Shakespeare’s Romeo said that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But I wonder, would a character named Rose have the same personality if the author changed her name to Daisy?
In 2011, when I started planning a story about a secret dayof the week, the protagonist came to me with his name already selected. By him. “I’m Jax,” he said, and since I was toying with the idea of setting the story in a fantasy world, I didn’t object at first. But when I decided to set the story in modern day U.S.A, I thought I needed to change his name. American boys weren’t named Jax. (In 2011, I had never heard of that name.)
The problem was, Jax wouldn’t change his name. Not even to something close, like Jack. Somehow, an entire personality had become attached to that name. Jax was stubborn and had a smart mouth on him, but he was also good-hearted and likeable and loyal to a fault. He was impetuous, prone to making mistakes, but always willing to take responsibility for his actions and make things right. All those things had somehow become uniquely tied to three letters: J-A-X.
(Of course, by the time the book was published, I found myself encountering the name Jax or Jaxon everywhere. So, he was right all along.)
I’m not the only author who’s experienced this name-character connection. Susan Lynn Meyer reports that after hearing the name September Rose (a friend’s daughter’s friend), she immediately knew she had the name of the MG for her book Skating with the Statue of Liberty. She tells me, “I can't exactly say why, maybe because it is such a vivid and unique name, but the name September Rose (Seppie for short) conjured up to me an African-American girl who is full of confidence, energy, and joie de vivre, even in the face of discrimination. She wants to be a singer and dancer, like her idol Josephine Baker.”
In Diana Peterfreund’s Secret Society Girl series, a character with the code name Poe is eventually revealed to have the real name of James. However, when the protagonist first called him by that name, the author got a surprise. He shouted that nobody called him James; his name was Jamie. “The scene took ME by surprise,” she says. “I didn't even think of trying to change it. He was so certain.”
Another character who chose her own name is Fairday Morrow. In the book, The Secret Files of Fairday Morrow, readers find out that her mother, Pru, grew up in Nantucket. Because her baby daughter’s gray eyes reminded her of the ocean, Pru named her child after a phrase local fishermen said to tourists. Authors Jessica Haight and Stephanie Robinson say that Fairday’s name inspired her character: “Fairday has an even-keeled personality that built up around her name, though we'd say she does have her own style!”
I could share countless other stories of how my characters’ name choices drove the development of their personality, such as my feisty and ever-truthful Verity Boone and Riley Pendare—who in my original story notes was named Wiley, but who changed his name and hijacked his intended role just before I started the first chapter. Rather than recount them all, I’ll leave you with some writing advice from Diana Peterfreund. When it comes to characters’ names, the characters know best.
“Follow the names,” Diana says. “Always follow the names.”