Scarlett O’Hara was originally called Pansy. If Margaret Mitchell had kept that name, would this character from her epic novel ever have become so popular? I doubt it. A Pansy would be sweet and biddable with rare moments of stubbornness, but she could never be as strong-willed as Scarlett, and she would never have caught and kept the attention of such a worldly man as Rhett.
Though Scarlett fits the name of the character in Gone With the Wind, it could not be the name of a medieval heroine. In those days, almost all girls were named Mary, with Elizabeth coming in a distant second. I suppose if Gone With the Wind were written in the 1980s, Scarlett’s name would have been Heather. Odd to think that in another forty years, youth will scorn that name as being old-fashioned, fit only for elderly women, much like Effie is today. (I shudder to think how many babies being born right now are being named Britney, Lindsay, or Paris.)
But I digress. The point I’m trying to make is that names matter. I had fun naming my aged gangsters in Daughter Am I. In keeping with the times -- bootlegger times, that is -- I gave them nicknames that matched their characters. (Now that I think of it, I don’t remember what their “real” names were, only their nicknames.) I called my wise old conman “Teach,” my dapper little old forger “Kid Rags,” my ex-wrestler “Crunchy.”
And then there’s my hero, poor Mary. She starts out so young and innocent, and ends up on a road trip with six feisty old gangsters and one ex-nightclub dancer. I had not intended for her to keep the name Mary. It’s so not the name of a heroine of today! Nor is my Mary a medieval maiden. I named the character Mary Stuart after Mary Stuart Masterson in the film Bed of Roses because both Marys were strong but vulnerable when it came to love, both were very smart yet a bit naive. I never did change my Mary’s name. By the time I finished the book, the character and the name were inextricably entwined. At least it’s fairly innocuous. Like Margaret Mitchell, I could have named my heroine Pansy. Ouch.
So, what's in a name? How do you choose your names? Why do you use the names you do? How do you keep track of them so that you don't have too many names the same? (In of my books, the villain and the red herring both had the same initials. I have no idea how that happened, but I do my best to make sure it doesn't happen again!) As writers, we have to name everything -- people, places, businesses. What do you want these names to convey? As a reader, how do names color your view of a character?
As always, any topic that will help us improve our writing is fair game in these discussions, so feel free to bring up any of your writing concerns.
The group No Whine, Just Champagne will meet here at this article for a live discussion about writing and the writing life on Thursday, December 15, 2011 at 9:00pm ET (8pm CT, 7pm MT, 6pm PT). Hope to see you, but if you can't make it then, the discussion will continue during the days afterward, so please stop by and tell us what you think.