Michaeline: What exactly is in a name?

Young woman with a large bouquet of roses on her lap. 1916

Helen Delilah Patton Leckey (whew! what a name!) takes time to smell the roses. (From Greene County, Pennsylvania Photo Archives Project. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

What exactly is in a name? “That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet” or so they say, but first impressions count for something. “Belladonna” sounds very pretty, even if we know it’s a bit sinister. On the other hand, “deadly nightshade” is a clear warning. Same plant, different names.

I don’t have many problems with character names. It’s pretty easy to set a name for my characters at first, and as I get to know the character better, I have no problems changing them. (I make it a point to note the character’s name changes in my Cast of Characters spreadsheet so I can go back later and make sure every Luke is changed to Hadiz, or whatever name I’ve chosen.)

My characters often start out with half-forgotten celebrities from the 1970s and 80s (remember General Hospital’s Luke and Laura? No, neither do I, really, but Luke has stuck in my head as a name for a romantic lead. It almost always needs to be changed at some point, but it’s a good start).

Book titles are another story, and they give me fits. Even as far back as grade school, when they gave us those “choose a name for this essay” multiple choice questions, I always chose the rather small detail that didn’t matter over the boring “This Is the Main Theme” real answer.

When I’m starting a first draft, my title is often the originating image, the spark that started the story. So, the story about cave-dwelling supernatural creatures fighting to save their home from evil humans started out as Underground. The story about a transvestite hero stranded in Tokyo for a few days was TV. From an outside point of view, these are lousy titles that mean several things – and not usually what the reader associates with these words. But from the inside point of view – my point of view – these titles kept me on track during the first part of writing.

As I wrote, I graduated from these starting images, and tried to capture a different aspect of the story. Underground morphed into a love story between The Djini and Ms. Jones. And TV became the story of a woman who meets this fabulous human in Narita Airport, and begins A Little Affair in Greater Tokyo.

The book I’m working on right now is Bunny Blavatsky, Spirit Photographer. I’ve kind of painted myself into a corner with that one. The story is still about Bunny Blavatsky, spirit photographer. In the first book, she’s going to establish herself as a name in photography, she’ll get her own career, and she’ll stop working for her boss. She’s in love with him, but knows they can’t get together while they are in an employer/employee relationship.

I like the title, but I still have to ask the question: is it the best title? Are people going to be thrown by the name Blavatsky, and expect her to be more than she is? Will the title lend itself to being part of a series? For example, book two might wind up being Bunny Blavatsky, Guardian Spirit of New York and book three might be . . . oh, I haven’t thought that far ahead yet.

Every few months, I think it’s a good idea to play the name game. Has the character or the book outgrown its baby name? What new ones could be applied? The working name of a book will capture some aspect the writer wants to concentrate on, and even the pile of rejected names will hold hints about what this book is going to be about. (-: Or what it definitely *isn’t* going to be about.

How about you guys? Have you ever really struggled with a name? Share your stories in the comments.

11 thoughts on “Michaeline: What exactly is in a name?

  1. I don’t have a problem with character names – they’re a by-product of a character’s home, time period, social class and all the rest of the baggage they bring with them. Once I’ve named them, my choice sticks, so if I can’t choose right away, I go for something that’s clearly a placeholder (like Starman).

    Titles are a whole ‘nother ball of wax. I’m on my third title for Dealing With McKenzie, and it’s still wrong. The working title for Mary and Cam is The Trouble With Cameron, but that’s just a placeholder. Part of my problem is that I need a memorable set of titles that capture the feel of my series – smart and international but with heart and a strong community feel- but also says Scottish Heroes plus Contemporary Romance. Most Scottish stories are historical or paranormal so words like Highland or Highlander conjure up bare-chested lairds in plaid. I want to draw on that legacy in a modern setting. That’s a lotta work for two or three words to do, and if there’s a right answer, I haven’t found it yet. I usually waste about a day a month trying to brainstorm it 😉

    • I’m trying to think of what my favorite books did. Most often, it’s either one of the main character’s names, or a place name. It’s not so great for attracting new readers, but it’s very helpful when one wants to recall the name of the book later to recommend it.

      The other tactic is to name the big problem in the book — I notice that’s what Jenny does a lot. Faking It, Crazy for You, Bet Me.

