What's In A Name?

Posted on 1st April, 2017

What's in a name? Well, a heap of other names, for a start. If you think about it, you've probably been called by at least a dozen. Take me. At various times, and by various people, I've been called Susanna, Susannah with an H, Sue, Suzanne, Susie, Sukey, Sukey-Ackie... and that's just the Susanna derivatives.


As well as that, there have been various nicknames and pet-names, plus three surnames, two of which were routinely mis-spelled and/or mis-pronounced by other people. One surname rejoiced in five different versions on top of the real one.


One name I am specially fond of is Colette. That's what Mum and Gran often called me. And before you ask, no, Colette isn't my middle name or my sister's name. In fact, it's my aunt's name - my mum's sister. For some reason, as soon as my name was chosen, Mum and Gran started getting it mixed up with Colette's name. In fact, my mum used to have dreams in which Colette and I were interchangeable.


So I grew up being called Colette and always answered to it happily. I never knew any different, but it must have been rather annoying for Auntie Colette suddenly being called by another name at the age of 30.


Gran died a long time ago and Mum passed away in 2012, since when there has been no one left to call me Colette. It's surprising how that saddens me.


Because names matter. Colette is part of my name-identity.


Name-identity matters. As a writer, I want my characters to have the right names. Yes, a name that is true to the time period and social class, but also a name that conveys the right identity in a more personal, gut-reaction way. That, of course, is a matter of individual opinion and preference, but, boy, does it matter.


Take the heroine in my forthcoming novel, The Deserter's Daughter. I ought to explain, to start with, that there isn't just a daughter, there's also a stepdaughter. When I first thought of the stepdaughter, she appeared in my head fully formed - personality, looks, back-story, plot, name - the full works, all in one go. Perfect. Her name is Evadne Baxter, a name I never questioned because it is right for her. Just as Gwen is right for the girls' mother and Ralph Armstrong is right for the villain. These names just happened.


But with Carrie, my heroine, the deserter's daughter herself, it was a different matter. She started out as Julia. In fact, on my computer I have a folder called Julia, which contains the original version of the book, written several years ago. Not that Julia the character kept her name very long. Julia sounded too much on a par with Evadne, as if the two girls are equals, which, in spite of being half-sisters, they aren't. Julia also sounded - well - too assertive. My heroine isn't weak, by any means, but she's an unassuming girl who carries her strength on the inside.


I needed another name, something gentler-sounding: Polly. That had the right sort of feel. She was Polly for a while. Then - briefly - Kitty. And then I thought of Carrie, a name which slipped into place so naturally it seemed odd that I hadn't thought of it in the first place.


So that's how Carrie got her name. You know when it's the right name, because you can feel it. Gut-reaction.




Has this made you think about the various names you are/have been known by? Care to share any of them? Or if you're a writer, do you recognise my dilemmma over Carrie's name? Do leave a comment and let me know.



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Comments (18)

Thanks for your lovely long comment, Kate. Names can make such a difference to how we see ourselves. It's important to call someone by the name they wish to be known by. I can understand why you needed to change your heroine's name. There are all kinds of reasons for needing to do this. In my case, I once realised - after writing an entire book - that my hero and his best friend had names that rhymed. It never occurred to me during the writing. I only noticed it in the editing - and even then, only when both names popped up in the same sentence.
I went through school using my full name, Kathryn, but she was a shy, rather serious child, so when I moved on to university I became Kate. Of course it wasn't so easy to shake off the shyness, but it felt important to try to make that change. My Granddad was the only person who ever called me Katie, and I'm disproportionately annoyed now when people at work mis-read my name on emails and call me that!
I agree entirely about character names. Some come with their names attached, like children with labelled clothes - Barney in The Magic of Ramblings was Barney from the moment he wandered into my head. I had a crisis in the last book I wrote, because I realised two thirds of the way in that the heroine's name was virtually identical to a minor but unpleasant character in Ramblings, and I had to change it. It took a long time to adjust to the new name, but now I've come to think it suits her better - she found her real name in the end!
Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Jen. I can certainly understand the sadness of no longer being called by a special name. As for fictional characters, it's funny, isn't it, how some of them arrive inside your head complete with name, while with other characters, you struggle to name them - though the moment you hit upon the right name, you recognise it immediately. I'm glad Amy's name came to you, albeit belatedly.
Thanks for your comment, Catherine - and no, I wouldn't dream of calling you Cathy!
Both personally and as a writer, this post resonated with me, Susanna. In particular, it reminded me how with the loss of my parents, I also lost the only people who called me by a childhood pet name. I miss that as it feels I've lost an important part of myself.

