Wednesday, July 15, 2009

NAMING OUR HEROINES AND HOW WE DO IT

For some reason, choosing the name of the heroine of a story is hard for me—much harder than naming the hero. I’m wondering if it’s because, as women, we give more thought to what we find attractive in a man (naturally!) Even if he’s “Hunk of the Week,” if his name doesn’t appeal to us, it’s hard to think of him romantically.

We are seeing our heroines from a different perspective. They are…us. So, naming them might not be as important in our minds, since secretly, we are them. (No, we can’t use our own name!)

The various heroines of our stories, while different in some respects, still retain qualities of ourselves that we’ve endowed them with. If you look at the heroines you’ve created, though they come from different places and circumstances and have different views of the world, there are some basic things about them that don’t change.

There are at least three basic considerations for naming our heroines, apart from the obvious ones we covered when we talked about naming our guys (time period, setting, etc.)

The first one is, understanding the heroine and her motives.

Let’s look a minute at how a part of ourselves creep into our heroines’ lives, no matter what sub-genre we write. I always think of two examples that stand out in my own life experience that are easy to show.

Growing up in the 1960’s, women had three basic career opportunities: teacher, secretary, nurse. Those limitations didn’t matter, because I wanted to be a nurse ever since I could recall. But because my parents discouraged me from that field, I never pursued it—except in my writing.

At some point, in every story I write, that aspect of myself comes through in my heroine. There is always a need for her to use her nursing skills, and it’s usually to take care of the wounded hero. (In a Cheryl Pierson story, the hero will always be hurt somewhere along the way. Much like the guys with the red shirts on Star Trek know they wont be beaming back to the Enterprise from the planet’s surface, my heroes always have to figure they’re going to need some kind of medical care to survive my story.)

The second example is the fact that, being a child of an alcoholic father, I do not like surprises. I want to know that things will be steady, stable and secure. But what can be certain in a tale of romance? Nothing! Just as the hero of my stories is going to be physically in jeopardy at some point, the heroine will always have to make a decision— a very hard decision—as to whether she will give up everything that she’s built her life around for the hero. Will she take a chance on love? In the end, of course, it’s always worth the gamble. But, because I am not a risk-taker in real life, my heroines carry that part of me, for the most part, with them—until they have to make a hard choice as to whether or not to risk everything for the love of the hero.

The second consideration is, that we must like the heroine.

She is us! Have you ever started writing a story after carefully picking names for your hero and heroine, only to discover you really don’t like the character herself; or maybe, when you write the name of the character, you feel your lip starting to curl? Is it the name itself you don’t like after repetitive use, or is it the character you’ve created? Either way, there’s a problem. Stop and consider exactly what it is about that character/name you have started to dislike. Remember, the heroine is part of you. If you’re hitting a rough spot in real life, it could be you are injecting some of those qualities into your character unwittingly. There may be nothing wrong with the name you’ve selected…it could just be your heroine has taken an unforeseen character turn that you aren’t crazy about.

The third consideration is that we have to give her a name that reflects her inner strengths but shows her softer side.

This is not a dilemma for male characters. We don’t want to see a soft side—at least, not in this naming respect.

I try to find a name for my heroines that can be shortened to a pet name or nickname by the hero. (Very handy when trying to show the closeness between them, especially during those more intimate times.)

I always laugh when I think about having this conversation with another writer friend of mine, Helen Polaski. She and I were talking one day about this naming of characters, and I used the example of one of my favorite romances of all time, “Stormfire” by Christine Monson. The heroine’s name is Catherine, but the hero, at one point, calls her “Kitten.” Later, he calls her “Kit”—which I absolutely love, because I knew, even though “Kit” was short for Catherine, that he and I both were thinking of the time he’d called her “Kitten”—and so was she! Was “Kit” a short version of Catherine for him, or was he always thinking of her now as “Kitten”? Helen, with her dry northern humor, replied, “Well, I guess I’m out of luck with my name. The hero would be saying, ‘Oh, Hel…’”

One final consideration is the way your characters’ names go together; the way they sound and “fit.” Does the heroine’s name work well not only with the hero’s first name, but his last name, too? In most cases, eventually his last name will become hers. Last names are a ‘whole ’nother’ blog!

In 1880, the top ten female names were, in order: Mary, Anna, Emma, Elizabeth (4), Minnie, Margaret, Ida, Alice, Bertha, and Sarah (10).

By 1980, they’d changed drastically: Jennifer, Amanda, Jessica, Melissa, Sarah (5), Heather, Nicole, Amy, Elizabeth (9) and Michelle.

Twenty-eight years later, in 2008, there seemed to be a resurgence toward the “older” names: Emma, which was completely out of the top twenty in 1980, had resurfaced and taken the #1 spot, higher than it had been in 1880. The others, in order, are: Isabella, Emily, Madison, Ava, Olivia, Sophia, Abigail, Elizabeth (9), and Chloe. Sarah was #20, being the only other name besides Elizabeth that remained in the top twenty on all three charts.

