Michaeline: The Name Game

Alice in Wonderland with Tweedledee and Tweedledum

‘No way!’ ‘No how!’ Well, maybe, if Tweedledee and Tweedledum are what you are going for — two peas in a pod. (Tenniel/Wikimedia)

Names are such funny things and in a lot of magical systems, they hold a lot of power. When I start a draft, I need to have a placeholder name, usually, because I feel funny just calling a character Him or Her – it gets confusing when I start to meet more Hims and Hers in the story. So, I need a label. Sometimes, the character grows into the label, sometimes I stumble into the new perfect name for the character, and sometimes I have to spend a lot of time researching the name. A name has power, and I don’t want to do the wrong thing. For example, one of the villains in my earlier drafts started out with the name of George Brett. It was serviceable. George was a solid, good-ol’-boy name, and I thought that Brett had that air of sophistication to it. DeBrett’s is a famous registry of famous British people. But I did have a little niggle, and I think it was Nancy who confirmed my niggle – she said very cautiously something like, “Wasn’t George Brett a baseball player in the 70s?” So he was. George Brett morphed into George Diaz. And it was a better name. Mr. Diaz is a first generation American, fighting for his family and for his town. His wife, Janine Evans Diaz, still has that “oldest family in town” aristocracy about her, and I love the dynamic that the two of them have between them now. George Brett was just cookie-cutter town aristocracy; George Diaz offers a different experience from his wife. When choosing final names, there are at least seven things to remember. 1. What does the name actually mean? Google has a lot of baby book sites that will help you find out the etymology of the name. 2. What historical baggage does the name carry? Who had it before? 3. What current popular baggage does it carry? 4. How does the name sound in your head? Is it full of explosive sounds, like Kristy Kracker? Or is very smooth and sleek, like Sylvia Pathfinder? How does that match the character? Is it an unusual name like Szathmary or Xhosa? And if it is, how does your reader know how to pronounce it? How soon do you tell your reader? 5. How does the name look? Is it easy to read? The name Ilona always slows me down. The ‘i’ and the ‘l’ are very similar. 6. How does the name harmonize with other names in the story? Do you have a Jack and Jill? Or a Pinkerton and a Clinkerton? Is the juxtaposition producing the effect you desire? You may quite like two names that share a consonant. I’m pretty fond of Perz and Hadiz – they are the same in the end, which is also where my story is going. Or you may be going for a comic effect, like Tweedledee and Tweedledum – two names from nursery rhyme fame that Lewis Carrol liked. They should be different, but not too different (unless that’s what you are going for). I think Crash and Tixie go well together. But Crash and Euphonia? Hmmm. 7. Are the names in the book as a whole distinguishable from one another? Jenny Crusie has often talked about not starting two names with the same letter. Speedreaders get an important cue from the first letter of the name, and can stumble when they’ve got to deal with a Viola and a Vance. Also, look at the name profile in general. Is it one tall letter, one short letter, and some tall letters again? For example, Milka and Neklo don’t sound very much alike, but their shapes are very similar. The names in my current story are starting to morph. My heroine is mild-mannered Bunny Blavatsky, and I’m still quite happy with that. Although, I’m very tempted to turn her into a Zaida Something . . . Zaida Ben-Yusuf was an early woman photographer with quite a globe-trotting life. The hero, Michael James, may get a real last name. And his callow young son, Freddie, will probably turn into a Jimmy to show how he’s cast in his father’s mold, but he isn’t quite the man his father is . . . yet.

Texel sheep are small, perhaps mid-thigh to a man in height.

Texel sheep are from the Netherlands! Another link in my story! (Well, the Van Texels probably are from the same island, and the sheep are named after them, rather than the other way around.) (Wikimedia) (in response to /anne’s comment)

The name I like best is my antagonist’s. She’s Katrina Van Texel, or Kitty. Since she’s a were-cheetah, this is somehow fitting, and when Bunny grows teeth, it should be quite a battle. Kitty is of Dutch descent, and the name is the same as what some scholars think is the real name of Katrina Van Tassel, the spoiled young woman from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. I’m not quite sure what the connection is there . . . but it does something for my Girls, so it’ll stay in. Unless something better comes along (-:. How about you? What’s your favorite name in literature or your own work, and why does it ring your bell?

13 thoughts on “Michaeline: The Name Game

  1. Not a favorite name from literature, but I’ve been going through the same name game. I plan to write several books about the same family, across multiple generations, so I was looking for a “Bridgerton” (Julia Quinn), “Mallory” (Johanna Lindsey), or “Montgomery” (Jude Devereaux).

    Susannah’s last name is “Humphries.” Nice, it fits the time, but it doesn’t have that *zing* that the names above have, or three syllables. It doesn’t roll off the tongue. Plus, as my husband pointed out, it has the word “hump” in it. And “fries” (although clearly not spelled the same).

    Jilly suggested looking at place names or landmarks in the area where Susannah is from (Norfolk). I came up with a short list of names and have since settled on Cressingham. Perhaps it sounds a bit “titled,” even though Susannah’s family is not, but there were four Cressingham brothers, two generations before Susannah, that beget Susannah and her relations, so there’s room for a title somewhere…a small one, perhaps. Or a knighthood.

    When I changed Susannah to Cressingham, I realized I had to change my antagonists’s name, too. He’s Luckingham. To many -inghams, as Michaeline pointed out on our private blog. Right now, he’s Wolferton, because Jilly thought it sounded mean and nasty. Which he is. I also played around with Brisley. I’ll have to see which one sticks.

    First names aren’t changing, although when I originally conceived Susannah’s story, Nate was Thomas. I wanted a one-syllable name for the leading man and “Tom” just didn’t sound…I don’t know…buff enough? I’ve always loved the name Nate myself, and so Nate he is.

