If anyone’s seen Little Miss Sunshine, they might remember the bit where Uncle Frank (Steve Carrell) and Dwayne (Paul Dano) are talking by the pier, and they’re talking about how life’s one big beauty contest, or that’s how Dwayne’s beginning to see it, wishing he could just sleep through the suffering of high school, and Frank brings up Marcel Proust, who allegedly reflected on the suffering in his own life as being the best years of his life. He also said that Proust was a great writer who “spent years writing a book almost no one reads”. And he was right: I never really even knew who Proust was until college, when I got an excerpt from that book, Remembrance of Things Past (though it’s not the only book he wrote).
Less than a year after graduating, I was reading a book on writing, and I recall it mentioning that one of Proust’s servants came in and found the guy in a fetal position on the floor because he was agonizing over trying to find just the right next word. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know what it means to agonize over a word–or in this case a name.
Yes, a name of a character is pretty important to me, at least where major characters are concerned, or perhaps especially. Either way, I know one of the rules of writing is just get the damn thing on paper, but when it comes to names, I have to spend time on it, because as with some writers–like with J. R. R. Tolkien or J. K. Rowling (at least in Harry Potter, I’ve not yet read The Casual Vacancy) for example–the name is part of who the character is. Even with Suzanne Collins in The Hunger Games–you can see the difference between Katniss and Primrose defined in their names, corresponding to their personalities: Katniss is named for a rugged and earthy tuber (root), and Primrose is named for a sweet little blossom. No offense to Katniss or anything, it’s part of what makes her her own kind of strong heroine. And the people in the Capitol too: many of the politicians (Coriolanus Snow, Seneca Crane, Plutarch Heavensbee) get Latin names, which seems to echo the very Roman culture they’ve adopted, the Hunger Games being structures built on the foundation of the Roman gladiator fights, and of the concept of “bread and circuses” (panem et circenses, which VOILA, is where we get the name Panem).
But the long and the short of it is, a character’s name is a definition for me. If I’m writing about a girl with a fiery spirit, I might look into names that have fiery connotations. Not only that, but the name has to fit the context of the story. I might find a name from Ancient Rome that has the perfect meaning for my character with a “cheerful” disposition, but if it’s a grandiose name for an American teenager in present day, like Hilarius (which means “cheerful”) I think using it in this context would be…hilarious (or probably just ridiculous).
So you can see how I can agonize over getting a name right. And if you do too, please don’t feel guilty.