The Name Game

Monday, February 16, 2015

People ask how I come up with names for my characters. I don’t always use the same method, so it’s easiest to explain by using examples.

When I started writing Desert Jewels, my protagonist’s name was Martha. I chose it because it matched the picture I had in my head. However, she refers to her mother—the other main character—as Mama. My online critique partner said that the two “M” names had her confusing the characters. Since Mama is of Swedish descent, I decided to keep that and change my protagonist’s name. I tried Ellen, then Jane, and neither felt right. I ended up with Emi, which is a Japanese name that is easy for English-speakers to pronounce. My protagonist is half Japanese, and her ethnic background is the basis for the story, so it worked perfectly.

Now I’ve started my next book, which I have tentatively titled Creating Esther. The main character is a Native American girl from the Chippewa tribe. She goes to an Indian boarding school in 1895, where they try to “civilize” her by giving her a traditionally white name. So for this protagonist I need two first names—a Chippewa name and a “white” name.

One way that superintendents and teachers chose white names was to compile a list of names from the Bible and assign the next one. Running through some Biblical names in my head, I settled on “Esther” because it just sounded right. Also, by the end of the book she will have made some decisions that put her on the path to saving her people, as the original Esther did. Of course, my Esther will do it less dramatically and as one of many forces that work together, but I like the concept.

Coming up with a Chippewa name is more challenging. I went on one of those baby naming websites and looked for Chippewa girls’ names. I like Keezheekoni because it supposedly means “burning fire,” and my protagonist has a fiery temperament. However, using the sources I found, it appears to be hard to pronounce.

There’s another problem. While most of the baby name sources list it as a Chippewa name, a couple list it as Cheyenne. And I can’t find any of its roots in A Concise Dictionary of Minnesota Ojibwe. (Ojibwe and Chippewa are two names for the same tribe. More about that in next week’s post.) Of course, there are many different dialects, and my protagonist is more likely to come from Michigan than from Minnesota. Also, Chippewa was originally a spoken language with no written equivalent, and the people who tried to write it down used various spellings. For example, in Red World and White: Memories of a Chippewa Boyhood, author John Rogers says that his new baby brother was named Ahmeek, meaning beaver. The Concise Dictionary cited above spells beaver a-m-i-k. And the pronunciation guides give those spellings different pronunciations.

So am I going to name my protagonist Keezheekoni? I’ll start there, but it might change.

Because finding the right name isn’t easy.  


Linda Glaz said...

One thing that makes me crazy about character names is when folks use names that are really not in use much anymore. A young romantic hero named Horace or Harold. Or a contemporary female love lead named Myrtle. Authors really date themselves when they do this. And I guess I just don't get it!!! :)

Kathryn Page Camp said...

Thanks for the comment, Linda. I was considering naming one of the girls in my new WIP "Dorcas," because she has that personality, but I think I'd better find a different name.

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