Saturday, May 5, 2012

5. What’s in a Name?

When I used to teach novel-writing, I noticed that some students spent way too much time deciding what to call their characters. I don’t mean to suggest that your characters’ names are not important--they are. But often getting to know the character better will lead you to the perfect name.

In the case of Pandora’s Genes, the Principal is a case in point. When I began writing, he was known only as “the Principal.” That came to me without much thought, but it made sense in that I wanted a Leader-sounding name, but didn’t want to use “President” or “Commander” or “Commissar” or any similar title. “Principal” worked for me, because the Principal sees himself not only as a leader, but as an educator. His role model is Alexander the Great, who endeavored to spread Greek civilization throughout the known world.

I was well into Part II before I learned the Principal’s  given name: “Will.” This worked for me also, because he has a very strong will. The name and the title are used more or less interchangeably throughout the book, but I tended to use “the Principal” more when he was acting as a leader and “Will” in private moments. When other characters (like Zach) are displeased with him, or otherwise feeling distant, they tend to refer to him by the title, rather than his given name.

Zach’s name took a long time for me to settle on--I think I didn’t have it until near the end of the entire manuscript (rough draft). At first, I called him “diSachs,” because that was the name I’d seen in the dream I had that started my writing. I realized after a while that this probably came from a historical character in my favorite opera, Hans Sachs, from Die Meistersinger. In the opera, Hans Sachs is tempted by and perhaps in love with a young girl, which resonates with Zach’s situation, but the name never seemed right to me, so I changed it to Zach, and that worked.

Evvy’s name came from a couple of preteen kids who were hanging out at the running track in Riverside Park in NYC, where I used to jog. One afternoon shortly before I began writing Pandora’s Genes, I was stretching on the steps while the kids argued with each other. I couldn’t help noticing how beautiful the girl was. “Darn it, Evvy, stop that!” the boy snapped at her. I’d never heard that name before and loved it instantly; it was the only name I ever considered for my heroine.

Tomorrow: distractions that can prevent you from writing


  1. I love that you've given such care to the title of your big bad. The homonym with Principle delicious, as in main actor and as in fundamental belief governing behavior.

    What we call our leader says a lot about how we see him or her, about what we value. Look at how junta leaders cling to their military titles.

    Take a look at the struggle George Washington went through in refining the honorifics that go with the presidency for a historical example. "Your Highness" and "Excellency" implied that the office elevated the leader above his subordinates. I love the democracy inherent in "Mr. President."

    How does a person become "Principal"?

    1. Thanks, John. I too like the homonym. The Principal chose his name for the reasons you mention. He understands that democracy is not possible in the world they live in now, but he does not see himself as more exalted than other citizens. To find out how he became Principal, I guess you'll have to read the books. ;-)

  2. I've found that the names I choose for characters are often replaced by the names they choose for themselves.