01 September 2011

What's in a Last Name?

Finding a name for a character can sometimes be agonizing. I can spend hours pouring over books of baby names or websites that will give meanings and etymology, trying to find that one perfect gem of a name that will sum up the entire character. I feel clever for having found something so perfect, hoping my readers will research the name as well and acknowledge just how spectacular my choice was.

Every once in a while, though, I don’t have to do research or make a list of names to choose from. Something special and almost mystical happens that lets me know I’ve stumbled upon a life partner of a story—one that infuses itself into the very core of my being. How do I know this? I don’t think about the characters’ names, not even for a second. They instantly pop into my head, as if that person was standing next to me and whispered his or her name into my ear. I never question it.

This has only happened to me twice and always for the two main characters of the story. I always write fiction in first person, and at a certain point I try to carve out an identity that makes the character seem more real—birthday, zodiac sign, hobbies, and yes, a last name. It’s never as easy as the first. I can spend hours, days, even weeks mulling the name over until it feels right. But in the case of two of my darlings, once I had made the decision, there was no turning back.

My brainchild since I was fourteen has been a young adult fantasy novel called Bleeding Life, which I’ve written three (yes, three) times. This story was the first time that I didn’t have to think about character names. The decision was so immediate that I couldn’t really call it a decision at all. But that wasn’t the freaky part. Eventually I was deciding upon every single detail of these characters’ lives, and had given them middle and last names. But something didn’t sit right with me about my narrator, Amber’s last name—Johnson. It was too boring, too generic. I decided to change it. 

Back in those days, I decided on last names by flipping blindly through a phone book. If the name sounded reasonable, I went with it. So, the only logical next move was to pick a new last name for Amber. I grabbed the phone book and closed my eyes, thumbed through the pages and opened the book in lap. My finger scanned the page and stopped. I opened my eyes. I was pointing directly at “Johnson.” After a few seconds of shock, I slammed the phone book closed and put it away. There was obviously no fighting this. I had given Amber a specific identity, and to change it now would mean changing who she was as a character. And she had other plans in mind.

More recently my obsessions have shifted onto a new story, one that started with just an idea to write about a teacher-student relationship. Something provocative and out of my usual comfort zone. What I didn’t realize was how much this story would end up consuming me. Things happened so rapidly that I couldn’t really question or control it. For this story, choosing the gender of my characters took longer than choosing their names. After the approximate four hours that I wasn’t sure, once the decision was made (both characters are male) the names came to me like two light bulbs turning on inside my brain at the same time.

My narrator/muse/literary soul mate—is a fifteen-year-old, bisexual, fledgling sociopath named Jordan. I had it floating in the back of my head that his last name would be Palmer. I wasn’t quite committed to it, but it was the only name that had stuck. I figured I could keep searching, maybe find something better.

But recently my boyfriend was driving me home after taking a walk down by the beach. I was sort of idly looking at street signs on the left side of the road when we came across a street named Jordan Dr. “Oh, haha,” I mused to myself, “I want to live there!” As we drove on, I was already forgetting about it when we came across the next street sign: Palmer St. I did a sort of double take as we zoomed past. It was like a moment of clarity. You see? the universe was saying. You were right all along! Don’t go around messing things up!

Were both of these instances a coincidence? I don’t like to believe that. The circumstances were just too strange, that I just happened to be looking at street signs that day, that my finger just happened to land on that particular spot in the phone book. So yes, on some level I believe that these characters have taken control of their own existences. If I try to change them, the universe will find some way to show me that I’m wrong. And ultimately, it’s all about trusting my first instincts, even if it’s only for a name.

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