What's in a Name?

Thursday, April 06, 2017
My school had the pleasure of hosting the lovely and talented Nina LaCour, author of We are Okay, a few weeks ago, and she answered several questions about publishing her books. Her stories brought back memories of my own publishing experiences.

After signing my first book contract with a publishing company, I could not wait to work with an editor. I had grand expectations, and had romanticized the idea so well (as much as anyone can romanticize the editing process) that I believed the experience would be, well, completely different from what it was.

When I received the first email from my editor, I was giddy. I clicked it open and started reading her comments. She wanted to start with plot problems which, as any writer knows, are inevitable. A character’s eyes changed color. Another character left the scene two pages ago, but was suddenly present again. These were mostly little changes, which polished out the story.

Then, my eyes dropped to the next line. The editor hated my main character’s name.

I blinked, convinced there was an error. I read her words again. I hadn’t misread. The editor thought my main character’s name didn’t fit - that it was too strange. She couldn’t force me to change it, but it was her strong suggestion that I find something more suitable.

How could this be?

If you are anything like me, you become very attached to your characters. We name them as lovingly as we name our actual human (or fur) babies. We develop our characters for months, or even years, so to suggest changing their name is abhorrent.

But there it was. I faced a tough decision.

Despite initial my misgivings, I explored other names. I developed a list of possibilities and tried them out. If a name worked in print, I took the next step and dared to say it aloud. I tested a few names on friends. Still, a voice nagged at me. I loved the original name I had chosen, and it hurt to know that someone else hated it.

Back then – before my publishing experience – I believed that I, alone, knew what was best for my novel. I had heard horror stories of authors who gave up what they loved the most about their books just to see their work bound in hardcover. Our books are our own, but once we sign a contract, we must make concessions. I have yet to speak to an author who did not change something they loved about their book at the publisher’s request. The publishing process has to be a give and take, but what emerges is a polished, publish-worthy book of which we can be proud.

Despite my hesitations and sadness, I did eventually change my main character’s name, and it was the right move. We write for ourselves, yes, but we also write for our audience. Both are equally important. If we can find a name which we love and which makes our audience happy, then we have succeeded.

I even ended up liking the new name better than the original one.

Bethany Masone Harar is an author, teacher, and blogger, who does her best to turn reluctant readers into voracious, book-reading nerds. Check out her blog here.


Margo Dill said...

My critique group always gives me trouble with my names. I guess I tend to the old-fashioned. I have the worst time coming up with names, too. I think for me names don't mean much, but I know for other people they really invoke certain images. Thanks for giving us something to think about. :)

Lyn Jensen said...

Here's an example of how character names can affect a novel: I once started to read a Western in which the lead character was a trapper. His name was Renee. That's right, the feminine spelling of "Renee." Old West trappers just don't have names like "Rene," let alone "Renee." I couldn't get past the name, and quickly gave up on the novel.

Angela Mackintosh said...

This is so true...when I read a name in a story that's too weird, it totally turns me off to the story, so names are important. If it's going to be a totally unique and original name, I guess it just has to work (like Katniss)...and the only way of telling that is to probably beta reader test it. Thanks for sharing your experience, Beth! :)

Mary Horner said...

Names are important, but usually after reading for a while I just skim over the name and don't register it consciously after a certain point. But I do struggle with names when I'm developing characters, and try to come up with something unique but easy to pronounce.

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