As I craft new characters for my books, I spend a lot of time thinking about names. We infer a lot about people because of their names, and our own names shape our sense of self and our identity.
To find the perfect name for a character, I go through baby books and phone books, and try out a variety of names for my characters before one sticks. It has to sound right on my tongue, and also look good on the page. Sometimes the name jumps out immediately—like Lydia McKenzie did for my main character in Posed for Murder. I knew it was perfect right away. And sometimes the name I pick changes who the character is altogether. In my next book, a car service driver named Emmanuel informed me that he was Jamaican, and somehow, in the process of hearing his voice, he took on a much larger role in the book then I had originally intended.
I’ve always been intrigued by people who don’t like the names they’re given, and look for a name that’s a better fit. When my brother was little, he told my mother that he wanted to change his name to Chewbacca. My mother tried her best to remember to call him Chewie, but it was pretty hard. He in no way resembled the Star Wars character, being neither tall nor fuzzy. It helped that my mother realized that what my brother really wanted was to be large and powerful, and through changing his name he hoped to somehow become the opposite of what he was: a small four year old. And he luckily he dropped the whole Chewbacca thing soon after.
Until I was five, I was called “Momo,” which means little peach in Japanese. As I learned to write my name, I only had to learn to write two letters. This was of course a lot easier then learning to write seven off the bat. But sometime around age five, I announced that I was big enough for my real name. Switching wasn’t easy, though, and I had to train everyone to call me Meredith.
I never had a nickname as an adult, although people occasionally ask if they can call me Mary (or Merry?). I usually just say that it’s not my name, and that’s the end of that. My mother originally wanted to name me Emily after my great grandmother Emma, but my father vetoed it. Instead, he found my name in the TV guide (Meredith MacRae from Petticoat Junction!).
When I got married, it never occurred to me to take my husband’s name and drop my own. For some reason it didn’t feel right. Changing my last name meant somehow changing myself, and losing part of my identity. The Thanksgiving before I got married, my future mother-in-law asked me point blank if I was changing my name. I told her no, wondering how she was going to react. She was blasé, and said she didn’t like the name either, but it was better than her maiden name! I knew then that we would get along just fine.
So would I be different with my husband’s last name or the first name Emily or with another name altogether? Would I choose to write mysteries? I enjoy asking myself that question, just like I do for the characters in my books, but I doubt I’ll ever find out (unless, of course, I decide someday to use a pseudonym).
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