Monday, June 16, 2008

Writing names...

Because I'm obsessing about names at the moment, I invited the talented Tania Hershman on my blog to talk about how she names her characters.



As well as editing The Short Review, Tania's got her first short story collection, The White Road and Other Stories, coming out this year from Salt Publishing. I hope to have more about that nearer the publication date, but in the meantime here's what she says about the naming process:

During my MA in Creative Writing, as I was preparing the short story collection which would be my final manuscript, my tutor suggested I change one of the character's names. I had called her "Mags" and this reminded my tutor of the film Fargo. She suggested "Maggie". Not wanting to lose marks "just" because of a name, I changed it. And suddenly, Mags was gone. Mags, whose voice I had heard so strongly, whose story had moved me, had vanished with her name. Maggie? Someone else.

From this I learned that I wasn't choosing my character's names. They came with their name. Wrong name, different character. Or: wrong name, and the voice in my head is gone. As soon as I graduated, I changed her name back, and there was Mags, waiting for me, hands on hips, amused.

Is "naming" a character akin to naming a child? This is not something I have done, but most friends who have always had a name lined up in advance. Would it fit when the baby arrived, I wondered? Or were they somehow already connected to that magical process whereby - in the same way that Mags introduced herself to me – they weren't actually choosing the right name, although they thought they were, they were just hearing the right name.

Last year I was commissioned to write a short story for BBC Radio 4 during a week commemorating the 50th anniversary of the of Sputnik launch. Much to my astonishment, Mary Margaret appeared. Mary Margaret, a sixteen-year-old Irish girl in 1957. The minute I heard her name, there she was, fully-formed. She has that effect on others, too. Members of my writing group who read the many drafts loved her, loved her name (except for one person who, because of her name, assumed she was a nun!). Everything was present in those two names together: her Irishness, her innocence, the time she lived in. Mary Margaret could never have been called anything else. Just as her friend, Sylvie, could never be Sylvia. Nope.

Mary Margaret has stayed with me, she is now the main character in several more stories. She is not really a character to me, she's Mary Margaret, as real as she could be. When I saw the film Stranger than Fiction, I was deeply moved. That's how I feel; Mary Margaret is right there, I can almost touch her.

In a second story, Mary Margaret herself wants to change her name, wants to drop "Mary" because of what it connotes for her. And although she might do this when she introduces herself to others, in her head she is still, and always will be, Mary Margaret. There are the names we choose for ourselves and then there are those essential, ineffable singular names, to paraphrase T S Eliot, that nobody can alter.


I find so much about what Tania says fascinating, particularly how she felt she lost a character when someone outside (her tutor) changed the name. Anyone else had this experience?

13 comments:

Nik's Blog said...

Really enjoyed reading that Tania/Sarah.

Nik

Tania Hershman said...

Ooh, that's an awfully big photo of me! I scare myself :). Glad you liked it Nik, thank you Sarah for asking me to think about names and naming, it was very enlightening. I am so glad Mags didn't stay "Maggie", urgh. She is actually the main character in the title story of my collection, so she's extremely important!

Nik's Blog said...

I'm glad all ended up being well with Mags. The thing with characters and their names is they are what they are, I think.

Women Rule Writer said...

Looking forward even more to reading your book, Tania, after this taster. Good topic, Sarah!

womagwriter said...

The right name is so important, and I agree it can just conjure up a character immediately.

I have a few set characters I write about from time to time. So if I think of a plot that requires a mother and rebellious teenage daughter, for example, I have those characters (Claire and Kirsty) already built, and as long as I keep to those same names I can keep them clear in my mind. Saves a lot of time when writing!

jem said...

Great stuff. Most of the characters in my writing don't have names, or defined faces - probably because they are not living in storyland as such. If I think of them with any kind of name its usually something descriptive about them, but I could pick a name that meant that I guess (along the lines of your explanations about Sarahs and Clares etc).

I think names are very powerful and should be given and given up with care. I've always thought I could never change my name if I married as I wouldnt be me any more.

Tania Hershman said...

Actually, in quite a few of my more recent stories, the characters don't have names at all, barely even genders. I sometimes find that incredibly liberating - and every now and then I like to make my reader work a little harder!

Sarah Hilary said...

I loved reading this. Thanks, Tania and Sarah. What a wonderful cast of characters you have living in your head, Tania! I can't wait to meet them.

Tania Hershman said...

I should mention that Mary Margaret won't be in The White Road collection. She's newer and I have a feeling she might just be getting a book/collection of her own, when I get my writing shed set up (everything, of course, will change once I have the shed!)

Sarah Hilary said...

Ah the shed! I've promised my daughter we'll have two, in our next house. One for her and one for me. We'll visit one another at intervals for tea and biscuits but mostly we'll be busy writing/reading/planning world domination (that last one I shall leave to her).

Sarah Salway said...

Wow, thanks Tania. And also for reassuring us re Mags!

Jem, your comment: "I think names are very powerful and should be given and given up with care." has made me think. It used to be a craze at our school to call ourselves different - more exotic - names. I wonder if we ever thought what we'd be giving up. It was more a case of trying on new clothes.

Sarah Salway said...

"the characters don't have names at all, barely even genders."
Interesting, Tania, because I'm the same too. Of course Ali Smith doesn't specify gender in her short stories - I'm wondering now if there's anyone else.
We had a discussion in my writing class yesterday about how it was easier sometimes to write from a male perspective - more freeing. I wonder if this is something to do with this too.

Gondal-girl said...

The name is all. I can't imagine God going, oh well Adam sounds like something in a movie, better call him something else:) That teacher brought their own ideas/ bias to your character, I would never have made a Fargo reference/connection. The naming of a character has so much power, I always think of The Crucible...'but it's my name' sort of thing. There is power in the right name ( bit obsessed by this with my characters changing their own names all the time)....