February 3rd, 2016
I have very strong feelings about names, but they are hard to quickly and easily define to people. It’s not that I don’t have rules, it’s just that those rules are not often comprehensible to others. Also, what does it matter? It matters that I am writing a novel with a lot of names in it, so how much sense the names make could potentially drive a reader nuts.
You get a name at birth and that is always your name–unless you change your name, but that strikes me as incredibly mind-boggling. I mean do it if that’s your jam, I don’t think it’s wrong or bad to change your name, I just don’t understand how anyone copes with, for a certain number of years being one name, and then later another.
This bafflement on my part is in turn baffling to others who know me well, because for the first 27 years of my life I went by “Becky” and then switched over to “Rebecca” after that. To me it makes sense because my name was actually always Rebecca, Becky just being a nickname for Rebecca. It was just that no one called me that–parents, other family, high-school, university friends, teachers, everyone called me Becky but I knew myself to be Becky or Rebecca interchangably and I did not find it a major switch to start introducing myself formally as Rebecca. I felt I was old enough to carry the three syllables, and I wanted less dissonance between my written and spoken worlds (I have almost always written under Rebecca). Many people could. not. deal with this change, and that also makes sense to me–see below–so I stopped asking family and friends who had known me prior to age 27 to call me Rebecca. So now all those folks know me as Becky, and everyone I’ve met since–grad-school friends, work friends, people in the writing community, and notably my husband and everyone he’s introduced me to–call me Rebecca. This makes perfect sense to me, no confusion at all, the way you wouldn’t be confused if someone pointed at a piece of furniture you call the couch and said, “Want to sit on the sofa?” Rebecca and Becky are synonyms, synonyms for me.
I am extremely respectful about given names and nicknames, and I am always careful to call someone exactly what they introduce themselves as. I would never presume the privilege of using a nickname, even though I love nicknames, unless I were invited to do so. This also causes some confusion, as the various Jennifers I work with are all occasionally referred to as Jen. I never did that, because I wasn’t invited to–I wouldn’t be happy if someone went rogue and called me, say, Bek–and they all thought it was weird. The Jennifers actually got together and asked me to start using Jen, which is also weird but I feel more comfortable doing so now. Basically, I guess I think, one’s name is one’s own–nicknames are at the owner’s discretion.
Although if you ask me to call you by a nickname, or ask me to GIVE you a nickname, I will be very happy to oblige. Something that makes me happy is that way back in the 90s, my friend Karen complained that she didn’t like any of the nicknames available to Karens, and I thought for a while and suggested “(W)ren”–the second half of her name, and also she is small and birdlike. She still uses it! I got the same complaint from an old workmate named Taylor and suggested Lori, which she liked but I don’t know if she still uses.
So, I’m down with nicknames. HOWEVER, it blows my mind when someone changes their name to a completely other thing that has no relationship to the original name. How I see these two categories of change as so different I have no idea, but there you have it! Seriously, when people change their names at marriage (the reason most of those I know who have changed it did so) it takes me YEARS to get it straight. There are people who have been married over a decade that I refer to occasionally by their maiden names (is sexist terminology? I feel like yes.) I mean no disrespect, I’m onboard with the idea of the name-change, it’s just that I can’t process it properly.
One of the great things about being a writer of fiction is that I have access to and control over tonnes of names–which is good, because my husband would never let me have enough cats to use all the names I like. I don’t have a science to how I name characters, though if you read a bunch of my work you can notice certain preference areas. I once got a baby name book with the idea that I would read through it and find new kinds of names for my characters but that did not pan out at all. Usually I just think about a character until a good name pops into my head and that’s that. I almost never change a character’s name once I’ve decided on it, which is why in my last book there’s a not-so-great fellow with the same name as my husband. Sorry, Mark-the-husband, Mark-the-character showed up first and I just couldn’t unname him.
And while I’m listing my naming oddities, I should mention that I can’t use generic terms of endearment–my husband and I call each other by the names on our birth certificates. I can’t explain this anymore than I can the rest of it–maybe it has something to do with how if anyone can be “baby” or “sweetie” than perhaps no one is? And this rule does not extend to the cats, to whom I regularly refer as “sugar plums.”
I also do weird things with nicknames in fiction–many’s the editor who has come back to me with a “correction” that a character is flipflopping between or among names. In truth, it’s that someone could be referred to by different nicknames by different people, but that’s a pretty hollow truth if no one understands and just thinks the story is sloppy. So I wind up changing it–in my forthcoming book, Julianna is almost exclusively called that, and I took out most of the use of Juli and Jules. This is sad to me, but it is important not to baffle the reader with my personal quirks.
Similarly, my editor pointed out that two characters have very similar names and readers might get confused–could one change? My instinct was “absolutely not.” It’s one thing to use a nickname or not and it’s another to give someone a name he never had before!!! Despite the fact that it’s an easy change to a minor character, I am a fragile point with the manuscript and I honestly didn’t think I could look at it with the wrong name in there.
I was being, as you’ve no doubt been thinking, an asshole, so instead of stating the above, I said I was going to leave the old (right!) name in place until the last minute before I hand off the manuscript–then I’ll do a global search-and-replace with a new, yet-to-be-determined name, and send off the ms without looking at it again. Which is clearly a batshit thing to do, but shouldn’t inconvenience anyone but possibly me, which is fine.
Next time you think an artistic type person is being eccentric just for the sake of it, please rest assure, I’m annoyed by me as anyone else. But I’ve had this quirk all my life and at the end of an exhausting edit is just not the time to rehabilitate it. So on we go–