As an author, I am frequently asked about how I choose names for my characters. For me, the selection process most often includes researching the meaning, playing with the sound in my head, and of course, its historical context. That’s not to say that every single character in my novel’s garner this much attention, but overall, my main characters most certainly do.
I should probably at this point admit names, in general, tend to fascinate me. I have found that the etymology of names, or the ‘original and literal meaning’ and the historical correlation can lend a level of intrigue to my characters. For example, if a name has a particular significance, I might have my protagonist display personality traits psychologically, sociologically or emotionally opposite. I used this method in my book, The Broken Half. In this story, one of my primary characters was named Jamal, which means ‘beautiful’. In the story, Jamal was, in fact, physically attractive. He had no difficulty turning the eye of the lovely and alluring Zahra, but his physical beauty was merely superficial, an outer garment worn to deceive, manipulate, and control. Jamal’s handsome exterior failed to conceal his brutality, that volatile part of him plagued with familial dysfunction. So this character’s personality was the polar opposite of his name’s real meaning and intent.
In my humble opinion, names can make or break a character. On a few occasions, I have had to change out a name halfway through a manuscript simply because the original selection did little to help me, as the writer connect. The name, for whatever reason, wouldn’t allow me to visualize my character’s personality, mentality or even their quirks. While there was nothing wrong with the name per say, it just didn’t fit the persona and behavior of the character I was trying to develop.
Other names have been selected less decisively. I remember one name came from a piece of junk mail. I usually toss the brunt of that stuff, but this time two names, in particular, caught my eye. I immediately jotted them down in one of my notebooks I keep solely for ideas. When I got stuck on a name, I headed straight back to this same list, took the first name from one, the last from the other and wa-la. So you see, while I try to be clever, I’m really not.
Character name selection can also have some nasty pitfalls. Therefore, I do my best not to select names of people I know intimately. That way if any one of my characters is particularly less than scrupulous, I won’t hurt feelings. Not to say I haven’t been tempted. You know what they say, “Please do not annoy the writer. She may put you in a book and kill you.” There’s some truth to that.
So if you should see your name floating around in one of my books, don’t take it personally. Really, it’s probably just a coincidence . . . but then again…
Layla Abdullah-Poulos is an alumna of SUNY Empire State College with a Bachelor of Arts in Historical Studies and Literature and is presently a student in the School for Graduate Studies. She expects to complete her studies and receive a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies and Advance Certificates in Women and Gender Studies and American Studies by 2016. An aspiring academic, Abdullah-Poulos uses her knowledge not only to develop her own scholarship but also that of other SUNY Empire State College students. A proponent for the enrichment of higher education through diversity, she plans to continue her work as an educator who conveys to students an ethnically diverse historical awareness and furnish them with the skills necessary to acquire political proficiency and constructively affect societal change.