Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Importance of Names

I have a new idea for a story that I'm kicking around in my head, but I don't want to start writing it yet. Not only do I have too many open projects at the moment, I also don't have the most important piece of information – I don't have the names of the characters.

Names are absolutely essential – get them wrong and you might as well not even bother with the book. As someone who went through life hating her nickname ("Beth" or "Bethy") and eventually abandoning her first name for her middle name, I understand the importance of names.

When my laptop died recently, the thing that upset me most was losing an idea file for a mystery. The one thing that I'd managed to do with the idea was work out all the names of all the characters. That was a major achievement and the thought of having to do it all over again depresses me.

Since we don't have any children, I've never had to undertake the nearly overwhelming responsibility of selecting the right name. All I've had to name are my characters and my pets. Funny enough, some of my characters tell me their names straight away and with others, I have to decide what they are. It's not all that different from our pets.

Since all of our pets over the years have been adopted as adults, they’ve always come pre-named. In Chicago, we adopted a cat named Freedom knowing that the name would have to go. Since he was a long-haired black-and-white Tuxedo cat, we ended up naming him Jeeves. It was perfect.

Similarly, Peter's dog came with the name Soldier. Yuck. Neither one of us could picture ourselves standing on the back porch shouting "Soldier! Come here, Soldier!" We discussed possible names during the 100-mile drive from the animal shelter up to Wheaton. Since they suspected he may have been a trucker's dog, I wanted to call him Mack, but Peter wasn't that keen on the idea.

We named him Badger, but then after a night of realising that Badger and "bad dog" were quite similar (and that we were going to be saying "bad dog" quite a lot), we decided he needed a different name. Peter had a rogue character named Caper in an online role-playing game. The name suited the rogue and Peter realised it would suit Caper as well.

Toby came to us with his name and we decided to keep it. It's a great name and what I like most about it is that it's nearly impossible to say without smiling. It's a happy, cheerful name that mostly suits our neurotic dog. I can't think of what else we would call him, so Toby stays.


At 5 April 2007 at 07:46, Anonymous Primal Sneeze said...

My Toby, as I think I told you before, came from the west Cork Gaeltacht. He was taken from his family to a place where he didn't know the language. He would work all day (barking etc.) and only get food, no money. It was as if he was being sold into slavery. So he was originally called Kunta Kintae. But this was too long, so he became Toby.

At 5 April 2007 at 12:07, Blogger laurie said...

i like this postings. i agree with you on the importance of names. i have a friend who is a novelist and she was going to name a character after me once--first name, last name, the whole thing. but then the character sort of evolved into a negative person, so she didn't. i wouldn't have cared; i would have been thrilld to see my name in a novel. (since i'm unlikely to write a novel, this would be my only way.)

riley's name was Miller when we adopted him from the pound. the little ad for him on said, "it's miller time!" no way no way no way were we keeping that name, or the allusion that he was somehow beer-related.

and when i named MY toby (i like that we all have tobys) it took days to settle on the right name. i experimented with dozens. and then that one just popped out when i was calling him. and it was exactly right.

At 5 April 2007 at 12:10, Blogger laurie said...

(you could call this posting "the importance of being toby.")

At 6 April 2007 at 05:22, Blogger -Ann said...

PS - Thank heavens for Wikipedia or I'd never have gotten your literary allusion. :) I actually pass the turn off for where your gaelgeoir Toby came from and I always think of him. Not that I know him, or anything, just the idea of getting a dog who "spoke" another language.

Laurie - Everyone should have a Toby. :) Would you have kept the name Miller if petfinder hadn't posted the related beer slogan? (Although it seems like Riley suits him on several levels.) I don't think I would have made the connection to the slogan had it not been pointed out to me. And I was trying to think of a way to have the post be "The Importance of Being something" but I couldn't think of what that something should be. That's why you're the editor, I guess. :)

At 6 April 2007 at 12:42, Blogger laurie said...

ann, miller wouldn't have worked anyway, even with the beer allusion. one of my best friends' last name is miller, so it would have felt weird. miller also felt too, i don't know, gentle and low-key for such an intense and wired little dog. miller might work for a big old newfie or something....something big and slow-moving, with hair in its eyes. not a speckled little guy who runs up the sides of trees, barks ferociously at the vacuum cleaner, and hides under the kitchen table when the fire in the fireplace snaps and pops.

At 6 April 2007 at 12:43, Blogger laurie said...

ps another friend of mine has a Tobi. but it's a cat.

At 7 April 2007 at 12:54, Anonymous Primal Sneeze said...

If you're interested, Ann, there's a pic of Toby here.

It's one of him pretending to ignore the cat. The cat doesn't have to pretend - he just couldn't give a damn.

At 8 April 2007 at 11:06, Blogger -Ann said...

Laurie - What kind of dog is Riley? (Breed-wise - I know he's a blur of motion and a bit standoffish except when ill. :))

PM - I love the picture. Your Toby is quite handsome - does he get to do any work or is he mostly a pet dog?

At 9 April 2007 at 07:09, Anonymous Primal Sneeze said...

He does no work Ann. Unless you count shouting (bilingual) warnings over the fence at walkers passing by as work. (He's been issued with a few barking-tickets for that. It's okay - I paid them - he's not going to court).


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