What's in a Name? More Than You'd Think

I recently had the pleasure of copyediting Victoria Namkung's new novel, These Violent Delights. It's a powerful, important work that takes the reader, from several women's perspectives, through the emotionally draining process of bringing charges against a teacher who molested his students. Here are Victoria's thoughts on the unexpected difficulties she faced when naming over fifty characters for this timely page-turner. -- Susannah

There are so many challenging things about writing fiction, and coming up with character names is no exception. In my new novel, These Violent Delights, I have four female protagonists—Jane March, Caryn Rodgers, Eva Garcia, and Sasha Sokoloff—and about fifty minor characters mentioned throughout the book. That’s a whole lot of naming. How do I do it? For central characters, I’ll research which names were most popular during a character’s birth year and draw from that list, or if a character is particularly unique, I like to use an unusual name.

When writing fiction set in Los Angeles, I also make sure I have ethnic names represented. It’s simply impossible to live in a diverse city like L.A. and not encounter people of all backgrounds, and I believe contemporary fiction should reflect that reality. For minor characters, I often use first names of people from my real life as a tribute. I sometimes give an unlikeable character the name of a man who wronged me, which brings a small amount of joy. I created a fictional law firm by joining the last names of my financial advisor, insurance agent, and CPA, simply for my own amusement.

During the copyediting process, Susannah politely pointed out that six of my characters all started with the letter “J.” Even though I’d been writing for nine months at that point, and had read the manuscript several times, I never noticed this. Nor did I pick up on the fact that Caryn’s name rhymed with the antagonist’s name, Darren. Normally, I would beat myself up over such an obvious mistake, but it was so ridiculous that I could only laugh—and I promptly changed his name to Gregory. I’m happy to report that no Gregs have ever mistreated me. 

Then there’s the business of naming fictional places and things. My novel is about a group of alumnae from an elite all-girls school in Los Angeles who unite, with the help of an investigative journalist, to take down their former teacher. I wanted to come up with a name that projected the history, weight, and feel of an Exeter or Choate, and for some reason I wanted the school to start with a “W.” I landed on "Windemere" because my mom, who lived in London prior to emigrating to the U.S., once said she liked the name, and I always remembered that.

As a journalist, and as an author, I rely heavily on the expertise of copyeditors. They catch everything, especially the things you can’t see because your brain plays tricks on you. I fully expected Susannah to rectify spelling and grammar errors, but I never imagined how much she would help make my characters’ names, and the novel as a whole, so much better. Now, I can barely remember a time when Eva was called Jen or Ben was called Joe.

I cannot fathom writing in a world without copyeditors—and you shouldn’t either.