As a writer, I certainly recognise your dilemma over Carrie's name. In each of the books I've written so far, I've had that same struggle with one or more characters. In the third book in my Firefly Lake series, I changed the heroine's daughter's name five times...the last time only several weeks before I submitted the manuscript to my agent. Yet, when I hit on the 'right name' -- in that case, Amy -- it was as if the character finally came to life.

I've also had situations when I've inadvertently given a character the name of someone I know and/or part of my extended family. Cue rapid find and replace!

This post is a timely reminder that names are tricky and emotionally charged, in real life as well as fiction.
Names are so important, you are right about once fkund they just feel right.
PS don't ever call me Cathy!
Jan, thanks for sharing your thoughts in your lovely long comment. I think many children have a 'telling off' name that gets used only when they are in trouble. I knew you had changed Clara's name, though not the details of why, so thanks for sharing the story of her name. I hope you are as comfortable with Angie as I am with Carrie.
Moira, sometimes a helping hand can be just what's needed. On NaNoWriMo, there is a chat thread devoted to character names. You can 'adopt' a name that the original author doesn't want to use or you can ask for help with finding the right name. Thanks for dropping by. Looking forward to welcoming you to my blog next week xx
Karen - or Kazzy, I should say - thanks for comment. Yes, a family name can be deeply special. As for changing character names over and over until you find the right one - I'm starting to think we all do that.
I loved this post, Sue, as it rang so many chords with me. My mum only called me Janet if she was telling me off, so I prefer to be called Jan. She was the only one who called me Eleanor or Ellie, my middle name, too. Names are so important, aren't they? The main character in my first novel was called Clara Rose which was my grandmother's name and I loved it. Then an editor suggested it was too 'posh' for my character - my nana wasn't posh, though - and suggested I think of another name. Once she put the doubt in my mind, I chose another name. Clara is now Angie and I do think the name is right for her character and the time at which she lives. Carrie has to be right because of the way it came so naturally. She slipped into place because she was right for you.
Great blog Susanna, Yes, I agree, the names can be a struggle sometimes but then they seem to fall into place. Even if someone else gives them a helping hand.
Oh, Susanna! This post really struck a chord with me. I think names you're called by your family are so precious. Mine, Kazzy, feels like my REAL name in a way that Karen never has. I have terrible trouble with character names, and chop and change them regularly until, like you with Carrie, one suddenly fits. Lovely blog post! xxx
Kirsten, what can I say, other than - oops! Sorry, I promise always to pronounce your name correctly in future. Having had two surnames that seemed to me to be perfectly straightforward, but which were constantly pronounced and/or spelled the wrong way, I know how irritating it is when people get your name wrong. Glad you liked the blog.
And another Carol - so nice to hear from you. 'It's as if we haven't been introduced' - what a perfect way to express it. I agree with you when you say that until you have got the name right, you can't write effectively about a character. As for Victoria Collins - I expect the same thing applies with pen names. You have to feel comfortable and have that feeling of 'this is the right one.'
Carol, how lovely to hear from you. I'm pleased you enjoyed reading the blog. You are quite correct. When the right name comes to you, it has the power to make the character the person they are meant to be. Thanks for sharing the tale of Harold - such a good reason behind that particular character's name. It's always a pleasure to hear from you, Carol. Thanks for commenting.
Oh - i agree. Names are so important - as are their spellings and pronunciations! My name Kirsten can be mispelled a myriad of different ways. Kiersten, Keirsten, Kerstin, Kristen, Kirsty - believe me I've seen them all - even from aunts and uncles!! And it matters, doesn't it? I'm Kirsten! Pronunciation is important too - my name is Swedish and is pronounced K -ear -sten to rhyme with ear or Kir rather than the more usual UK pronunciation to rhyme with err. You can group people by how well or how long they've known me by how they say my name. (I dont count online friends in this btw!) Great post Susanna.
I toyed with naming myself Victoria Collins when I started out writing the Stride & Cully books.(They are set in 1860 London, thus the 2 names). But 'she' wasn't me. So I stayed me. Book characters' names are so important. Until I've got the name,I can't really write about them. It's as if we haven't been introduced. I think, and think, and usually, the name suddenly 'appears' ~ you always know when it is the right name, don't you? Funny that.
"And then I thought of Carrie, a name which slipped into place so naturally ..." Perhaps our characters seek out their own names from that vast resource, the sub - or un - conscious? Who knows? But when they come, they come with a power that makes them who they are. As in The Deserter's Daughter, Carrie was there waiting to be discovered. Bravo, Susanna, for discovering your gold. My husband wrote a short story for children and chose Harold for his lead character, a shy hawk. I asked him why the name Harold? He replied Harold Macmillan, because (Night of the Long Knives) was a born fighter. This genial looking man, took out half a cabinet in one fell swoop, just as this shy hawk eventually learned his survival technique. Lovely blog, a weekend gem!