Should fictional characters look and act like their names? Do people’s actions create opinions about their names? Or do the names make the person?
When I was in grade school, I had two friends, Beverly and Virginia. One was tall and slim with long silky dark hair and the other was shorter and stockier with curly short hair and a more boisterous disposition. To this day, I think their parents should have swapped names because Virginia fit the tall friend better than Beverly and Beverly fit the short friend better than Virginia. Why did I think that? Was it based on other Virginia’s and Beverly’s I had met or fictional characters I had read about?
If you watch The Office television show on NBC, one of the main foils in the show is Dwight Schrute. I don’t think I’ve ever known a Dwight, not closely enough to remember anyway. The image I get in my head is of Dwight D. Eisenhower, a balding white-haired military man and President. You couldn’t pay me to name any son of mine Dwight. Sorry, that’s just the way it is. So for the show The Office, Dwight is aptly named.
My sister was given a name in the 60’s that was then considered rather lovely, although very hard to spell. Today “Sylvia” is considered an old lady’s name and very unpopular. Even though I grew up with her and called her Sylvia all my life (well not totally true–we adopted a derivative nickname for her early on), she doesn’t seem like a Sylvia. (Of course, she’d probably say that I don’t seem like a “Claire” and she’d be right since it is a pen name afterall.)
So what does all this mean in fiction? If we have a free-spirited character, should we name her Daphne and not Gilda? What if the reason she is so free spirited is because her name was Gilda and she rebelled against the stereotype? In my mother’s day, Gilda was a hot name, perhaps because of the movie of the same name that starred Rita Hayworth, the sex bomb of the time, in a femme fatale role. My generation is more likely to think of Gilda Radner, the very talented comedienne of SNL fame in the 70’s. I have no idea what the generation after mine thinks of that name.
As a writer, how do we choose our character’s names? Do we envision what their parents must have been like and therefore what name they would have chosen? Or do we pick a currently popular or personal favorite name for our protagonist? To be honest, I never thought that much about it. A name popped into my head and I ran with it. I resigned myself to the randomness of the choice and decided that perhaps there was something otherworldly, as if the character herself or himself had drawn me close and whispered it in my ear. I could no more dispute and change it than I could my own name.
So it’s always a little amusing to me when people who read my stories tell me they don’t like the name. My husband had an issue with the name “Guy” that I plucked out of the air for a flash fiction story. My writing partner didn’t like “Gayle” so I renamed my character “Gwen” because it had to be a hard “G” name. “Why a G?” she asked. I couldn’t tell her. I had no rational explanation other than that’s how it was. Maybe names beginning with a hard G sound bother everyone but me? I may switch it back to Gayle or I may leave it Gwen. I still think the character is Gayle in my head but she’s told me she doesn’t mind using a pen name while I’m fleshing out her world, fixing plot flaws, bad grammar and punctuation mistakes. Good woman, Gayle, er I mean Gwen.