Last November, I “won” National Novel Writing Month by writing 50,000 words of a novel draft. But I still wasn’t satisfied with my protagonist’s name, a name which I’d used as a placeholder in my rush to finish. I knew what kind of person he was, I’d already written a character bio of him, but I didn’t have a strong name that matched his personality. So in early January I decided to change it. The hunt for a solid name that had rhythm, meaning, and suitability to the story began.
I combed baby name and ancestry sites for ideas. I came up with several first and last name combinations that I adored one day and dismissed the next. I did this on several occasions, taking notes on the various spellings of names, fiddling with last names as firsts, objects as names, etc. Each time I landed on a strong combination, I’d hope my fondness for the name would last for more than a day. It didn’t. Finally, I got frustrated. I knew what I needed to do. It was what I’d been trying to short cut around. I needed to write character bios for my protagonist’s parents.
I only wrote a few paragraphs on each one. But working out the mother’s background, her personality, her job, her interests, where she’d been born and raised, and how she’d met my protagonist’s father, opened the lock of frustration. I did the same with the father’s profile. I didn’t focus so much on what they looked like, but rather who they were in terms of personality. For instance, my protagonist is a botanist so his father is also a plantsman. Did he marry my protagonist’s mother because she was a naturalist or because she was the opposite, a city person? What was their ethnicity? Where did they live, and where did they meet? Are they conformist-types or trailblazers? Once I answered these kinds of questions (and often the answers were inside what I’d already written), I knew the kinds of names these two people would have named their son. There were still a handful of choices, but I was no longer overwhelmed. I was able to choose a name that I liked and still like. The last name came from their ancestral background, the first name from a personal taste born of ideas, experiences, and worldview. A reflection of them. Like couples in real life.
I believe what Henry James said, that character equals plot. The plot develops from a character’s personality and hence, choices. Now that I not only know my character’s personality, but also his parents’ personalities, I understand his thinking more clearly and can better maneuver him through his world. A world of revising 50,000 words.