Naming a character is always a challenge. I’ve tried all sorts of methods — from scrambling names from an old address book to finding names in works of literature. I’ve come to the conclusion that I need different M.O.s (modus operandi) for different characters.
Although I’ve been known to “base” characters on real people, until very recently I never named a character after that person. The first, and so far only, exception is the bartender named Lisa in my almost-ready-to-e-publish “The Strange Case of Dr. Hyde.” I needed a hotel bar for certain pivotal scenes in the story and, since I have a bartender friend, I did my research at her lobby bar in a midtown hotel. I watched how she interacted with regulars and how she facilitated pleasant conversations AND how she skillfully helped some customers escape the clutches of a boring or obnoxious patron. I asked Lisa’s permission to the call the bartender Lisa, and she agreed.
Some of my name games are strategic. Names are often rooted in specific times, places and ethnicities. So a current project, peopled with Argentine immigrant characters, has a cast list that includes: Pablo, Hector, Marissa, Rosa, etc. One of the things New York and Buenos Aires have in common are names that mix a first name from one background with a family name from another — so there’s a Jorge (George in Spanish) Buonocore (good heart in Italian) and an Alejandra (Alexandra in Spanish) Jacobs (Jewish family name), among the characters. In New York I know tons of people with English first names and Chinese last names, Irish first names and Jewish last names and more mixes.
In addition, there are cultural and religious traditions concerning “recycling” names. In some traditions a child is named for a deceased loved one and other cultures honor living relatives. I remember an Irish family where most of the men were named John or Martin. The girls were Mary Ellen, Mary Alice, Mary Beth — you get the picture.
Time is also an important factor in choosing a name. I only had two aunts and both of them were named Edith. A coincidence? Not really. My father’s older sister and the wife of my mother’s older brother were both born in the early 1920s and were both named after Edith Cavell — a hero of WWI. She was a British nurse working in a hospital in occupied Belgium and was executed by a German firing squad after having been found guilty of aiding the escape of allied injured soldiers in her care. A LOT of little girls in Great Britain and the U.S. were named after Edith Cavell in the years following the First World War.
Names migrate through time, rising and falling out of fashion and sometimes popping up in different ethnic groups. My dad’s name, Marvin, was popular in Jewish families of his generation, but if you say the name Marvin to someone my age they’ll think about Marvin Haggler, Marvin Lewis, Marvin Jones or Marvin Gaye. I didn’t grow up with any girls named Sophia, Emma, Isabella, Olivia or Ava — the top five girls names of 2013. Everyone seemed to be named Nancy, Susan, Robin, Beth or Wendy — none of which made the top 100 names in the Social Security administration’s list as of this May.
Some names are stories. My name is definitely a story. Long before my parents met, my mom saw a production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Candida” with a young and gorgeous Marlon Brando playing the romantic, young poet who falls in love with Candida. When my mom was pregnant with me she read a mystery by Patricia Wentworth with a heroine named Candida and that reminded her of that wonderful production of the Shaw play. (Yes, Candy is short for Candida.) A few years ago, my mom and I were attending a mystery conference and I found hardcover copy of that particular Patricia Wentworth for a Mother’s Day present.
Finding the right name can be an adventure.