The Names of Things V
When Isaac Became Simon, and Vice Versa


Many authors have talked about how they name their characters, so I might as well join that list. For some, it’s an unconscious process. Some authors struggle with naming their characters in much the same way that they struggle to find a title for their book, while others just snap to a title or a name because of a feeling that hits them in the gut. This is a never-ending source of frustration for both groups, since the former would love to know how the latter does it, and the latter would love to know how to explain it.

I’ve had a knack for titles. I’ve struggled with names a bit more, but I also seem to come up with them intuitively. Rosemary Ella Watson, the star of The Unwritten Girl came to me suddenly when the first ideas for the novel started rolling through my head. I had the desire to write a story in my own universe (as opposed to fan fiction set within someone else’s universe), and I had the beginnings of a plot. I knew that I wanted a young female protagonist, and I knew that I was being heavily influenced by Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. But what was her name?

At the time, Erin and I were working in the same offices at the University of Waterloo, and Erin’s boss invited us out for lunch. We trekked across campus with Erin and her boss talking, while I brooded along behind them. We sat down at the restaurant, and they talked about the menu selections. One salad had a special dressing of passion fruit and thyme, and Erin and her boss agreed that “Passion Fruit and Thyme” would be an excellent title for some historic romance novel.

At which point it all clicked: my story would be entitled Rosemary and Time, and I had the name of my main character. “Her name’s Rosemary!” I blurted.

Strangely enough, this initial inspiration didn’t make it into the final version of the novel. Rosemary stayed Rosemary, but the book turned into something that didn’t have anything to do with time travel, and Barry, my editor, thought that readers would get confused or be disappointed. As a result, the last thing I had to do before the book was published was to step away from this initial inspiration, and change the book’s title to The Unwritten Girl.

Later, in The Young City, I had the task of naming the book’s main villain: a man who was a crime leader and who outwardly gave the appearance of a prosperous businessman. I figured that, even as a businessman, he’d have a sinister air to him, and I somehow settled on the name of Aldous for him. It was a Victorian-sounding name that seemed appropriate given the setting (1884 Toronto). Actually, I called him Aldous Magnait, but Erin advised that I was going too far. Then, during my research, I discovered the name of a wealthy industrialist of the period: Cyrus Birge, a Hamilton man who founded the Canada Screw Company, one of the predecessors of Dofasco. I figured that, with a name like that, he had to be an evil genius (he wasn’t; he was a self-made man who gave to his community of Hamilton and to the Methodist Church). Either way, it was enough precedent for me, and so Aldous Magnait became Aldous Birge. Maybe he was Cyrus’s evil twin.

I find that I name many of my characters similar to the way Erin and I have named our children. Vivian and Nora (Eleanor) were simple but also distinctive. They have a history to their names, but they aren’t so popular that they were likely to meet more than one Vivian or Nora per grade (I find that I’ve been somewhat less successful in this respect for Nora). Most importantly, these names aren’t pretentious misspelt concoctions that some parents use in order to make their kids’ names distinctive and which age badly. Similarly, the advantage of Rosemary, Peter, Fiona, Faith and Edmund is that they’re good, strong names, but they still stand out in a crowd.

An exception to this rule is Perpetua. Now, Erin came up with this name and not me, but it came after we tried various misspellings of her old name, Victoria (named Viktoria and Viqtoria), which simply weren’t clicking. The name Perpetua suggested a history that had set the poor girl well apart from other people. As we worked with Perpetua, however, it also became a source of conflict that had pushed her away from her mother (“Perpetua Viktoria Collins. My mother named me. It’s not my fault.”).

Aurora was a bit of a happy accident, I think. In a story about dreams and implications of night and day, Aurora seemed an appropriate name for the heroine. I didn’t discover, until I was well into the book, that Aurora was also a name for Sleeping Beauty, and thus Aurora’s last name was discovered (Perrault, after one of the early tellers of the story) and the name of Aurora’s mother, Dawn.

In writing Icarus Down, I simply had a hunch that simpler names were required. Simon was initially named Isaac and Isaac was initially named Simon. But when Erin happened to tell me that the name “Isaac” means “laughing one”, that seemed more appropriate for the role of the character that became the older, more flamboyant brother. So, I did a swap. Further, when Cameron noted that the discussion about “forbidden fruit” from the fog forest below was “positively Biblical”, I decided to run with this, and so the names of the other characters were hunted through Old Testament naming dictionaries.

The names of things are often happy accidents, I think. Like other aspects of the story, they are unearthed rather than forged. Indeed, the fun of finding a character’s name is another element in the wonderful sense of discovery that comes when writing a book.

Further Reading

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