This month, Fabulous Florida Writers is pleased to welcome guest blogger William Eleazer. William, an attorney and former law professor, is the author of three legal thrillers set in Savannah Georgia. He was our featured writer on September 5, 2014.
I think Roy Peter Clark says it well in his book, Writing Tools. 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer. He puts it this way:
“What’s in a name? For the attentive writer, and the eager reader, the answer can be fun, insight, charm, aura, character, identity, psychosis, fulfillment, inheritance, decorum, indiscretion, and possession.”
Most successful novels have unforgettable characters. The strength and morals of the characters—or lack thereof—are the heart and soul of the novel. Have you ever wondered just how much of a part, if any, the names we choose for our characters play in the novel’s success? No doubt Gone with the Wind would have been successful without naming the main characters Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler, but I think those names were perfect and perhaps even a contributing factor to the novel’s success. It has been reported that during the early drafts of the novel, the author, Margaret Mitchell, referred to Scarlett as “Pansy” and it wasn’t until it was ready for print that “Scarlett” was substituted. Can you imagine the movie with Vivian Lee, the English actress selected from the 1400 who were interviewed for the role of Scarlett, playing it as “Pansy?” I can’t either.
I don’t recall using any specific methodology when selecting the names for Savannah Law. For most characters, I used the names of friends and relatives. (A great marketing tool!) This included the names of all the members of my Friday night poker club. Of course, if the character was evil, deceitful, or weak, I was careful to choose a generic name, one far from any friend or relative. It’s almost impossible to come up with a name that no one in the entire country has, but because my novel’s locale was Savannah, Georgia, for names of the evil characters I checked the internet for anyone in Savannah with that name. Two of the novel’s characters were the sons of a World War II immigrant couple from Estonia, Jaan and Ingrid Terras, who had settled in Springfield, Georgia, a small town near Savannah. And it was here that I made a writing mistake that I still regret.
I needed two Estonian male first names. Neither would be the main character, but both would be major characters. After substantial research to ensure authenticity (which included correspondence with the Estonian Embassy in Washington), I named these two characters “Jaak” and “Juri.” In the novel, I explained that “Jaak” was pronounced YA-ak, and that the Estonian pronunciation of Juri was YER-ee. Bad decision on names! If you are a writer and still reading this, take this to the bank and learn from my mistake: NEVER use names that are hard to pronounce. Several readers have called this to my attention. Sure, the reader is not vocally pronouncing the name, but the mind is, and it’s disconcerting to come to an unfamiliar name that is difficult to pronounce. It simply stops the ease of reading and is unnecessary. For name authenticity, there were dozens of Estonian male names I could have chosen that are the same as our own and easy to pronounce.
In my second novel, The Indictments, which was a sequel to Savannah Law, I made another mistake in naming characters. In Savannah Law, I had introduced Jennifer Stone as the girlfriend of the protagonist, Scott Marino. Jennifer, like Scott, was a law student. She was smart, beautiful, and honest. In The Indictments, I brought in Jessica Valdez, who was also smart and beautiful—but evil. Jessica also sought a relationship with Scott, bringing her into conflict with Jennifer. And the mistake here was in the two first names. Several of my readers informed me that they had difficulty keeping the character names apart, and after reflecting on it, I agree. Both names are common names, but both begin with “J” and both consist of three syllables. Would have been much better with “Claudette” or “Zelma” Valdez. Subtle difference, yes, but from the reader’s viewpoint, important. In selecting character names, the devil is in the details.