Sunday, October 11, 2009

Making Changes that Help the Writing Process

Hello there,

In drafting my plot sentence for my new novel, The Rope, the Tire and the Tree, I realized that my three main characters were inappropriately named. Writers give their characters names for many reasons. Sometimes they are named after real people they've known who possess the ideology of their characters. Sometimes they are given names that hold actual meaning to the characters' personalities. Sometimes they are given names simply because they sound good.

When I originally named my characters, Walker Abbey, Karen Madison, and Felicia "Filly" Orlando, I did so by combining all of the above reasons. But, I didn't feel entirely comfortable with any of their names overall. I chose the names too quickly. So, I asked myself the question, "How important are the names of not only the main characters, but all the characters in my story?" The answer was simple and came swiftly. Vitally important!

In a novel, or any fiction piece, there is very little time allowed to get the reader "acquainted" with our characters. The reader must have an immediate (desired) response to them, and what is more immediate than your character's name. Additionally, I can't accurately write about my characters if I don't associate with them on the most basic of levels. I needed to create names that held meaning to their personalities, "sounded" good to the inner ear, and made an immediate impact on the reader.

I started with Walker Abbey, a black teenager living in 1925's rural Connecticut. His first name was chosen because the character is a mover in his mind. A self-taught reader, he sees a future out of his life of poverty and oppression. The name Walker gave a sense of movement, of walking toward something and away from something else. I loved the name when I chose it and still do. However, Abbey was simply chosen because I thought it sounded good at the time. It held no meaning, however, and I feel now it is too soft for such a strong character. I changed it to Jacobs, which I liked better. The hard "c" and "b" sounds resounded with his first name. But Jacobs has an intrinsic ethnicity to it that doesn't apply to Walker. Instead of relying purely on sound, I then researched names that meant "strong" and finally found Conrad. It was perfect. Walker Conrad, a strong name for a strong boy eager to move up and out of his life of hardship.

Next, I addressed Karen Madison, an eight-year-old white girl living in what has become the northern Connecticut suburbs in 1970. I wanted her to be an all-American girl; blond, blue-eyed, precocious and adorable. I picked Madison as a last name because it has that Mayflower, all-American feel to it. When we think of the early founders of our country, James Madison, our fourth president, comes to mind. The name also works as a pretty first name for girls, so I liked her having a last name that was reflective of a pretty first name. So, Madison was perfect. Karen, however, I chose by researching popular fist names for girls in the 1960's (when she was born). Karen was a clear winner and also the name of a friend of mine in the 1960's, but after saying the name again and again, it just wasn't beautiful enough. I needed the reader to instantly fall in love with this little girl. She had to grab their hearts. She also has an everlasting quality about her. No matter what happens to her, she will be eternally remembered as that perfect little girl. In my research, I found the name Anastasia. It's a Greek name that means resurrection and springtime. Youthful and eternal, lovely and classic. Called Anna by her brother, which means grace and also is classic in nature, the name embraced everything about this character. So, she is now Anastasia (Anna) Madison.

Felicia "Filly" Orlando, my a current-day wife and mother who is fruitlessly trying to mend her troubled family in comfortable Enfield, CT was my hardest challenge. Her name was wrong on both ends. I wanted her to have a name that wasn't too common but not too abstract. I initially named her Summer Hopewell. The last name was chosen for it's hopeful quality. Even though this woman is partly responsible for the troubles in her family, she is not a bad person and I wanted the reader to be sympathetic to her and see hope in her future. But Hopewell was too obvious and sounded forced. Summer was for the pure sound quality of it and didn't match her personality. I then chose Felicia because it sounded more mature, but I softened it by giving her the nickname "Filly." Orlando was chosen because I decided I wanted her to be married to an Italian man. As someone who was raised in a mixed-Italian/Canadian household, I am very familiar with the tensions and family dynamics of these strong ethnic personalities. I knew I had to relate to this woman on a personal level in order to write about her accurately, so I was certain she should be not Italian herself, but married to an Italian man. But, again, after saying the name out loud a few time, Felicia sounded too mature, and Filly too silly, if you will. And Orlando reminded me too much of Florida or Tony Orlando, so I threw the name away entirely and started over. Third times a charm. After extensive research I decided upon Mercy as a first name; pretty and sympathetic, with a hint of sorrow and just unique enough to be appealing. Amoretto became her last name. It has that wonderful Italian flavor, beginning and ending in a vowel, it's lovely to the ear, and it means "love." Because she is the most central character and the plot centers around the concept of love, the name - Mercy Amoretto - was ideal!

So, there you have it. The long process of naming my three main characters is complete. You may ask, "Is it worth it, taking so much time and energy for just a name?" Absolutely. Will the reader know all the details of the meanings of the names without the lengthy explanation that I provided here? Maybe, maybe not. But even the most subtle or subconscious awareness of their meaning is priceless. Furthermore, as the writer of these characters, I must have an absolute understanding of them from the inside out in order to maintain focus and accurately depict their character traits throughout their creation.

Thank you for reading this blog. I hope it helps you in the process of your own writing. I will return upon completing the next phase of my novel. Until then, happy writing!