The email dropped into my inbox, pulsating with vitriol.
My YA novel about teen cyberbullying had just been released, and my dear friend was clearly irate.
How could you? began the digital rant. My pulse pounded as I read on, wondering what on earth I had done to so deeply offend her.
The upshot? I’d had the audacity to name a character in my book the same nickname that her seven-year-old daughter goes by. Flabbergasted, I tore through the pages, needing to jar my memory. Had I inadvertently used her child’s name for one of my trio of “mean girls?”
No. It took several passes until I finally found the obscure reference: a gorgeous Abercrombie supermodel who was dating the book’s heartthrob pop star. The character was a peripheral figure, at best, who never enters the story, but is referenced twice. Admittedly, she is described as vapid—but only because my teenage protagonist is desperately jealous of her.
The thought that the two would be conflated simply never crossed my mind. But in choosing the name, perhaps I was the one who had crossed the line.
What’s in a name?
And when we writers choose names for our fictional characters, which ones should be off limits?
The blowback made me envy the authors of historical fiction, who can harken back to names like Hortense and Gertrude, or science fiction scribes, who can simply concoct names—Catniss and Peeta—that have yet to exist.
But as a contemporary writer, it would be slim pickings if I were forced to eliminate the monikers everyone I’ve ever encountered in my four decades on this planet—kids’ classmates, friends, teachers, neighbors, relatives, and so on.
And the truth is, I don’t always know exactly where I get the names I use.
We writers pluck our character names from the ether and hoard them, like our kids’ Shopkins collections, ready to enlist as needed. Some come from heroines of books and movies. Others, from names we love and desperately wanted to use for our own offspring, but couldn’t get our own spouses on board. (And sure, occasionally, recycled from the names of our most evil childhood bullies.)
This unexpected brouhaha harkened back to the “baby-naming battles” I’d endured over a decade ago—the strict-yet-unspoken rules about when a name could and could not be claimed for our still-unborn firstborns.
I’d almost forgotten how fiercely protective we moms-to-be could be — the intense fury I felt when a close relative usurped the name I’d been hoarding for two decades. Didn’t she know I’d called dibs back in 1982 as an homage to my red-headed Cabbage Patch Kid? Or when close friends named their newborn the same name as our toddler, a potential miff only mitigated by the fact that we had already moved to the opposite coast.
For mother-authors, are there similar rules of etiquette surrounding naming characters after the kids we have come to know?
Turns out my fellow kid-lit authors contend that common names should be up for grabs, but some still do proceed with caution. “I am very careful not to name my characters any names of folks I know,” one tells me. Another uses scads of his kids’ friends names, but only “in passing or in a good light.”
In the midst of all this, I noticed one renowned YA author had put out a notice on Facebook that she’d be scrolling through her feed, seeking character names for her next novel. Most responders vied for the honor, one declaring, “I would be honored to be a character! Even an evil one or one that dies.”
Regrettably, my vapid supermodel character didn’t end up dying; instead, it was the friendship with the offended mom that suffered the fatal blow.