A rose by any other name….

23 Jul

I honestly think I had an easier time naming my children than I do the characters in my books, which is crazy. Characters are merely fictional extensions of my imagination. The only thoughts and emotions they possess are the ones that I give them. My kids have to live in the real world where there are real life consequences to naming them Zeb and Moxie.  
Oh, relax! No matter how incredibly awesome I think the name Zeb is, it was never in contention as a name for one of my boys. I wouldn’t do that to them. As moms, we are a bold, creative bunch, but only a handful of us are brave (or is it bizarre?) enough to actually name our kids Zeb, or Carswell, or Grazia. We want our kids to be liked. We want them to fit it. We want to take them back-to-school shopping at Walmart and watch them get excited with they find pencils with their name on them. So we name our little girls Hannah and our little boys Jacob, and so do all of our friends and neighbors.
Colby was on my short list of names for my oldest son. It was popular at the time and I loved that it was cute and fun and playful. I imagined a cherub-faced little boy with blue eyes and a joyful giggle running around the playground. But that was the problem. No matter how much I adored the name for a toddler, I just couldn’t picture ‘Colby’ as an old man. 
Grandpa Colby? Umm… no. Grandpas are ‘William’s and ‘Richard’s and ‘Elmer’s. 
Even though I couldn’t imagine it, I know in seventy years my son wouldn’t have been the odd man out in the nursing home with the name Colby. All those cherub-faced toddlers running around right now will eventually grow up and grow old. There will be hordes of grey-haired Grandpa Colbys telling war stories in gas stations all over the country. The name will be old-fashioned, antiquated, no longer used. What was once common will become uncommon and then common once more. Grandpa Colby will more than likely have a great-grandson named Elmer. Weird, but true.
Fiction is make-believe, but it’s based on reality, and in real life most people have the same boring common names as everyone else in their age group. As a child growing up in the eighties, pretty much all of the girls in my class were named Jennifer, Stephanie, or Michelle. Our mothers were named Susan, Linda, and Mary. Our grandmothers were either Betty or Ruth. We all babysat little girls named Tiffany, Brittany, and Ashley. When we grew up, we gave birth to Emma, Ava, and Sophia. 
Believable make-believe worlds reflect these changing trends in their cast of characters.Nothing irritates me more than reading a book set in modern time where there is not one single, solitary character with a common name for their generation.
That’s not to say that you can’t use a few unique names. Every town has at least one Zeb in it. And it should! Zeb is an awesome name. I love it like crazy. But other people? Not so much. That’s the problem. I haven’t written about Zeb yet, but I once gave the name ‘Shep’ to a bit character in a story idea that went nowhere. It wasn’t Shep’s fault the story died. It was weak and dreadful to begin with. But using the name ‘Shep’ didn’t help matters any, that’s for sure. I sent a rough chapter to a friend to critique it for me, and in reference to Shep she replied back something along the lines of “toothless hillbilly.” Poor Shep. He had teeth! I swear he did. 
As authors, we do ourselves a grave disservice of we don’t keep these stereotypes in mind.
Since my Shep disaster, I’ve decided that unless I want the unique name to be one of the character’s traits, I’m not going to use it. It’s easier to stick with more popular names that millions of people have. When a name is popular, the base for the stereotype is broader and therefore leans toward the positive, making characters are more easily likable from the get-go. If I have my choice between ‘Horace’ and ‘John’ for the name of a hero firefighter, I’m going to make it easy on myself and go with ‘John’ every time.
I actually love the name John. Its long-standing popularity has diluted it to a completely blank slate. John could be anyone—young, old, fat, thin, rich, poor. He could be an old, weathered ranch hand with a penchant for whiskey, a punk-ass kid smashing car windows in the suburbs, a priest, or a power broker on Wall Street. The mind can paint ‘John’ into any of those roles with hardly any effort at all. 
Now name him Vinnie. 
Whether we like it or not, all names have stereotypes associated with them. ‘Brad’s are hot, ‘Ursula’s are not, and ‘Emily’s are downright adorable. I’m not saying we should play into the stereotypes and make all Vinnie’s Italian, but keep in mind if you want your old, weathered ranch hand to be named Vinnie, you’re going to have to use a lot more descriptive words than you would have if you’d named him Harlan instead.
After a few restless nights, lots of Google surfing, and one last-minute change, I found the identities of all of my characters in Millie’s Rose. I used stereotyping to my advantage for one of my characters, the one I wanted readers to immediately dislike, and I selected a few unique ones for the more unique characters, but, for the most part, I chose names that are common, derived from the trends of the generation in which they were born, intentionally non-intrusive so the reader can freely paint their own picture as they read. 
Unlike my struggle with first names, surnames come easy. To keep as true to real life as possible, I chose surnames that are reflective of the demographics of the geographical location in which the characters live. I write small-town, rural Nebraska, which is known for its rich and vibrant Czech heritage, kolaches, and tongue-twister surnames comprised of letters that seemingly have absolutely no business being next to each other. They are beautiful when spoken, but can be difficult to read. Out of courtesy for those who may not be familiar with the language, I mainly use watered-down, generic variations and save the true Czech surnames for those who have the strength of character to be Czech.
There’s only one character with a Czech surname in Millie’s Rose—Stacy Ruzicka. One-half Czech, one-half Polish, she is my powerhouse, the heart and the soul of the story. There is no Millie’s Rose without her. Her name perfectly and beautifully represents everything she is to Dan. She is the resurrection of his heart, his life, his love. She is his beautiful rose. 
Her name says it all.

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