what’s in a name? (quite a lot, as it turns out)

I finished my structural edit last week, and have moved on to a line edit (this is where I get to just read through and fix single lines, or delete single paragraphs that aren’t quite working. Hopefully it’s not the bit where I find whole bits of the book that still aren’t working).

The oddest, most enjoyable part of the process has been changing the name of almost every character in the book.

I don’t tend to agonise over character names when I begin – but that being said, every name has a distinct feeling to me that has to match the character. I’m one of those odd people who sees the week ahead as a 3D object in my mind, and attributes colours to numbers. So I have a feeling about a character, that’s a mix of colour and tone and shape and random adjectives, and I cycle through names until one fits.

The name-changing process has been much more conscious. The first to change was my heroine, Beatrice Sutherland. She’s most often called Bea, and thinks of herself as Bea. I started to notice, as I wrote the second half of the novel, that my hero always calls her by her full name – and he’s the only one to do so.

This felt important. She begins the novel as a tough country girl who works hard all day to keep her family afloat. Her journey is realising how narrow she has made herself, and beginning to see how powerful she could be in the world if she just lets herself think big-picture. I wondered whether I could make a better distinction between her pet-name and her full name, so that one would represent her as the country girl, the other as the powerful woman. Then, when the hero calls her by her name, he’s really calling her to be great.

The very first construction to occur to me was Kit/Katherine. I have a fondness for the name Kit, partly because it was my grandma’s name, and partly because it’s such a perfect tom-boy name. It really seemed to capture who my heroine is to begin, and how spare and tough she is. There are many, many K(C)atherines in my life, so I was a little hesitant to use it, but it’s such a grown up, strong sort of a name, that I kept coming back to it.

The second change was easier, and more mercenary. Kit’s mother was called Lucy, but my eye kept confusing it with Kit’s sister, Lydia. I cast around a little – with some of Lucy’s history in mind, her aristocratic, possibly-of-German-descent family – and came up with Gretchen. It has the same girlish tone as Lucy, which is important for her character.

Then came my favourite change so far. Lydia’s husband is the Scottish Earl of Danes. Danes was never a particularly Scottish sounding title, and Cat pointed out long ago that it was slightly confusing given that it describes a whole nation’s people. However, while I was writing I could only think of him as Danes, and couldn’t change it. In editing it became clear that I have a total love affair with the letter D – my hero is only the very alliterate Duke of Darlington.

Special k and I started talking about what makes a Scottish name, and he mentioned “Ben”, meaning mountain, instead of the more common “Mac”. I eventually came to what I think is the coolest title ever: The Earl of BenRuin. Even special k liked it, so big gold star to me.

The thing about all the changes I’ve talked about so far is that every single one of them deepened the character for me. They added a new facet – made them seem more real and interesting. They allowed me to read my own characters as though I hadn’t created them, but they existed somewhere beyond me.

The last change, though, I am finding almost impossible to make.

My hero has been, from the very first moment, Roscoe, Duke of Darlington. The name came from the song Roscoe by Midlake¬†which is just a killer song, and make me fall in love with it. For me, it had no other context than that. As I’ve been getting more and more feedback, though, I’ve started to notice that Americans read the name Roscoe with a context. Then I read the hilarious review over on Dear Author of Hot On Her Trail, which is some truly awful sounding cow-ranch erotica. The P.I. the cowboys keep on retainer is called Roscoe. I knew it was time to face my suspicions.

On Saturday I put the call-out on Twitter: What do you think of, when you hear the name Roscoe? The answer was not encouraging.

It mostly consisted of fond reminiscences over Dukes of Hazzard and this guy:

A frighteningly intelligent duke – who can also totally pull off wearing a dress – he ain’t.

The problem is Roscoe is – Roscoe. He’s the one to whom only that name seems to fit. However, I have found a pretty great baby name website (which is gold, there are so many crappy ones out there) and I’m working my way through the alphabet. I’m currently on D. Wish me luck!

Comments 7 Responses

  1. Judy, Judy, Judy (Clever Betty)

    I love naming characters. In my wip I like everyones name except one guy who I can see, feel clearly but I can’t find his name.
    Do people call him Roscoe?
    Currently there is a very popular television show with the title NCIS. The most popular characters name is Jethro Leroy Gibbs. He is called Gibbs. But both the name Jethro and Leroy have the same connotations as Roscoe.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      That’s such a great point about Gibbs (we get the show here too). Because it’s a big deal when Roscoe tells Kit his first name – she’s the only person in the world who calls him by it, and it’s very exposing for him – I think he has to be called that. I love the idea of middle names being used, when a character has a ridiculous first name! This is definitely going into my next idea.

      As to your character’s name – you may have to cycle through the baby names, like me, and try them all out! It gets a bit tricky after a while, when the sounds stop making sense… Good luck!

  2. bleuet

    Oh, dear. Renaming the main character is awful. At best it is annoying and seems impossible to accomplish. I sympathise with you. Best of luck for your search!
    Of course what you are saying about a new name deepening the characters is also true… and BenRuin really is awsome! :D
    Naming characters for fantasy books is kind of funny (and also part of why I like the genre). You can just make up something! The way I go is to sing out loud nonsensewords until one strikes my fancy. Heh. :) Though it isn’t all that easy to avoid names that have already been used by other fantasy authors or to accidentally pick a name that exists as a real name without your knowledge. I hate it when existing names and made up ones get mixed in books.
    Sooo…

    GOOD LUCK!!!

    1. anna cowan Post author

      BenRuin is pretty great, right? ;-) LOL, I love your method for making fantasy names. Like an organic fantasy name generator. Although, I kinda love really straight-laced names in fantasy. I remember being struck by “Richard” as the protagonist in the Sword of Truth series. Likewise, I’m really attracted to feminine names for Roscoe, but am realising that putting feminine name with feminine character isn’t necessarily the way forward… For example, I’m currently hooked on the name Evelyn, but I feel that it would actually be an amazing name for a more traditionally masculine dude.

      1. bleuet

        Ah, so you are in ‘E’ now?
        I agree that Evelyn would be an interesting name for someone really traditional. Contrasts of appearent and real character are always fun! I wish I could help you find a name, alas my knowledge of names is rather inadequate. Especially if it comes to connotations in different countries. I don’t even know what the problem with Roscoe is. I have never heared the name before I found your web site. The name that comes closest to it and which I know is ‘Rocco’ (the child of our neighbours’ daughter). It always reminds me of Rococo :P
        The baby names site you found is pretty good though – hopefully you will find a suitable name.
        You could try Angel names, too. They often sound soft… Sorry, I don’t have a good site, the one I used got deleted.

        “Straight-laced”? New word for me :D Fantasy names do tend to get a bit fancy, no?

  3. robenagrant

    I adore naming characters, and it takes me forever to find the good first and last name fit. I’d recently written a story titled Don’t Mess with Mick. Nobody in the U.S. liked the name Mick. They thought it should be Mike. In Australia we often use the name Mick, as they do in Ireland and England. Sigh. Had to change him to Michael because Mike didn’t cut the mustard with me. Then I had to change the title. i love writing. : )

    1. anna cowan Post author

      How odd that Mick isn’t used in the US! I would never have known that. Everyone has different relationships to different names – and it all depends on the people we’ve met! I was talking about my Roscoe problem with my sister and she said, “Urgh, it reminds me of Ross. Remember Ross?” There was a kid we went to school with by that name, who left every one of my childhood friends with an “urgh” reaction to the name. But I reckon if I hadn’t known him, I might think that was quite a nice name for a hero?

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