The Writing Life

By Elinor Lipman
Sunday, May 21, 2006

Several years ago, at a reading in Kansas City, a member of the audience asked how I chose names for my characters. My first response was factual and dull: "I keep a phone book and 20,001 Names for Baby on a shelf next to my computer." But a few minutes later, I found myself straying back to the subject. "I also keep my high school yearbook handy," I offered. "And my father's 50th anniversary report, Harvard class of 1929, which I turn to when I need a throwback or a Brahmin name." Warming to the topic, I confided, "Sometimes you name a character in order to reward a friend or punish an enemy." Another hand goes up: Which book, and what's the dirt? Okay, I said: Anyone remember that sexual predator in The Dearly Departed ? He has the same last name as the critic who once gave a dear friend an ugly review in the New York Times.

The naming of characters suddenly seemed, on this rainy night in Kansas City, the most unsung part of how I got a story onto the page. After quoting as best as I could from memory what John Gardner once wrote -- that to change a character's name from Jane to Cynthia is to feel the fictional ground shudder beneath her feet -- I cited my own personal narrative aftershocks. Before I had an Isabel for what turned out to be Isabel's Bed , I had a Dorothea, the actual name of the meanest woman in my first writing workshop. I needed this character to be a hard-hearted, live-in boss to my narrator, Harriet Mahoney, a hapless displaced ghostwriter. Something was missing, though. When Dorothea greeted Harriet at the door, I couldn't see her. Almost immediately, at war with my narrative intentions, this new character put an arm around Harriet's shoulder and led her to the kitchen -- "like best friends heading out to recess," my fingers typed. I concluded that nomenclature was the problem. The real-life Dorothea had been sour, cold, superior. My fictional one was manifesting, against my wishes, a heart of gold. I turned to my local phone book and spotted "Isabel." I tried it. Soon she was on the page. She was tall, she was buxom, she had vanilla-blond hair pulled back tightly from a florid, round face and knotted at her neck. I recognized her now -- a dame who'd soon knock Harriet off the cover as my title character.

I made another misstep when I was a few chapters into The Dearly Departed . I didn't know much about the deceased of the title, except that I had to present her in flashback, and that, as a headliner in the local amateur community theater, she was a small-town celebrity. My first reader said, "Um, your Frances? The late mother? She's a little familiar. If I hadn't known your own mom, I'd have guessed that she went through life with a turban on her head and a cigarette holder in her hand."

"I know," I said. "I've made her a diva. I was afraid of that." The next morning, I changed her name -- Frances, for some reason, had felt hard-edged, pant-suited, manicured -- to Margaret, a name I'd always found solid, dutiful and (Princess Margaret notwithstanding) obliging. Without much in the way of authorial input, the mother I needed appeared. Her hair was short, brown, parted on the side and held back with a barrette. Her face was sweet, her self-esteem was low, and her résumé was a few notches less professional. Unlike her last incarnation, she was not poised or worldly or aggressive. Because the opening sentence described this character's funeral, I needed a mother her daughter would mourn. Soon my omniscient narrator was saying about my newly mousy version, "Everyone knew Margaret. Everyone loved her."

When I teach, I now discuss the importance of names and their anachronistic potential. With undergraduates, I give them this exercise early on in a semester: It is 1965; name your babysitters. (I'm looking for Diane, Susan, Linda, Donna. No Ambers, no Samanthas, no Taylors.) Part two: It is 1925; list the officers of the high school graduating class. ( I am going for Gladys, Ida, Hazel.) Recently, a student named her young, urban, sophisticated protagonist Estelle. No, I said. Uh-uh. The writer was fond of her choice and defended it. Yes, of course, I said, there may be a 35-year-old Estelle who is all that you want your character to convey, but don't make your reader stop to ask herself, "Why Estelle?" Or Zelda or Hermione or Bertha? Don't, as Gardner pleads in The Art of Fiction , interrupt the vivid and continuous dream.

