Please welcome our honored guest for today, Jeanne Matthews. Jeanne is the author of the Dinah Pelerin mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press, including Bones of Contention, Bet Your Bones, Bonereapers, and Her Boyfriend’s Bones. Like her anthropologist sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust and she sets each of her books in a different part of the world. Originally from Georgia, she currently lives in Renton, Washington.
For more information, visit her website at www.jeannematthews.com.
I’ve often wondered if a person’s given name creates, or significantly influences, his personality and prospects in life. A name inevitably leaves an impression in the minds of others. Is it soft and feminine? Strong and manly? Traditional and ancestral? Ethnic and exotic? Or just plain weird? For American parents, anything goes. There are aspirational names – Money, Lawyer, Queen; cute and folksy names – Boots, Pistol, Chips; and names that suggest moral guidance such as Chastity, Patience, and Honor. Some individuals change their names to proclaim their politics. Low Tax Looper, Nigel Freemarijuana, and america (no cap) Hoffman come to mind. And there are absurd names, notably the children of Frank Zappa – Moon Unit, Dweezil, and Diva Thin Muffin Pigeen Zappa. Of course, the Zappas aren’t the only parents to hang an albatross of ridiculous nomenclature around their children’s necks. One can’t help but pity the children cumbered with names like Optimus Prime, Legal Tender, and the short but somewhat sinister They.
Americans enjoy a boundless freedom in the matter of naming, but some countries are less tolerant. German law requires that the first name reflect the sex of a child and it is verboten to use any name that, in the opinion of the Office of Vital Statistics, would endanger the well-being of the child. For example, you can’t name him after an object or a product or an animal. Swedish law prohibits any first name that may cause discomfort or embarrassment to the one so called, and the French, while not quite as strict, do not allow names that might subject a child to mockery. Denmark protects its infant citizens from odd names and New Zealand nixes any name that might give offense, or which is too long, or which resembles an official title or rank. However, the Kiwis aren’t without a sense of humor. The names Violence and Midnight Chardonnay have been deemed acceptable, and Benson and Hedges was approved for a set of twins. With the decline in smoking, most young people probably don’t remember that B & H was once a popular brand of cigarettes.
Fiction writers are heavily invested in the business of naming and we are unconstrained by law or by concern for the long-term effects of a name upon a real person. With each new book we have a fresh cast of characters to christen and we tend to be as sentimental and particular about our characters’ names as any parent, especially when it comes to the designation of our main character. Choosing a name that will linger in the public imagination is not easy. Occasionally, the first stab at a moniker doesn’t catch the right vibe. Sherlock Holmes came within a gnat’s nib of being Sherringford Holmes. Scarlett O’Hara started out as Pansy O’Hara. Holly Golightly of “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” fame began as Connie Gustafson. Raymond Chandler originally wanted to name his PI Marlowe after Sir Thomas Mallory and in “Moby Dick,” Herman Melville launched the Pequod with a man named Bulkington at the helm. Neither the character nor the name resonated and after a few chapters, Melville threw him overboard and turned the ship over to a character he dubbed Ahab. Nebuchadnezzar, the king of ancient Babylon, may not have minded his jawbreaker of a name. But Mark Twain summed up the danger inherent in a clunky name when he lamented that some men with a potential for greatness had been “Nebuchadnezzared into nothing.”
The lesson of Nebuchadnezzar notwithstanding, distinctive and memorable names help readers keep the characters in a novel straight. The fine art is in picking a name that captures the spirit of a character and sounds more and more fitting and intrinsic as the character develops and understanding deepens. Like it or lump it, if an author doesn’t change a character’s name before his book goes to press, there’s no looking back. A real person can shed a name she doesn’t like and choose another. But a fictional character, once tagged and released into the public, is forever stuck with the handle assigned by her creator.