If you write historicals, these charts are great to use for minor and secondary characters as well. If you’ve chosen a name for your heroine that’s a bit unusual, you can surround her with “ordinary” characters to provide the flavor of the time period, while enhancing her uniqueness.

Names can also send “subliminal” messages to your reader. I wrote my short story, “A NIGHT FOR MIRACLES,” (release date Dec. 2, 2009) about a couple that meet under odd circumstances and experience their own miracle on Christmas Eve. Halfway through the story, I realized what I’d done and the significance of the characters’ names.

In this excerpt, widow Angela Bentley has taken in a wounded stranger and the three children who are with him on a cold, snowy night. Here’s what happens:

FROM “A NIGHT FOR MIRACLES”:

Angela placed the whiskey-damp cloth against the jagged wound. The man flinched, but held himself hard against the pain. Finally, he opened his eyes. She looked into his sun-bronzed face, his deep blue gaze burning with a startling, compelling intensity as he watched her. He moistened his lips, reminding Angela that she should give him a drink. She laid the cloth in a bowl and turned to pour the water into the cup she’d brought.

He spoke first. “What…what’s your name?” His voice was raspy with pain, but held an underlying tone of gentleness. As if he were apologizing for putting her to this trouble, she thought. The sound of it comforted her. She didn’t know why, and she didn’t want to think about it. He’d be leaving soon.

“Angela.” She lifted his head and gently pressed the metal cup to his lips. “Angela Bentley.”

He took two deep swallows of the water. “Angel,” he said, as she drew the cup away and set it on the nightstand. “It fits.”

She looked down, unsure of the compliment and suddenly nervous. She walked to the low oak chest to retrieve the bandaging and dishpan. “And you are…”
“Nick Dalton, ma’am.” His eyes slid shut as she whirled to face him. A cynical smile touched his lips. “I see…you’ve heard of me.”

A killer. A gunfighter. A ruthless mercenary. What was he doing with these children? She’d heard of him, all right, bits and pieces, whispers at the back fence. Gossip, mainly. And the stories consisted of such variation there was no telling what was true and what wasn’t.

She’d heard. She just hadn’t expected him to be so handsome. Hadn’t expected to see kindness in his eyes. Hadn’t expected to have him show up on her doorstep carrying a piece of lead in him, and with three children in tow. She forced herself to respond through stiff lips. “Heard of you? Who hasn’t?”

He met her challenging stare. “I mean you no harm.”
She remained silent, and he closed his eyes once more. His hands rested on the edge of the sheet, and Angela noticed the traces of blood on his left thumb and index finger. He’d tried to stem the blood flow from his right side as he rode. “I’m only human, it seems, after all,” he muttered huskily. “Not a legend tonight. Just a man.”

He was too badly injured to be a threat, and somehow, looking into his face, she found herself trusting him despite his fearsome reputation. She kept her expression blank and approached the bed with the dishpan and the bandaging tucked beneath her arm. She fought off the wave of compassion that threatened to engulf her. It was too dangerous. When she spoke, her tone was curt. “A soldier of fortune, from what I hear.”

He gave a faint smile. “Things aren’t always what they seem, Miss Bentley.”


I hope you have enjoyed this look into A NIGHT FOR MIRACLES. Thanks for reading! Please leave a comment!

Cheryl

14 comments:

Tanya Hanson said...

Hi Cheryl, fun blog. I absolutely think names must fit the time period. Although my gramma Ida's name probably wouldn't appeal to today's readers as a heroine, I'v got an antique photo of my grampa riding off to court her in his horse and buggy.

I read a blog comment somewhere once when the reader said she'd much rather read a medieval heroine named Eunice than one named Tiffany. It's so off-putting when I see today's androgynous names given to historical heroines.

Good job, Cheryl.

Rebecca J Vickery said...

Hi Cheryl, I love the blog about naming our heroines. And you are right...I have a lot tougher time naing my heroine than I do the hero. As for some of the old names my grandmothers both had unusual names for the early 1900's. One was Deeree and the other was Dollie Pauline. My hubby's mother was hung with Fannie Lou (she was born in 1913) but his grandmother was a Sarah. Fascinating topic anyway. Can't wait for the Christmas story.

Helen said...

Cheryl, can you believe I never got the connection between your characters' names and Christmas? LOL. Well done!

Helen

Celia Yeary said...

Cheryl--I loved your A Night for Miracles--just the perfect little Christmas story--complete with christmas names.The correct name for the time period is very important.Tanya said it--it's off-putting to read about a historical heroine who has a modern name. Who today would be named "Beulah Modene(my mother)"? Or Augusta--my grandmother, or Evie Irene, my other grandmother. Actually, I like Evie. I was named after my great-grandmother--Celia Harriet--Celia is a very old name, and it often appears in Regengies. Your research about popular names in certain decades is very interesting.Well done--Celia

Cheryl said...