And then I warn them about the Kate factor. In any carton of manuscripts entered in a competition I am judging, the strong, young, sympathetic, not unattractive protagonists tend to be named Kate. Runner-up is Anne, Annie, Anna: old-fashioned yet modern, feminine yet strong. Kates and Annes can ride horses, drink and change tires but will still look beautiful in their understated wedding dresses, freckled shoulders gleaming at their beach nuptials. (Not unrelated: 90 percent of stories in these cartons, when citing some flora, choose bougainvillea, with its slightly Third World, hacienda-ish connotation.)

Yes, my phone book has its uses, but I can't open it at random and point with eyes closed. An ethnic name is like the gun Chekhov talked about: If it's mounted on the wall in Act One, it better be fired by Act Three. Names have subtext and identity. If your main characters are Kaplans, you've got yourself a Jewish novel, and if your hero is Smedley Winthrop III, you've given him a trust fund. Nomenclature done right contributes to characterization.

Names have a hard job to do: I try to make mine memorable enough to plant the character firmly in the reader's frontal lobe but still keep them workmanlike and unself-conscious. Help the reader. Could the author please notice that Donald, Daniel and David in the same novel are going to require a half-second's mental calibration -- which one is he again? A Mr. Smith or Mr. Jones needs to note that he is burdened with or blessed by his common name. My editor tried to talk me out of naming my newest narrator Frederica. But look, I argued, she deals with that. Early on, she says, "And there was the basic yet awful matter of my name: Frederica Hatch, due to the unfortunate coincidence of a maternal grandmother named Frieda who died six weeks before I was born, and a favorite paternal Great Uncle Frederic who'd been a Freedom Rider at eighty."

You win, my editor said. Dickens might argue that big-textured names let the characters introduce themselves (Rosa Bud, Mr. Bumble, Anne Chickenstalker, Lady Dedlock, Mr. Grimwig, Bradley Headstone, Krook, Charity Pecksniff, Chevy Slyme, M'Choakumchild) and, thank you very much, but whose "Scrooge" made its way into everyday usage and earned even the right to be lower-cased?

Charity auctions have named a few of my characters. As I was writing my fifth novel, the PTA at my son's high school asked the author John Katzenbach and me if we'd be willing to name a character in our next books after the two high bidders. We both said sure. The Katzenbach item, with its unstated potential bonus of an echo on the big screen, went first to furious bidding. Then the Lipman item: A friend at my table bid and was countered by a voice across the room. Back and forth; a few unheated rounds. Who's my winner, I asked when it was over? "He hasn't identified himself," said the woman collecting the money. A few weeks later, the wife of the high bidder squealed. It was John Katzenbach, winner on a mercy bid. (See: The Ladies' Man , p. 197: the law firm of Dobbin, McLendon, Katzenbach and Jessep.) Top prize for the most creative use of an auctioned-off name goes to Anita Shreve, who was obliged to honor the high bid from a family with an unwieldy name. A few chapters into A Wedding in December , set at an inn in the Berkshires, Shreve discharges her obligation with a sign in the lobby announcing, "Karola-Jungbacker rehearsal dinner, Pierce Room, 7:00."

Particularly nice is the reader who detects meanings that escape the author. A book club member asked me if I'd deliberately given Dwight Willamee's sister Lorraine, in Then She Found Me , the name of a Teutonic goddess to underscore the tensions between the German-American family and the Jewish narrator? "Actually not," I replied. "I named Lorraine after Lorraine Loviglio, a dear coworker at my last job."

Recently, a lit major asked if I'd purposely nicknamed Conrad ( The Way Men Act ) "Con" because of the archaic meaning of that French vulgarism -- i.e., "consolation of the lower parts" -- and its modern meaning (unprintable), which she found altogether fitting since Conrad meant nothing more to my narrator than the occasional horizontal encounter. I wrote back, and I told the truth: Dear Kate: I didn't know I knew, but perhaps I did. ยท

© 2006 The Washington Post Company