Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Sarah Pekkanen Guest Post

On Monday I reviewed the amazing new novel These Girls by Sarah Pekkanen. When I got the opportunity to have her write a guest post for my blog, I was incredibly excited because I’ve long heard of Sarah’s amazing amiability and witty personality. So today I’m thrilled to bring you a guest post by Sarah Pekkanen, who is a new favorite author for me. Here Sarah discusses some of the strange things that happen when you simply set out to name a character. It’s a very fun post to read and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. And now, I give it over to Sarah!



One thing I never expected when I became a novelist was how many people would see themselves in my books. My parents, an old friend from childhood, the mother of a kid at my son's school — all were convinced I'd modeled characters on them.

"I thought the character Gary was based on my husband," confessed a woman I've known for years when we were discussing my first book, The Opposite of Me.

"Really?" I asked, feeling my brow furrow. "Why?"

"Because they've got the same name," she said, as if it should be obvious.

I blinked a few times as I scrambled back in my memory, trying to recall whether I'd given Gary any offensive tics, but the first thing that came to mind was that I'd described him as a human Ken doll.  I assured my friend that Gary was as fictional as that plastic mass-produced doll.

But a few weeks later, a woman whose son attended school with mine mentioned she'd noticed I'd described a scene in which a character made inedible muffins. "I thought that was me!" she said. I couldn't believe it - this woman is an extraordinary cook who manages to combine the healthiest of ingredients in a way that conjures addictions.

"Er... NO!" I said. I'm still not sure if she believed me.

With each new book I've written, I've become more careful to scour my manuscripts to make sure I'm not using the names of anyone I know well — or worse, the names plus some characteristics that conceivably could be stretched to describe an actual person in my life. It's strange, because when I sit down to write a book, one of the first things I do is name my characters, and the names are a critical jumping-off point for my creative process. They inspire the character — if I pick the right name, I can almost see my fictional people standing in front of me. In my new novel These Girls, my three main characters are Cate, Renee, and Abby. Cate, to me, is someone neat and focused and perhaps a little private. Renee is the life of the party, the kind of woman who will ask a complete stranger on the bus if she can borrow a tampon (which Renee has done). And Abby is sensitive and maybe a bit shy and young. Once I had those names, my characters began to take shape.

But after I finished writing These Girls, I realized a minor character was named Joanne. My neighbor across the street is also named Joanne. Would she take offense? This character isn't exactly likable, and she's not a good mother. I couldn't risk it — I changed the name to Joanna just before turning in the book.

Naming character isn't always stressful — I've had a little fun with the process on Facebook. When I was trying to name a British magazine editor, I came up with Hamish. But it turns out there is already a real British magazine editor in New York named Hamish, so it was suggested I change it. I asked folks on Facebook to weigh in, and one of them came up with a winner: Nigel. That's the name I used in These Girls (and I sent the person who suggested the name an advanced signed copy of These Girls).

Now I'm curious: What types of qualities do you associate with certain names?

16 comments:

bermudaonion said...

I love this post! I sometimes associate the names of people I know to some of their characteristics. Sarah should feel free to use my name for a character!

Beth F said...

It's so funny to how everyone is sure he or she is a character in your books. When I'm editing a manuscript, I pay careful attention to the names the author has used. Names can so quickly indicate a character's age/generation, nationality, and sometimes even social class. I'm with Kathy, Sarah can use my (real) name any ole time -- even for a nasty character.

Kay said...

Well, I guess the upside of this is that it means that people are reading the books. I would find that annoying, I think. But, it is true that names conjure up memories, good or bad. So, my name can be thrown in the "hat" so to speak as well. It's a common middle name for "women of a certain age". LOL

rhapsodyinbooks said...

How funny! And like Candace, I pay a lot of attention to names, and think they signify a lot. As for personal predilections, it especially makes me crazy when a character has a unisex name, or when two characters have the SAME name!

Ti said...

Maybe these characters were not created after people you knew, but the names were probably floating around in your head. Those are the best names to use! I can always tell when an author forced a name into a book when it seems totally out of place and too perfect. Like soap opera names!

geosi said...

You should be bringing more guest posts to me - I love reading them. Interesting thoughts here.

Mrs Q Book Addict said...

I loved this post! I read a book once that mentioned everyone is afraid of writers because they're afraid to end up as a character in a book. I think it was Maine...

Suko said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Suko said...

Really terrific guest post! Names are so important! It would be as hard to name your characters as it would be to name your children. :)

Peppermint Ph.D. said...

There are some names for sure that conjure up certain images based on people we've known in our lives...especially those who leave strong emotions or impressions in their wakes :) I enjoyed reading this post about character names from the author's perspective.

Sandy Nawrot said...

*raising my hand* Sarah, you have my permission to use mine. You can make me as awful as you like! I probably deserve it after puke month. I think if you hear a name that you've known, it can have all kinds of baggage come with it. For me, there was a girl named Cheyenne (gorgeous name) in school who was mentally unstable. Or this woman Elsie who was a sociopathic mother of a friend of my daughters. You know, that kind of baggage! Love Sarah, love this post!

sarah pekkanen said...

Thanks so much for these wonderful comments! Some of you may see your names in my books.... beware! xoxo

Jenny said...

Ha, I'd never considered this issue before!

Jenners said...

What a neat guest post!! I've read quite a few author posts but no one ever addressed this issue. I would imagine it is quite an issue for most authors!!! I do think that if I ever wrote a novel, I would have a difficult time using a name of someone I knew well. It would just influence me too much.

Darlene said...

Great post! I've never really thought about the process of picking names for a novel. I would likely just pick all my favorite names. lol.

Darlene said...

I had to pop by and comment again even though I just did the other day. Anyhow I'm happily readingThese Girls right now - almost done and I had to laugh. We're all talking about Sarah can use our name in one of her books and all of a sudden mine pops up, even spelled the same. Lol.

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