25th Trillium Award

Fiction Craft by Shaun Smith, et al.

 
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WHAT'S IN A NAME?

With Robert J. Sawyer, Kate Pullinger, Eric Walters, Jessica Westhead, Suzette Mayr, Clark Blaise, Deborah Kerbel and Stephen Kelman

Welcome to the first installment of a new, monthly column called Fiction Craft, about the nuts’n’bolts of writing fiction, in which I will be asking authors questions about how they approach their work. Each month the question will change, as will the group of authors.

This month’s question: How do you name your characters?

For me, naming a character is one of the fun little moments of creation that is afforded to an author as something to counterbalance (however inadequately) the more daunting aspects of writing fiction, such as plotting and revision. I do not have any set rules for naming characters, but I do have some tricks and tools. For instance, to the right of my desk is a set of shelves holding hundreds of books and when I need a character name, sometimes I will scan the spines of the books looking for one that seems to fit the character in question. Of course, I’ll never call a character “Shirley Jackson” or “Elmore Leonard”, but I might give a character the name of Shirley or Lenny.

At other times, I will choose a name that has specific meaning for me from someone I’ve known in my personal life. That meaning, of course, will not translate to the reader, but I use the tactic to set up an internal resonance for myself so that the character will be linked to that real person—and their traits—in my mind. Thus, if I am creating an nasty character, I might choose the name of someone I’ve known who has struck me as being less than kind. It will be the reverse for a good character.

Character names sometimes have thematic meaning. In my novel Snakes & Ladders, two children spend time guarding a duck’s nest from a snake. I decided to give their mother the name of Susan, or as one character calls her, “Susie,” because in certain circles — especially amongst hunters — a female duck is sometimes called a “Suzy” and the person who calls my character Susie is definitely on the hunt, and not in a good way.

Another example from Snakes & Ladders comes to mind. I used to work in a busy bookstore where a steady flow of people came through the door every day. There was an elderly lady who would come in once every few weeks to buy murder mysteries. I had created a grandmotherly old woman for my novel, but I was having difficulty naming her. When I saw this old lady in the shop, it was as though my character had sprung to life and walked in the door. The physical description of the character in the book is pretty much a description of this old lady, and when she put down her VISA card to pay for a book, I even borrowed her first name for my character. So Lianne, wherever you are, many thanks.

And many thanks as well to this month's participating authors. Let’s find out how they name their characters.
 
 
ROBERT J. SAWYER is the author of over twenty books of fiction. He has won all three top science-fiction awards — The Hugo Award, The Nebula Award and The John W. Campbell Memorial Award. His new book, Wonder, has just been released from Penguin. Sawyer lives in Mississauga, Ontario.

I'm a science-fiction writer — meaning my characters sometimes aren't human, and, even if they are, they sometimes live in the future. For some non-human characters, I simply come up with pleasing-sounding names made of nonsense syllables. There's reason to believe Neanderthals couldn't make the long-e sound (as in our word "meet"), so all my modern-day Neanderthal characters in my Hugo Award-winning Hominids and its sequels have names that leave out that phoneme; my main character in those books is named Ponter Boddit simply because I liked the sound of it.

Sometimes I name characters in honor of friends of mine. For instance, I have a friend named Peter Halasz, and the main alien character of my novel Calculating God is called Hollus — a phonetic rendering of Peter's last name — in his honour. The main character of my novel Far-Seer is Afsan; his name is the acronym for my high-school science-fiction club (which I founded) backwards: NASFA, the Northview Association for Science Fiction Addicts.

Sometimes I auction off naming a character after a real person to raise money for charity. The characters Lloyd Penney in Illegal Alien, Bonnie Jean Mah in Hominids, Andrew Porter in Mindscan, Anna Bloom in Wake, and Todd Bertsch in Wonder all are real people who ended up in my books this way.

Finally, when I'm writing books set in the near future, I look at census records for the year my character was supposedly born, and see what were the popular names given to babies that year — hence characters named Jacob in my novel Mindscan and Cody in my novel Rollback.
 
 
KATE PULLINGER is the author of five novels and numerous works of short fiction. Her most recent novel, The Mistress of Nothing, won the 2009 Governor General Award for fiction. She runs the online interactive fiction project Flight Paths. Pullinger lives in London, England.

