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By Any Other Name . . .

Thursday, September 28, 2006

One of the most familiar lines penned by Shakespeare comes from Romeo and Juliet: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet . . .” (Romeo and Juliet, II ii). Four hundred years later, I beg to differ. (Hold tight—this does tie in with writing.)

A friend of mine has recently legally changed her name by adding three letters on the end (I know that’s vague, but I don’t want to betray a confidence). Not a huge change, but something she feels expresses the maturity she has grown into as a woman—and a name that goes better with her one-syllable last name. Her mother is furious, and swears she will never talk to her again, as she feels my friend is betraying her father who picked out her name in the first place. She still plans to go by her original four-letter, one-syllable first name, but for legal paperwork and for when she starts being published, she will use her new full name.

In trying to offer her some encouragement, I started thinking about when I changed my name. No, not legally, but my “go by” name. You see, I grew up being called Kathy. Which was fine—I tried briefly when in junior high to start going by Katherine, but every time I heard it, I felt like I was getting in trouble, so I went back to Kathy. After that, I never really considered trying to go by anything else.

But then in 1994, I started working at a 3-person advertising agency—and the other girl’s name was Cathie. On my first day of work, my new boss told me he’d decided he was going to call me “K” to differentiate between the two of us. I decided to embrace this new nickname with the spelling for it that I’ve always preferred: “Kaye” (like Ann-with-an-E from Anne of Green Gables). But at home and with my friends and extended family, I was still Kathy—which was difficult if they ever called the office and got Cathie!

Then, in 1996, God did a miraculous work in my life and led me to take a leap of faith and move to Nashville—with no job, no contacts, and no place to live. Upon moving, I had a choice. I could go back to being “Kathy” or I could do what the Native Americans do when a young person goes through a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood—change my name for good. So on Sunday, April 7, 1996, the day I moved to Nashville, I officially became “Kaye Dacus.”

You may be thinking, Big deal! You’re still the same person inside. That’s where I differ with Shakespeare’s Rose Name Theory. Unlike Shakespeare, I believe that a lot of our identity is wrapped up in our names and that we can mark significant changes in our lives by changing our names. I am a different person now as Kaye than I was as Kathy. Kathy is that insecure adolescent/teen/young adult who had trouble interacting in social situations, dropped out of school, and fell in love with someone who didn’t return the feelings. Kaye is the woman who took a huge leap of faith and moved to Nashville with no job, no place to live, and no contacts. Kaye went back to school part-time at age 29 and finished her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Kaye is the person who can walk up to two of the most respected agents in the CBA and tell them I would like to submit my proposal to them. And when I refer to myself as Katherine, that’s another persona (usually when I’m about to chew out someone at Comcast or Cingular for screwing up my account).

Throughout the Bible, a name change was made to mark an important life event, whether a crossover from youth to adulthood, a momentous happening, or a new calling on one’s life:

  • When God called Abram (high father) to be the progenitor from which His chosen people would spring, God renamed him Abraham (father of a multitude). He also gave Abraham’s wife Sarai (contentious) the name Sarah (princess).
  • Jacob (supplanter) wrestled with an angel and because of his strength and perseverance, God changed his name to Israel (he struggles with God).
  • After her husband’s death, Naomi (pleasant) changed her name to Mara (bitter).
  • When Jesus gave Simon (listening) the assignment/position as the founder of the Christian church, He changed his name to Peter (rock).

Now, how does this tie in with writing?

When I started writing Stand-In Groom, my heroine’s first name was Nell—my middle name. She was very insecure, her business was in financial trouble, and she was very emotionally needy—especially with her family. I always figured I would change it, since I plan to publish under my full name and using my middle name for the heroine’s name wouldn’t go over well with a publisher. But I could never find just the right name to change it to, so the first semester I was at Seton Hill, I submitted it with the heroine’s name as Nell. In the workshop critique, one of the other students asked if it was supposed to be autobiographical, since she saw my middle name on the header. I knew then that before I got any further into writing it, I had to change her name.

I struggled so hard with coming up with a name that was similar to Nell—old fashioned, one syllable, mature, and strong. I finally settled on Anne (yes, with an –e). And then I struggled to write for a couple of months. Since I kept typing Nell when I wrote, I would have to go back and do a search and replace. But then when I re-read it with Anne in the text, it just didn’t feel right. I agonized over this for the rest of the semester, trying to get a feel for Anne Hawthorne. I submitted another chapter of SIG for workshop in my second semester and had several of the same people in there. They pointed out to me how much more they liked Anne than they did Nell—and I finally realized they were two different characters! Anne had confidence. Anne ran a successful business and was respected in the community as an entrepreneur. Anne had even had a feature article written about her in Southern Bride magazine. Although she had emotional needs, Anne wasn’t needy.