Hi Tanya!

You know another really different name from the past that was used a lot for women was "ICY" or "ICEY". My grandmothers were both named Mary--Mary Elizabeth and Mary Alma. I have a picture of my mom's parents in a buggy, too! That must have been a popular pose back then. I so agree about the names fitting the historical time period. It sure makes a big difference. If they're named something too modern, it really pulls you out of the story.

Thanks for commenting, Tanya!
Cheryl

Cheryl said...

Hi Becca!
Good to see you here! I agree, those are unusual names for the times, but back then they sure had some unusual ones! I had an aunt Jessaree (Deeree reminded me of that one). She was my great aunt. I have a friend who had a great aunt named Erielake. (You might can tell, I'm a collector of names...) LOL My hubby's mom was named Esta Mae, but everyone called her "Estie." She had a sister named Masil, and her husband's first wife was named Cecil!!!! Go figure!

Thanks for coming over!
Cheryl

Cheryl said...

Helen,

That's okay! I didn't think of it as I was writing it, either. I realized about halfway through what I had done. But it was meant to be!LOL

Thanks for commenting!
Cheryl

Cheryl said...

Celia!

Thanks so much! I'm glad you are liking my excerpts from A Night For Miracles. I really love that story. I know a family whose last name is Berry, and when their daughter was born (in Dec.) they named her "HOLLY." Now, that I would never do. They grow up. and then they have some 'splainin' to do...LOL To rival Beulah Modene, I must tell you, I have a sister-in-law (married to my husband's brother, Tom) whose name is Penina Prenistine...and now, her last name is...Pierson. (she goes by Prenny) Lots of cool names out there, and how they influence people is really interesting. I think names are just a fascinating topic. I knew a girl in high school named Celia. The only other one I've ever known. I think that is a beautiful name!

Thanks for commenting!
Cheryl

Mary Ricksen said...

Great excerpt. Funny but I usually pick names I like. They have to fit the time period but, that's only been a problem for me once. I named a cat in a story, "Jeepers", because I had a cat named that. Well it seems the word wasn't around time 50 years later. So I had to change it.
Good luck Cheryl

Shannon Robinson said...

Great blog post, Cheryl! I love coming up with character names - the way I do it is to actually envision what the character looks like, then I'll rattle off about five or more names until I say one that seems to "fit" the person I envisioned. It's funny, but I have yet to change a character name that I've done that with yet! :)
Thanks for sharing - I love the time line about names. That's very interesting information!
Shannon

Penny Rader said...

Great post, Cheryl! I love picking names for my characters. Sometimes it's easy and sometimes not.

Isn't it weird how some names seem meant to be? I wrote Sapphire and Gold long before my grandchildren were born. My heroine's name is Alexandra. Many people call her Ally. The hero calls her Lexi. I had a granddaughter named Alexis. We called her Lexi. My daughter had never read my manuscript.

I had another character named Jessamyn. My oldest daughter named her daughter Jessalyn. When I sold Sapphire and Gold I changed Jessamyn to Jessalyn and then added in my other grandkids' names. I don't want anyone to feel left out. :)

I had a new granddaughter (Faye) born in December and now have a granddaughter (Katelyn) due in September. There will undoubtedly be a Faye and a Katelyn in upcoming stories. :)

In my contemporary stories I seem to favor heroine names that begin with M. Strange how that works.

Oh, and I loved your A Night for Miracles blurb! I love, love, love Christmas stories.

Cheryl said...

Hi Mary,

Well, you were lucky it was just the cat, weren't you? LOL I have visions of creating a name I like or using one that's out there and finding out that it wasn't around then. I try to be sure I don't use anything too modern sounding.

Thanks so much for commenting, Mary!
Cheryl

Cheryl said...

Shannon,

That is so clever! I never thought of that--finding a picture and going through the names like you do. You know, in Fire Eyes, I named the heroine Jessica, because my daughter Jessica had been begging me to name one of my heroines after her. So I did, and described her like my Jessica looks--brown hair and eyes, etc. When Nicola Martinez did my cover the woman she used for Jessica in the book looks so much like my daughter that many people have asked me who took "that picture" of Jessica? LOL I tell them it's not her, and they don't believe me. Isn't that weird?

Thanks for commenting!
Cheryl

Cheryl said...

Hi Penny,

That is very interesting about the names you used and how they correlate to your grandchildren! I did that with my daughter Jessica in Fire Eyes--she wanted a heroine named for her. LOL I don't have any grandchildren yet, but I think you are super to make sure there are no hurt feelings, and how neat that the kids can see their names in a book that you wrote!

I'm glad you liked my excerpt for A Night For Miracles. I love Christmas stories, too, especially those with a bit of something unusual in them.

Thanks so much for commenting.
Cheryl