Naming Characters: A Novel-Writing Game for Memoirists

THERE’S A FERAL KITTEN living in my back yard. She’s one of a small community of cats I feed. They’ve all been neutered, and a handful of kittens have been adopted out, too. For the most part, the cats that have returned come and go—and I remain unattached.

But not so with little Button. I named her on the way back from a vet appointment, where it was determined she was too young for a rabies shot and would need to live in my bathroom for a month before she could be spayed and inoculated. I called a friend to report this—and that the kitten now had a name: Button.

Once Button returned to the yard, I told the same friend I was particularly concerned about this kitten’s well-being. My friend said, “Of course you are. You named her Button.”

Right. I named her—and adorably—and now she lives both physically, in my yard, and vividly, in my imagination. This is the power of naming.

This same friend is named “Mary Katherine,” a moniker about which she is not thrilled. She’d be happy as a “Kate,” but her family has always called her “Mary.” Now, at fifty, she’s stuck with it, and perhaps in the role her family imagines for her, too.

If naming something makes it ours, naming something correctly gives it a life of its own.

Memoir to novel: “A” my name is …

When we’re fictionalizing our lives, using them for novel-writing fodder, the first thing we might do is find a name for our main character that differentiates her from us. This gives her some breathing room, lets her live out her story on her own terms. It creates the possibility that the story we’re telling—even though based in our own experience—could come to surprise us.

Maybe we give our fictionalized self a name that reflects a trait we wish we had. If I were to write a novel using my life as a starting point, I’d likely name my main character “Claire.” I’d do this in hopes she would understand the roads I’ve traveled more “clearly” than I do. That facing at least some of the crossroads I’ve faced, she’d make clearer-eyed choices than I did—choices that would take her down different paths than those I followed. I’d be fascinated to see where such clarity might have led me.

Writer friend Jill Louise, after working on what she believed to be a non-autobiographical novel for ten years, suddenly realized (after ten years!) she’d actually named her main character for the small Midwestern town in which she herself was raised. Oops.

Jill says she now sees this character as representative of her entire life growing up—“the thing that I left,” as she put it. From this, she learned: “You can’t get away from it. You can’t actually write something that’s not about you.”

And then there’s Sarah (not her real name, but a true story). Sarah is a client of mine who is writing a wonderful, wildly fictionalized version of her life—and who has recently changed her main character’s name to one more distinct from “Sarah” than that which she first bestowed on the character.

I’m not sure if changing her main character from “Shari” to “Consuelo” was what turned the tide, but it’s a fact that, recently, Sarah sent Consuelo to face a fictional challenge similar to one in Sarah’s actual life. It’s also a fact that, after writing the scene in which Consuelo meets her antagonist head on and triumphs, Sarah did the same in real life.

Go, Consuelo. Go, Sarah!!

Button

Natalie Goldberg says, “Writers live twice.” With that in mind, name your characters (and your kittens) well. Then, in your second life on the page, let them go forth and do what may have seemed impossible to you the first time around, when you were committed to being the person who carried the name with which you were born.

Novel-writing inspiration

WRITER’S DIGEST article “The 7 Rules for Picking Names for Fictional Characters,” by my pal Elizabeth Sims, is a great starting place for thinking through some character-naming strategies.

Need more? With over 25,000 character names, THE CHARACTER NAMING SOURCEBOOK, by Sherrilyn Kenyon, might put its figurative finger on the handle that best suits your character.

And if you’re turning your life into a medieval tale? Check out NAME YOUR MEDIEVAL CHARACTER, by Joyce DiPastena.

Finally, when I told After Fifty Adventureman, Hugh Holborn, about this post, he steered me toward Robert Heinlein’s STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND because of the number of significantly-named characters the story includes. If you’re interested in learning about some of these names, you’ll find a discussion in Anjelica Mantikas’s article in Shadows of Light: Exploring the Tradition of Utopian and Dystopian Thought. Scroll down to the second paragraph of section III, Historical context and religious references.

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