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Friday, 7 May 2010

Names: The Meaningful Method

I don't know about other writers but I can't focus on a character, can't flesh them out, without a name to go with them. A name sets a character in concrete, gives me something to come back to when I ask the inevitable question, 'hang on, who was I thinking about?'. Part of the process at the very beginning of the planning stage of any project involves lots of faces, lots of attributes that you consider and discard. Being able to say, 'no, Bob, wouldn't act like that', is more conclusive than saying, 'he wouldn't do that'.

He who?

I've been researching names for several projects in the last few days. This one, which I anticipate turning into a novel-length piece, is about a woman defined by one mistake made in the past which ruined plenty of lives. She's bitter and anger but also confident about her conduct. I knew this about her but I couldn't begin to flesh her out properly until I knew her name.

I sat there for ages thinking. Personally, I like my fictional names to be shortened and, like anybody, I've got my favourites. I've run out of digits for the number of Cassies and Jennys I've got stashed away in unfinished short stories. And somehow when you sit down to think of a name you go through your friends, family, favourite authors, favourite actresses and after you've ruled them out where else is there to go?

I strayed onto several naming websites intended for expectant mothers. I know these (and baby name books) are a staple for some writers but I've never found them that useful - until now. I scrolled through the top hundred names of 2002 (and recoiled in horror) then skipped to the alphabetical list. This was going to be a long task, I thought, as I dragged my eyes through 'D'. Then I saw a phrase: 'God is my judge', the loose meaning of the names Daniela and Danielle. I was entranced. A lot more about Danielle (Danni) suddenly fell into place, along with the name of her love interest, Jude ('one who is praised'), and the romanatic antagonist, Michael ('who is like God'). Throw in the name of the bitter therapist, Sandra ('helper of humanity'), and my main cast is suddenly assembled.

The meanings just jumped out at me. It's a very unscientific way of naming, I suppose, but it worked in this instance. However, it hasn't worked in the past. I can't help thinking that next time I need to name characters for a novel I'll find myself in the predicament of staring at a blank page for an hour again.

Then again, maybe I'm over-thinking it? It could be that I'm so caught-up with knowing details (though a name isn't exactly minor!) because I'm trying to put off the business of writing.

And we've all done that at some point.

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