Naming characters is hugely important to my writing process: basically, I can't continue writing something until I've got the right name for the character in question. Names do drive character formation, there's no doubt about it. With The Mistress of Nothing I got off lightly — it's based on a true story, and I used real names throughout. But sometimes names can be much more difficult to arrive at. There is no tried and tested method for me, it's just a case of trying out names in my notebook, until the right one arrives.

With my digital fiction project Flight Paths we did a bit of crowd-sourcing for the names of the two main characters, discussing potentials and possibilities in the project blog before arriving at Harriet and Yacub. This was an interesting and entertaining way of thinking this through, and I wouldn't be adverse to attempting to do it again. Twitter could be a potentially useful source of discussion for naming characters - in fact, I've just given myself an idea!

Character names sometimes require research. For instance, in my novel The Last Time I Saw Jane I had a character of Indian origin, called Shereen, which is a Persian name, so the meaning of her name became part of her character.
 
 
ERIC WALTERS is the author of over 60 young adult novels. He is the only three time winner of both the Ontario Library Association Silver Birch and Red Maple Awards. His most recent book, Shaken, was released from Doubleday Canada in January 2011. Walters lives in Mississauga, Ontario.

Often I name the characters in my books — with permission — after students I was teaching (and writing the book for), members of my family or friends. At times the name is also very specific to the focus of the book. For example the main character in We All Fall Down is named Will because he needed a strong will to survive. In Diamonds in The Rough my major secondary character is Cole because once I put him under incredible pressure he becomes a diamond. If I'm writing historical fiction I try for names that fit the time or era. It's amazing how names change within a fifty year period within our culture. I have also used culture consultants to make sure that a name for a character reflects both the time and place. Sometimes I play — in the Camp X books the secondary character is called Jack. Whenever he questions something I also write “Jack asked” just to keep the teachers on their toes when they do a read aloud. In an upcoming book a mean junkyard dog is going to be named Iris after my German editor — not that she is mean or a junkyard dog — she is actually a wonderful person, but it was part of an ongoing playful discussion.
 
 
JESSICA WESTHEAD has published short fiction in such journals as The New Quarterly, The Antigonish Review and Indiana Review. Her first novel, Pulpy and Midge was published by Coach House Books in 2007. Her story collection And Also Sharks appears this spring from Cormorant Books. Westhead lives in Toronto, Ontario.

If I'm really stuck for character names, I like to look at baby-naming websites for ideas. The name really has to smack me in the face with its rightness, though. If the sound or feel of it doesn't quite fit, and I have to keep trying out different names, that usually means I need to spend more time figuring out who that character is first. I know I've got a pretty good handle on my character if the name arrives in my brain without my needing to think too hard about it.

I tend to go with names that are one extreme or the other—either weird and nick-namey (Pulpy, Midge, Deano, Stu-dog), or plain and nondescript (Wendy, Pauline, Frank, Ron). In any case, the ideal name will conjure up the character for me, and give me a strong sense of how he or she is going to behave. I generally try to avoid using names of people I know well, because they already come with built-in personalities.
 
 
SUZETTE MAYR is the author of the novels Venous Hum, Moon Honey, and The Widows, which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book in the Canada-Caribbean region. Her new novel, Monoceros, is available this spring from Coach House Books. Mayr lives in Calgary, Alberta.

Naming characters is so important because without the right name, a character just doesn’t gel. A name also provides me with the opportunity to highlight another aspect of a character or tell the reader something about a character that isn’t necessarily obvious. For this reason when I need a name for a character the first place I go is baby name books not just because they’re full of names but because they usually include the original meanings of the names. City phone books are also indispensable, and often it might just be the sound or look of a name that helps a character click into place – not a rational choice at all. When baby name books or phone books don’t work, I just keep my antennae out whenever I’m reading a book or newspaper or watching television or interacting with people at work or socially. Choosing the right name involves giving a character a certain texture, even "baggage" if you will – a teenage boy named John gives a completely different impression than a boy named Ginger, for example, or a boy named Rajinderpal.
 
 
CLARK BLAISE is the author of 20 books of fiction and nonfiction. He has taught writing and literature at Emory, Skidmore, Columbia, NYU, Sir George Williams, UC-Berkeley, SUNY-Stony Brook, and the David Thompson University Centre. In 1968, he founded the postgraduate Creative Writing Program at Concordia University. His new story collection, The Meager Tarmac, arrives this spring from Biblioasis. In 2010 he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada. Blaise lives in California and New York.

