Thursday, September 03, 2009

The Naming Game

I'm in the process of fleshing out the cast of WILLA, my new historical (1784, New York), and I'm having fun with names.

I find it interesting how names get attached to various characters, and how different the process is for each, as individual as the characters themselves. Sometimes a name springs out of the ether, so to speak, and a character evolves to wear that name. This is what happened with my protagonist, Willa. Her full Christian name (she has others) is Wilhelmina Dagna Obenchain. A mouthful, that, but I knew her first as Willa of Ramshackle, and saw her as a middle-aged woman, of German heritage, wise in the ways of herbs, both European/Colonial and Native, puttering outside a backwoods cabin in her herb garden. The story I'm writing tells how she became that woman.

Obenchain is the name of a street not far from where I live. I get a lot of names from street signs.

Another major character, Neil MacGregor, I've lifted from an unfinished contemporary story (which the cancer interrupted ten years ago, and never could get my mind wrapped around it again to finish it). It's been interesting to see how he has changed in small ways after transplanting him into the 18th century, giving him as near an approximation of back story and current challenges and goals as I could. Despite having survived a similar devastation as I'd created for him in the contemporary story, my historical Neil is emotionally stronger, spiritually centered, and far less angst-ridden than his contemporary version. Is it because it was a time when men were men? (wink)

I like to hunt up photos of actors, or just random folk, for a visual representation of my characters. Sometimes I have a general idea what sort of character someone will be, but I haven't settled on a name. I throw names at them like pasta at a wall, to see if one will stick. Often one will early on, but sometimes I need to find the visual template first. This happened with my antagonist, Richard Waring. I had his last name chosen for the way it looks on the page. It's pronounced WARE-ing, but it looks like "warring" and that word says a lot about Richard. Anyway, no first name would stick to him, until I found his face. He's James Preston Rogers, but he's also Richard.

I also have Mohawk characters to name. This required tracking down resources with Iroquois names, their tribe, clan and meaning, which happily I managed to do, at least for a short list. As well as their Mohawk names, these characters have Christian names too. For Joseph Stillwater/Theyanoguin (Long-Bow, or perhaps The Western Door is Open), I've cast Eric Schweig, as he looked in a movie called The Broken Chain.

I had to think through why this character has both of those names. They weren't chosen arbitrarily by those who gave them to him, or in the case of his Christian name, why he chose it for himself. So I couldn't choose them arbitrarily either. I had to understand Joseph, his history, his soul, to understand why he bears the names he does. All that required hours of thought and research. On a name! For one character!

Once the main cast has been named, I start naming secondary and minor characters. I make sure they go well with the main cast's names. Not too many starting with the same letter, or all of them two-syllables, or too many of them ending in "a" or any other sound. I like to include as many different ethnic names as possible, to represent the melting pot that was the American frontier in the 18th C. In this story will be Irish, Scottish, German, and Mohawk, for starters. There's a wealth of obscure Biblical names to draw from, which were in use at the time, as any perusal of early census records will reveal. Census records, especially from 1790, are a gold mind. So is my family tree.

What I love best is when a character has remained nebulous to me, refusing to declare herself, but I find a name and it sticks and suddenly she's living and moving and having her being, as though the name were all the magic it needed to animate her, and get her to spill her life story to me, and what she wants, and how she means to get it.

Naming characters is one of my favorite parts of novel writing. Anyone else have other ways of naming their characters?

4 comments:

  1. Lori ~
    There is a road in the nearby mountains that begs to be used as a character name. 'Scravel' has a certain ring to it, and each time I pass it, I vow to bring it to the page. :-)

    I'm anxious to learn more about Joseph Stillwater/Theyanoguin. (Was that actor in 'Last of the Mohicans' as well?)

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  2. Sallie,

    Yep. Eric is best known for his role as Uncus in LOTM. He's been in a lot of films, including Squanto: A Warrior's Tale and Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee (both of those with Adam Beach starring). He's also an artist. He makes Native masks.

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  3. I think I need to make some additions to my Netflix queue. ;)

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  4. The Broken Chain is good too (Eric plays Joseph Brandt, the Mohawk leader who fought in the Revolutionary War with the British). There are some VHS copies on Ebay. I don't think it was ever released as a Region 1 DVD, or if it was, no one is selling their copy. I've found a Region 2 DVD, but that won't play on my machine. I was glad to see that for the most part the movie followed the historical account. So cool to see a lot of what I've researched lately dramatized.

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