...!If a name doesnt come to me, I sometimes leave the character just as `the woman/man`. You can get away with that easier in a short piece of fiction. The vowels in a name often influence how we visualise a character, i.e wheather they are round (Joan) or slim (Sylvia) and some names are so associated with stereotypes it can be  intereting to play around with that... "Cindy announced her plans for world domination on a special CBN Broadcast. Her aides assisted the eighty four year old president from her chair." No. Doesn't work for me either! Best name that ever came to me was Lady Slice. Niamh


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