What's in a name?

Before heading out to our town’s Jamboree, my daughter talked endlessly about a terrifying ride.

“It’s called Scat,” she said.

My husband laughed and we traded knowing looks. “No way I’d sit on a ride called scat,” I smirked, and told her how that’s also a name for animal poo. “I’m sure you got the name wrong.”

An hour later, we’re at the Jamboree and see this.


Yup. It’s a ride called Scat.

Names are important.

In some of my favorite books, names convey character traits without the author ever having to do more than mention them. Let’s take a few of my favorites:

  •          Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter series: Seriously, Hermione? It took Snape’s research report on werewolves to clue you in on that one? The guy didn’t have a chance other than to howl at the moon.
  •         Mae Tuck in “Tuck Everlasting”: Mae’s name, in my opinion, has a dual meaning. Just like flowers will bloom each May, she will be there, hopeful and bright but eternal. Secondly, “may” means permissive. She allowed her son’s to drink from the spring. She allows them to enter the town and the wider world.
  •         Jem Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird”: Big brother is rare indeed. He’s everything good and pure and innocent. The reader wants Jem to sparkle as flawlessly after his encounters with the cruelty and pain as before. And, just like a precious gem, he’s stronger than he appears.

As a writer, I often spend way too much time narrowing down the perfect name for my characters. The thing is, some of these names are more clues to myself than they are to the (hopefully one day) wider audience.

For example, in the manuscript currently on submission, my main character’s baby sister is named Molly. Baby Molly is born with Downs Syndrome, something unexpected that throws the family into chaos … until they see that Molly is stronger and more capable than they initially thought.

No obvious reason for the name Molly, other than that it makes me think of my nickname as a child: Little Miss Molly. Picture a mom with her hands on her hips, shoulders stooped to look eye-to-eye with a child who just—out of nowhere*—hauled off and kicked her big sister. Whenever I did something unexpected, Little Miss Molly was my moniker.

And, considering I was a painfully shy child who spent most of her time whispering and/or hiding behind the closest trusted adult, these occasional outbursts of feistiness were more than enough to clue my parents in that I wasn’t always going to be timid and in the background.

*For the record, she deserved it.