      If it turns out that each of your heroes winds up going back to the family home in the Scottish Highlands, you might have your series name right there. I can’t remember exactly what kind of home it is, except there’s a great view. I think a word like “cabin” might make it contemporary, especially when combined with “Highland”. The Highland Cabin Accords? Highland Retreats?

      It’s a puzzler, and my creative brain isn’t kicking in gear today.

  2. I just finished writing my synopsis in preparation to send it and three chapters to an editor who’d requested it, and in writing the synopsis, I had the names “Karen” and “Kristin” in the same paragraph. That will never do! So the book’s been finished for a while, is polished, is ready to go…and I had to change a character name. I don’t mind—she just needs a name that was very popular in the year she was born. Voila! Karen is dead, Tina is born.

    Book titles are completely different and so much more difficult. As Jilly says, they have a lot of work to do, and mine don’t even have as much to lift as hers do, and yet…they’re impossible. I named this book “Skirting Danger” because in the original draft, the heroine wore a poodle skirt in every scene. Now that outfit has much less real estate, but I haven’t changed the title. Nothing that I can think of says it better.

    • That’s a good hint for character names . . . those popular name lists have been popular for decades.

      “Skirting Danger” has a nice bit of swirl and peril in it. “Saving the World in a Poodle Skirt” sounds almost like an Elvis song (-:. “Phoebe’s Fourth Down”? Sounds way too final, and doesn’t have that flair of international intrigue. (-: Forgive me for hopping in with an impromptu brain storm. It’s a lot more fun to play that game when it’s someone else’s book.

  3. Yes! Demons Don’t –> Demon’s Wager –> ?? I still don’t love that one. I’ve been working on the second novel in the trilogy, though, and that one decided to name itself The Demon’s in the Details, which I actually like. And the final one will be The Demon Wore Stilettos. Which suggests that the first one should be something like The Demon Makes a Wager. That pulls in the gambling aspect, but I’d really love to have something that alludes to Job, too. I’ve done endless searches for gambling/poker terms, but nothing.

    • How about “Demon on the Job”? I think you want to be really careful about referencing Job, because I think you might lose at least half the people who have read Job’s story. I think Job’s story is really one of those things that sift people into definite categories. People who have a lot of faith may find it actually quite inspiring (I assume), but people who don’t have a lot of faith find it a real downer.

      I think the Job connection might be a good talking point in interviews, but it’s not a good marketing point for the vast majority of your audience. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say you are writing in the romance genre, and therefore that implies an unambiguous happy ending.

      I maybe blaspheming here, but I’ve read your writing. You have a much better sense of plotting and characterization than the guys who wrote the Bible, and I think you’ve got a wider potential audience than the Book of Job does.

      (-: But you have to follow your muse. I looked up the Book of Job on Wikipedia and . . . “The Naked Demon” (naked I came out of my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return). “The Given Demon Will Be Taken Away” (ugh. clumsy-sounding, spoiler?). “The Thankful Demon.” (not very romantic, though). “Afflicted with a Demon.” “A Divine Demon”

      Ugh, none of these have the modern ring that your other two titles do. “Give the Demon his Due”? OK, quitting for now.

      But the big thing is, you have a good story that is catching attention. Have any of the judges suggested you need to change the title? I’ve heard that when you publish with the Big Boys, the titles often get changed anyway.

      Have any of you contest-entrants received feedback on your title? It’d be interesting to see what comments you are getting.

      • I did about half the contests under Demons Don’t and the other half under Demon’s Wager. I’ve gotten no comments on either one. I’m just not happy with it.

        I kind of like “The Naked Demon.” Or maybe “Naked Came the Demon.” He actually does wind up naked (in her bathtub, trying to break his fever) later in the book….

        Ot maybe “Demon’s Affliction.”

        Or “One Measly Demon.”

        Now I’m just being silly….

        • Naked Came the Demon (fans self). (-: That’s a really hot one! And totally Job.

          The more I think about it, the more I like it. It does have a tiny bit of a King James historical touch, but if the cover art is modern and the blurb is clear that it’s contemporary, it’ll work out.

          I can’t think of how to phrase it in Modern English without sounding . . . um. You know.

          Naked Came the Demon to the 21st Century. LOL. No. Just no.

          I still like the mystery of Demons Don’t.

    • Okay, then what about The Demon Went Down to Georgia? (Does anyone even remember that old song about the Devil going down to Georgia, lookin’ for a soul to steal?)

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