Names — place names, family names — are codes.

As I’ve often written, I was a map-obsessed child, and so my earliest encounters with the world’s code were geographical. Anomalies like “Port Arthur” cropping up in China, Ontario and Texas (taken from my mother’s old, pre-WWI school Atlas), could bring on tears of frustration, because no one (especially in the swamps of post-WWII central Florida) could explain them. Why did I care so passionately?

I sensed that the names of anything, or of any person, were secret, and children were not permitted to know them. In those years there was something shameful, or dangerous in their disclosure; they carried messages that could destroy a fabricated identity. My father, an outwardly “American” furniture salesman by the name of Lee R. Blaise, had been born Léo Roméo Blais, in another, unnamed country (unless it was “outside Paris”) in a different language. One letter! Are you kidding? Get over it, kid! North America is built by shape-changers and name-shedders!! My mother, Anne Vanstone, also born in another country (but at least she was proud of naming it), had sprung from a long line of “van Steens,” Flemish lace-makers who’d followed Queen Anne to Cornwall, and thence to Canada a hundred or so years later.

My mother was the sort of ever-curious woman who would ask a new acquaintance, “and what kind of name is that?” I was the sort of fact-consuming child who would listen in.

When I began writing, I tried to encode secret identities into character names. My graduate school thesis was called “Thibidault et Fils” but the central figure called himself T. B. Doe. My first book featured a would-be shape-changer named Dyer. In later books, David Greenwood was “revealed” as a Boisvert, Porter really a Carrier. Dualities were everywhere; our annual trips to Canada began about fifty miles south of the border, as French place-names and French store-names started appearing, even before the double flags fluttering from motels. (In 1946 we were in upstate New York driving to Montreal and there was a sign for "Ausable Chasm." We were actually going to see Jackie Robinson at DeLormier Downs, but I recognized the letters as French, and asked my father what it meant.)

What a diversion, then, when I wrote my most recent book of stories, The Meagre Tarmac. Indian names allow very little in the way of disguise. An Indian family name (with certain exceptions like Patel and Mehta and Chowdhury) disclose immediately ones religion (Parsi, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Jew), and if Hindu, ones caste and language. So of course I had fun with the Indian officers of a Pittsburgh bank, who were worrying “what,” exactly their new boss, H. S. Mehta, might be. Such a name could come from any of the major Indian communities.

The rich variety and particularity of Indian names — the Das Guptas (only Bengali), the Chutneywalas (Parsi), the Waldekars (Maharasthrian), the da Cunhas (Goan Christian), the Nilingappas (Karnatakan), Gangulys (Bengali Brahmin) and their friends and lovers — seemed to free me from the burden of attaching ancient secrets and dualities to shadow-identities, and to assign mystery only to plot and character.
 
 
DEBORAH KERBEL is the author of the young adult novels Mackenzie, Lost and Found, Girl on the Other Side, and Lure, all published by Dundurn.

It’s important that the names I use for my teen characters be current. Let’s face it, names like ‘Larry’ or ‘Linda’ don’t generally cut it in most contemporary YA novels. 'Madison' or 'Jake', however, would fit just fine. If I'm stuck for a name, a quick online search for the most popular baby names from the years my characters were born is an easy place for me to start gathering ideas. From there, I can narrow it down to the one that suits my character best.
 
 
STEPHEN KELMAN is publishing his first novel, Pigeon English, with House of Anansi this spring. Kelman lives in Bedfordshire, England.

I tend to name my characters either based on people I know who share similar personality traits (or who may even have provided inspiration for the character) or else I use contemporary names that fit the age or socio-economic status of the character or suggest a certain personality. These could come from anywhere — in the news, or overheard on the street, all sorts of places. It’s an inexact science, but when you hit upon the right name for a character you know it instinctively. Oh, and if I’m using people I know in this way I try to get their permission — or use alternative names that produce the same effect.
 
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Shaun Smith is the author of the YA novel Snakes & Ladders. He has published journalism with CBC.ca, Quill & Quire, The Toronto Star and numerous other outlets. His book blog "Shaun Smith's Sunday Sundries" appears each Sunday (no kidding!) on Open Book Toronto. Follow Shaun on Twitter.

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