Names and personalities…

Do you name your cars?  We do. We called our dark green Camry Katie—she was an Irish lass, you see.  We call our dark red Accord Mr. Rose—that’s a pun connecting the color with Axel Rose of Guns and Roses fame.  An old Tercel was called Charlie Red—he was supposed to be copper-colored (Charlie  Brown), but the dealer couldn’t get that color in stick shift.  All our cars have personalities because naming people or things is related to their personality.

Characters names in books have to be chosen carefully for the same reason.  I often do several iterations because, as I’m writing, I say to myself, “X wouldn’t do that!” (Or, at the risk of appearing schizoid, the character might tell me I have it wrong.)  I could change what X does, but it’s often better to find a replacement name that feels right to me (and the character).  As a consequence, I don’t suffer from writer’s block, I suffer from name block.  I find it hard to continue until I find just the right name.

Let’s consider Bastiann van Coevorden, a main character in Rembrandt’s Angel (he also had several cameos in the “Detectives Chen and Castilblanco Series,” on sale now at Smashwords). He’s an Interpol Agent and Scotland Yard Inspector Esther Brookstone’s paramour.  I describe the character as looking like David Suchet’s Hercule Poirot, who was Belgian. Poirot is a French-sounding surname, of course, so why didn’t I make Bastiann Belgian or French instead of Dutch? My main excuse is that the Dutch king was involved in Aristocrats and Assassins, where Bastiann first appeared, so I made him Dutch. His mother was French, though, as you’ll discover if you read Rembrandt’s Angel. After all these verbal acrobatics, my choice of name still matches the character’s personality. Maybe “matches” isn’t the best word.  In a sense his name defines his personality, and vice versa. He’s the Hercule Poirot half of the romantic pair; Esther is the Miss Marple half.

I might be wrong about this, but I think this happens with real people too. Some parents agonize over their children’s names. They used to sell books with baby names from all over the world—I still have one on my shelf that I still use, but there are websites with first names and surnames and their meanings. Just google “Dutch first names” and “Dutch surnames” to find some, for example. Parents choose names carefully, and one reason is that it can influence their child’s personality and many other things.

The other thing influencing a parents’ choice of the first name that their child will have is how it sounds (some cultures might not have surnames per se, but most do, although the order might be reversed—Detective Chen would be Chen Dao-Ming in China, not Dao-Ming Chen). How the total name sounds can be important. I didn’t think Chen Dao-Ming sounded as good as Dao-Ming Chen, so I chose the anglicized version for Detective Castilblanco’s partner. Either one fits her personality, though. She’s a Chinese-American with a very American background, growing up on Long Island, high school and college diving star, and U.S. Army veteran. Chen isn’t an unusual surname, though, and is about as common as Moore. There’s even a Chen who serves as a medical officer’s intern on the starship Brendan in my Dr. Carlos sci-fi stories.

Do authors have to worry about matching each character’s name with the character’s personality? Yes! I’m an avid reader, and I have all too often been stopped in my tracks when I come across a name that just doesn’t seem right. An author should choose a character’s name as carefully as s/he chooses the name of a son or a daughter. I’m not saying that you have to look at a list of the most common names chosen in 1962 if that’s when your character was born, though. The character’s parents might have wanted their child to have an unusual name. Spend some time on your choices and find one that works with the personality and sounds great; that will improve your book.

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Rembrandt’s Angel (Penmore Press). Solid entertainment for that VIP reader on your gift list—maybe you?—no sales, no gimmickry, but exciting mystery, thrills, and adventure. A Scotland Yard Inspector becomes obsessed with recovering a painting stolen by the Nazis in World War Two. Her paramour and Interpol Agent helps her out. Available in print format at your favorite bookstore—they’ll order it if they don’t have it.  Also available in ebook and print formats on Amazon and in ebook format at Smashwords and its affiliated retailers (Apple, B&N, Kobo, etc) for online shoppers. See the review and interview on Feathered Quill.

In libris libertas….

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