Why Character Names Matter…

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

Not so fast there, Will. I beg to differ. Names carry a lot of meaning and, if you’re writing a character-driven mystery, getting names right is essential.

This week two events led to this post. First, a politician gave a speech in Lima, Ohio.

“No!” I yelled at the radio every time a reporter pronounced the name of the town as Lima (LEE-mah), like the city in Peru. Having grown up near there, I knew it was actually pronounced LIE-mah, as in Lima beans. Aggravation turned to smirks and giggles when journalists caught the faux pas and humorous articles popped up showing just how badly Americans butcher place names: Wilkes-Barre (Wilkes-Barry), Pennsylvania; Norfolk (NAW-fik), Virginia; Versailles (Ver-SAILS), Kentucky; Staunton (STAN-ton), Virginia; and Worcester (WUSS-ter), Massachusetts, to name a few.

As for me, I still blush when I remember asking for directions to Belvidere Street in Richmond, Virginia. I was a newly minted college graduate, proud of all that life-altering knowledge that had been poured into my brain. From my classes, I knew a smattering of Italian and pronounced the street name as Bell-vuh-DARE-ee because, well, that’s what it says. The guy I asked kept a straight face, bless his heart, and said, “If you’re looking for Bell-vi-DEER, it’s two blocks that way.”

Well, then.

As far as towns, cities, and streets go, alternate pronunciations aren’t going to change the place, the people in it, or what happens there. At best, you’ll get an eye roll and be forever branded as an outsider, someone who “isn’t from around here.”

But when it comes to creating a world for your characters to inhabit, the right names are essential.

I’m still in the world-building stage of my own cozy series. I love this phase of the project. For me, working out the town down to the streets, businesses, and, in this case, the local college is fun. Same with the characters. I enjoy pulling out the baby name books for a first name that fits the image in my head. I even found an old telephone book and had my fingers do the walking for the perfect last name. However, as enjoyable as it is, world-building is time consuming and I can easily fall down the rabbit hole of backstory when I should be moving on to plot. So that’s what I did. I moved on.

Then, after all my careful planning, I hit a speed bump on my way to the story: my main character’s name. It was taken. Somehow when I googled her name at the beginning of my research, I hadn’t hit that a well-known person in our area was walking around with the same name. I understand that a lot of people have the same name, but this one came with baggage I didn’t want linked to my character.

My only choice was to rename her. It couldn’t be too bad, I thought. After all, Margaret Mitchell wrote a book about Pansy and her beloved home Fountenoy Hall before it became Scarlett O’Hara fighting to save Tara. Baby book in hand, I renamed my character.

What I didn’t expect was how that simple name swap changed my character. When I started thinking of her by another name, she lived in my mind with different experiences, mannerisms, and, yes, a new hair color. By virtue of a new name, she was a new person.

Now, on the days when I am not writing posts for this blog, I am revisiting my protagonist, giving her a deluxe makeover. And because cozy mysteries are character driven, I’m also making changes to my plot.

Just goes to show that writing is a process that travels a winding road instead of a straight line.

Time to enjoy the journey and stop to smell the roses.

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