Thursday, 9 February 2012

It's tricky, finding the right name, by Paeony Lewis

Writers flounder if they can’t find the right names for their characters. Even with picture books, the story doesn’t come alive in our imagination. Mary Hoffman says, “I simply can't write a character till I know their name. And if I get the name wrong, the character won't come right till I change it. Right from the start I instinctively know the names of some characters. This happened with Grace of Amazing Grace."

Unfortunately not all names and characters burst into life, fully formed. So how does a writer decide on a name? Of course, all writers work differently. However, sometimes writers use the names of young family and friends. Diana Kimpton remembers that, “In The Bear Father Christmas Forgot, the child, Madeleine, was named after my niece who had just been born.”

Whilst author, Ragnhild Scamell, says, “Although I live in Britain, I’m Danish by birth. Danish names often suggest themselves to me, and that makes life a little difficult, so I frequently end up using the names of children I know and love.” In fact, there is one Danish name, Vigo, that Ragnhild does intend to use in a future picture book. Vigo is her grandson and Ragnhild wants to celebrate her ‘Little Viking’ who is battling to walk.*

With my stories, I rarely use the names of somebody I know. Instead, names leap out at me from the pages of a book of baby names that sits on a shelf above my desk. In No More Biscuits (followed by No More Yawning), my characters Florence and Arnold began life with the names Becky and Squiffy Duck. Then they became Becky and Floppy Rabbit. Then Florence and Rabbity. And finally Florence and Arnold.

Why did I keep changing the names? As the story developed over many months, the characters altered. Cute, eager-to-please Becky became strong-willed, independent, imaginative Florence. The old Becky liked to drag Rabbity around by his ear. The new Florence understood that a stuffed rabbit hated having his ear pulled. Then the toy became a monkey and as Arnold is totally real to Florence, he had to have a real name, not a silly toy name.

Not every character’s name is borrowed from a child or found in a book of baby names. Jane Clarke has an intriguing method: “I begin with a thesaurus, listing words that fit the animal I want to write about, and then I try morphing each word until I find one or more that makes a familiar-sounding name. For example, Gilbert is a shark and his name incorporates thefishy word gill. I like a name that sounds sturdy, friendly, slightly unusual and timeless - and it makes me very happy when I can find it.”

Sometimes publishers want to change the names we’ve given our characters. In Best Friends or Not?, the two little polar bears were originally named Lucy and Eva. I can understand why the publisher wanted to use more general, Arctic names, but it took a bit of getting used to! They suggested Nanook, and I came up with Suka (a popular name for Arctic husky dogs), and Nanook and Suka were born.

The same publisher helped Moira Munro with one of her characters in the Hamish series. “In a surge of writing confidence, I was inspired to name the big bear ‘Whizziguff’ in my story. Now that is original! The publishers kindly suggested we call him ‘Big Bear'."

Big Bear?
Are you thinking that’s a bit generic? I’ve been thinking about this and I feel that in some instances general names like Big Bear, Little Duck, Elephant and Mouse are the best choice. I’m not sure I can say precisely why – it just feels right. Can others cast light on this? Maybe it’s linked to traditional oral storytelling where a character is more easily introduced,visualised and remembered if they’re just called the princess, stepmother, witch, little pig, etc. But that doesn’t explain why we often use names like Big Bear and Little Duck in printed books. Perhaps we want a more general emotional response to the character, rather than individualism?

Of course, it doesn’t really matter how a character is named, as long as it’s the right name. Having said that, sometimes a name is changed in an overseas edition of a British book. In a South Korean edition of my I’ll Always Love You, the bear Alex becomes Bobo. That’s fine by me as I think Bobo is a cute name and less ‘Western’ than Alex. Anyway, we seldom have a clue what has been done to the text because few British children’s authors can read languages such as Korean, Chinese or Arabic!

I wonder if anyone knows the most popular names in picture books published outside the UK? It would be interesting to discover more about this. Plus I’m always intrigued to hear how other writers decide on the names of their fictional characters. Do tell!

Paeony Lewis is a children’s book author http://www.paeonylewis.com/

*Find out more about Ragnhild's grandson, Vigo, who wants to walk. http://www.vigoswishtowalk.co.uk/

12 comments:

  1. What a great blog - I love the idea of using a thesaurus for deciding a name. For my first two books the characters were mice and I saw them living in the hedgerow, so decided to use names linked to this. So I grabbed my book of native English plant names. For my third book 'Dog Did It' I knew the character was a troll so had to have a Nordic feel to it. And Dog stayed as Dog - the name just seemed to fit.

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    1. Many thanks, Lynne. I was also intrigued by Jane's method. Liked your idea too about the hedgerow - so that's where Bramble originated! Yes, it's strange isn't how sometimes a name like Dog is the right name. Still can't figure why...

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  2. Yes, names are SO important, Paeony. I wrote a picture book called 'Oliver on the Other Side of the World Getting Smaller' Unfortunately Walker had another book with Oliver in the title just about to come out, so asked me to come up with a new name. Once a character's named that's who they are, and it's AGONY to have to change it! Eventually I found just one other name that seemed to work - Antonio.

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    1. So interesting, Malachy. When reading aloud, did you stumble over Antonio for a while as it has more syllables?

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    2. I did, but I could see him in my mind's eye as an Antonio. It was the only other name in the whole wide world that worked for him, so Antonio he was and is, in perpetuity.

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  3. When I used to teach in primary school I remember the frustration in English lessons of having at least one table of children not writing a thing because they couldn't decide on the character's name. All I wanted was some writing from them but maybe they were authors in training! Personally I find that it's often useful to give the characters temporary names until I get to know them better.

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    1. Ha ha, Rosalind, of course the children couldn't possibly write until they understood their character's inner psyche ;-) When I'm writing first notes I'll often just use X and Y.

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  4. I have a list of (hundreds) of names I like and am slowly working through them in my stories. When I'm in schools I often ask if anyone has a first name they think I might not have heard before (of course all the Deans and Jasons put their hands up, too, but I jot down any that appeal and tell them they might end up in one of my stories. It always goes down well.

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  5. I agree - the main characters names are so important. But I do like to sneak in character names for friends who have helped my stories, or people I love; so some of my bit part characters share the names of those close to me. It's my fun little secret!

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  6. What an excellent way to collect names, Malachy. Whenever I sign a book I jot down the name to check I have the correct spelling (even very simple names can have weird personal spellings that catch me out if I don't check!), and then I study the names afterwards as they intrigue me.
    Abie, I love that. And is everyone happy with their book character?!

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  7. I've come rather late to these picture book blogs. They are great.
    ABOUT NAMES: I wrote my story "My Big Brother JJ" based on my son's school friend. He was called Darren, but the publishers thought "JJ" was a more up-to-date name. I was glad to change it. I have spoken in schools and met real-life "JJ"s and they have always beamed with satisfaction that a story is named after them!

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  8. Thanks, Odette. Good point: I hadn't thought about initials, and you're right, they're often used (especially by older children).

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