A character’s name is usually one of the first things I know about him or her—usually along with the Real World Template on which I’m basing the physical appearance. I love names. I collect names. I refer to a 1990 yearbook from LSU when I need a good Cajun last name for one of my contemporary Bonneterre-set novels. I have gone through and started a preliminary database of names from Jane Austen novels and the other original source materials I have from the Georgian era in England so that my names in my historical trilogy are authentic. The names I give my characters are significant—not necessarily for their technical meaning, but for the connotation the name provides:
George Laurence: Englishman, old-fashioned, no nonsense, boldly battles dragons and maintains his saintly demeanor
Anne Hawthorne: old-fashioned, straight-forward, loves literature (majored in English), a bit irreverent at times.
Julia Witherington: wise beyond her years, deep family roots, a “jewel” waiting to be discovered
William Ransome: lion-hearted, leads his men into battle instead of staying safely behind the lines, righteous, and one who “ransoms” others (double-entendre of the last name in a story-arc of the trilogy)

What meaning do your characters’ names convey about them? What does your name convey about you? Have you ever changed your name to mark a passage in your life? If you were to change your name (or your characters’ names) because of a momentous event, what would you change it to?

  1. Jennifer permalink
    Friday, September 29, 2006 9:45 am

    MY name is Jennifer Marie. I can’t tell you how much I hated that name growing up. In my classes there was always at least one other Jennifer (sometimes three of us, one year there was four!) So I was always Jennifer M. or Jennifer H. Or some other variation.

    I wanted to be plain and simple Jennifer. When I hit highschool, I would introduce myself as Jennifer. People assumed it gave them the right to change it to ‘Jen’. There are 4 people who call me that: My parents, brother and sister. (And that’s because they’ve called me that my entire life and would never call me Jennifer no matter how much I insisted :))

    When I started college I started writing my full name out. Jennifer Marie. Everything I have my written name on is like that. People still shorten it, but now that drop the Marie. (I’ve always wondered why they thought they could drop a part of my name…without even asking).

    Anyway–that’s the long story on my name 🙂

    On to characters. My main character’s name is Abigail–Abby for short. Everyone calls her Abby. When I started my novel I knew I needed a name that could trasend time. I had the idea that my novel was going to be a part of a series where my heroine travels to a different part in time in each story.

    I orginally started with the name Chloe. It didn’t work. Not just because of the unusal-ness of the name, but it didn’t fit my character. I did some research and the instead I came across Abigail I knew that was ‘the’ name. No other name would work.

    Then I needed a sensible, common name that wasn’t boring. In came Rachael. I spiced it up with the spelling. Rachael with an ‘a’.

    The last character Josh needed a name that was one syllable (so Abby cold easily yell ‘Josh’ at him :)) and a name that was common, but not popular/always used. He started out a Michael, but that name didn’t fit him. I wanted to avoid a ‘J’ name, but in the end Josh had to be Josh.

    Names are so important.

    (sorry for the novel length reply :))


  2. Delia permalink
    Friday, September 29, 2006 2:29 pm

    I’ve had my nicknamed changed more than once, does that count? When I was a kid everyone called me DD (my mama, sisters, & assorted family members still use this), then in my late teens and early 20’s I was Dee (my husband, step-children, & husband’s family still call me this), now I’m Delia. And yes, every name came with a different phase and feels like a different person.

    As for my character names…man oh man, I have the hardest time coming up with character names, town names, names of places, etc. I can plot and plan all day long, but the names always stop me.


  3. Wednesday, October 10, 2007 6:55 pm

    Hey– I don’t know if you’re still reading these comments, but I just read this and your opening story sparked something in me.

    Sometimes I feel like I want a name-change — for all the reeasons you describe here. I am so different than I was 10 years ago, I almost don’t like introducing myself by the same name.

    Amy Jane kind of does this for me on-line, b/c written the name has a very different physiology than “Amy,” and it works in print.

    In “real-life” though I don’t like how juvenile it sounds. If you have any suggestions… ;o)

    (I tried once to get my girl-friends to call me “Yaffa.” They thought I was nuts. I was so cowed by their response I never brought up discontent with my name again.)



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