    • These are all good points, Justine. (-: Just remember that Bridgerton, Mallory and Montgomery don’t have that much impact for new readers — they get their impact from the story. (-: You could turn Humphries into something grand! It means Peaceful Warrior, or Peaceful Bear Cub, IIRmy googleC.

      I really like Wolferton. Sounds like he comes from a town of Wolves!

    • Really? How cool! I wonder if the Texels are very mean sheep? LOL, probably not. Kitty is more of a wolf in sheep’s clothing (a cheetah in goat’s hide?).

      I grew up in cattle country, so Mr. Angus Hereford would have some definite connotations for me. (Beefsteak, maybe? Oh, I’m bad!)

      • Just googled and updated my post with a picture of a Texel. Found a picture of a Herdwick sheep, too — which is born black, and grows up into a white sheep. Lots in a metaphor there (-:. If Kitty weren’t Dutch, I’d be tempted to turn her into a Herdwick.

  2. I like resonance, too, but the thing I worry about is picking a name that someone well known somewhere already has. I needed a Romanian villain once, and I went through the online “Romanian surnames” and “Romanian first names” lists and picked one from each, and voila! My villain. At the end of the book, I decided, hey, better google this guy. Turns out there was a real person by that name, he was a Nobel Peace nominee, a well-known European activist (writer, artist, etc.), and a friend of Bill Clinton. So I guess I picked those two names out of a hat because maybe I’d heard them together somewhere. Needless to say, changed the name, googled again. Now I google instantly, before I get attached to the name. Giving up my villain at the end of the book was hard to wrap my mind around.

    • Oh, yes. Google is our friend! I’m glad someone caught my George Brett before I’d gotten too far along in the process.

      Kitty’s uncle is a Tesla. And I’m borrowing some crazy traits from Nikola Tesla to give Max Tesla some full-bodied badness . . . but actually, I have a vague sort of respect for Nikola Tesla. I should probably change the name, anyway, because Van Texel/Tesla is a bit too close for comfort. I’m hoping I run into something appropriate during my obsessive research.

  3. Love the name Kitty for a were-cheetah, Michaeline!

    I find it really difficult to start until I’ve discovered the right name, and I’d hate to change the first name of any of my characters – surnames, I don’t mind quite so much. I also care a lot about place-names and business names. I recently tweaked the storyline of Ian and Rose’s venture together, so I had to find the right name to suit the new circumstances – took me ages, but I got it. Unfortunately that new name means I have to change the name of Rose’s Aunt’s shop, Prim Rose’s (grrrr) because I have too many Roses. I don’t love the name of my Spanish artists’ colony – tried to get my Spanish-speaking brother and Spanish mother-tongue niece to find a better one, but no luck so far.

    Somebody read my story and said that all the first names were short, which was potentially confusing. Actually, quite a few of them are abbreviations (Cam for Cameron, Rob for Roberto) and I’m sticking with it, because creating diminutives and nicknames is what we do in real life (right, Micki?)

    • You know, I think in general names should be varied, because characters are varied. It should all stem from the character. But if they are all friendly, using nicknames, and don’t need the cutesy diminutive “ee” sound at the end (Mikey, Jimmy, Freddie), then it’s OK. (-: Potentially confusing is a really nice phrase, but it is second-hand.

      Is “Sasha” short for Alexandra? “Sasha” does sound rather imposing to me, and a great name for a strong antagonist.

      (-: As you say, we do create diminutives and nicknames. My name was a real mouthfull for teachers at the beginning of the school year, and some of them were so relieved that I was a simple “Micki.”

      But some characters, like Bujold’s Ekaterin, are minimized by a nickname like “Kat.” Bujold really has put some thought into this name, and almost defends it in the book. I wonder if she was having a discussion with some critiquer backstage . . . .

      (For the record: Michaeline is pronounced My-Kell-Lean Doos-Koh-Vah. Kind of got Americanized by the time I came around. (-:.)

      • The same commentator also questioned that my characters have different versions of their name, depending on who’s speaking, but I think it’s a true reflection of the characters’ relationships.

        Ian and Cam’s mother is Ma to them, Shona to everyone else. Shona would always give Cameron his full name, but when Rose calls him Cameron he immediately asks her to use Cam, because when he hears Cameron he assumes he’s in trouble. Cam calls Fiona, Gilded Lily’s fierce CFO, Fi, though nobody else would dare. And he calls Fiona’s equally fierce daughter, Mary, Scary – to her face, and gets away with it. For now, anyway.

        Rose’s full name is Rose Elizabeth, which she absolutely hates and nobody calls her that except her mother, when she’s getting lectured. I’m pretty sure Rose’s mother chose her names after our Queen and her sister (Princess Margaret Rose), because Rose’s mother is a traditionalist and a snob.

        Good question about Sasha. I’m pretty sure she was christened Alexandra and a string of other names, but she’s always been Sasha. I think maybe because it could be short for Alexander or Alexandra, and Sasha’s father wanted a son – he never had any use for girls. She spent a long time trying to be what he wanted, and now she wants to beat him (even though he’s dead). That girl has major daddy issues 😉

        • Yeah, I wouldn’t know what to say to a critique like that. The only way you can slice out the Mom/Shona/Sho is to slice out the characterization — and maybe the characters. Which leaves you with Oog and Og sitting in front of the cave kissing, if you cut out EVERYTHING that could confuse a reader.

          Did she say “potentially” again? That means, to me, “It wasn’t confusing to me personally, but I’ve heard that some readers have problems with it.”

  4. Pingback: Justine: The Name Game, Part 2 | Eight Ladies Writing

  5. Pingback: Kat: Name Calling | Eight Ladies Writing

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