Friday, 11 December 2009
A Bella Too Far
So I’m on Facebook the other day…OK I’m on Facebook every day…and the very talented YA author Tabitha Suzuma announces her new book. Forbidden, a tale of taboo love between a brother and sister.
Now, knowing Tabitha and her exceptionally sensitive, beautifully written books, Forbidden will be a complete treat. But one thing caught my eye. The sister’s name. Bella.
Of course there’s nothing to stop anyone calling their heroine anything they wish. But Bella, in the face of Twilight’s massive success in the YA market seemed a little bold. On the other hand if anyone can reclaim the name it’s surely Tabitha. So I commented ‘Great that she’s called Bella.’
‘Why?’ asked an innocent Tabitha.
‘Ummm…you know…Bella ‘n’ Edward’
Cue for anguish, gnashing of teeth and requests for new name suggestions from Tabitha. She had never read Twilight. Nor, it seems, had her editors. Just as she’d thought the book was nearly finished one of the hardest aspects - the naming of characters - had to start again.
I always thought that I’d love naming characters. I love names - maybe it’s to do with having a slightly unusual one myself - by the way Keren is a completely different name from Karen, with its own Biblical pedigree (a daughter of Job, actually, called Keren-happuch) and definitely not a pretentious alternative spelling.
I enjoyed debating baby names with my husband, finding layers of meaning in our final choices. Surely naming characters would be the same?
Well, no. When you name a baby, you name a blank slate, and you find a name which reflects your history, your taste, your personality. Naming a character is somewhat different. You have a vague idea of what someone’s like, you’re still finding out about them, and you have to find the perfect label to convey that idea of a person - even though the naming process is nothing like that in reality.
You have to balance each name with the other names in the book. In Almost True there are two people who live together, and they had names which began and ended with the same letters. That wouldn’t do - but I didn’t want to change either name. In the end I had to sacrifice the less important character and search for a new similar name for her.
Then there was my Twilight moment. I had a character called Edward, which was just right. But then my characters started discussing Twilight. It’s someone’s favourite book (If you’ve read When I Was Joe I bet you can guess whose..) And I had to change Edward’s name.
Nothing felt right. I used the find/replace key, inserting Charles, Louis, Mark, Henry. All wrong. I thought about the character, his age, his family. I tried to imagine his parents, how they would have chosen his name. And then I tried out Patrick. Yes! It was as though he’d never been called Edward.
Similarly, Claire in When I Was Joe started out as Katie. But then her part in the book grew. I have a good friend called Katie. It began to feel weird writing about Katie the character. So she became Claire. My daughter sulked for ages. Ty’s mum, on the other hand is called Nicki, and I have another good friend called Nicky. It never bothered me – perhaps because of the one letter difference. But Nicki’s sisters are called Louise and Emma. I have friends called Louise and Emma...it must be something about the character. Or maybe the friend.
At the moment I’m thinking about a new novel. I have hazy ideas for characters. They are vaguely labelled Lia, Jack, Daisy, Rafael and Theo. Jack’s already had a name change before a word’s been written about him, because a friend told me that my original choice - Jamie – was a girl’s name in the US. How many of the others will stay and how many will change?
I wait to find out - and I'd love to know how others go about the naming process in novels, blogs or real life. And any examples of books you read where a character's name just doesn't feel right?
UPDATE: A few hours after I wrote this, my husband was reading The Three Musketeers to our son. Who then declared that his favourite character was Grimaux - a servant,and very minor character 'because his name is so cool.'