A novel needs characters. Characters need names. And I need those names too, so I can begin to to create and understand the people in my fictional world.
The names of characters in Always Gardenia — Gardenia Pitkin, Arnold Wiggens, Hans and Milo Pitkin, Torre Pitkin, Sylvia Grant, Hamilton Dodge, Lex Ohashi, Caitlin Curlew, Laurel DuBarr, Dorothy Wiggens — usually popped into my brain while I was riding my bike or pulling weeds or cleaning out the refrigerator. Some of the characters’ names changed with different iterations of the manuscript; in my first blowsy draft, the protagonist was Priscilla and her son, Alex.
Priscilla sounded too much like “prissy,” so I renamed her Gardenia, though I can’t remember consciously sifting through lists of names to find this — I guess a Naming Angel, flitting around nearby, kindly offered it. I liked Gardenia because it was unusual, setting my main character apart from other novel protagonists, and also because it spoke to the many botanical references in the story. And Alex became Hans, a name we’d considered for our oldest son.
When I started writing the first draft, I had only a vague sense of the professor who would play opposite Gardenia. One day the Naming Angel gave me Arnold Wiggens. This gift enabled me to imagine how he would talk and what his family background might be, but I couldn’t visualize his appearance.
Then one day I was at the dog park with my scruffy dachshund (the model for Susie in the book) and encountered a forty-ish man with a corgi. Our dogs greeted each other. I recall that we exchanged a few words. I had never seen him before, but I felt a jolt of recognition.
You are Arnold Wiggens! I nearly shouted. I called up the image of this stranger’s graying curls, his kind eyes, and his rumpled khakis as Arnold took shape in the novel.
Arnold’s mother, of course, would be a Dorothy, a popular name for her generation. His dachshund would be Leroy, not a common name for a dog but implying his kingly role in Arnold’s life.
Once I had my characters’ names, I wrote biographies for them, following an outline in Write Away, the excellent craft manual by mystery writer Elizabeth George. Quickly, without thinking too carefully, I listed each person’s physical characteristics, educational background, family members, gestures when talking, core needs.
Rereading these notes today, I see that I had forgotten many of the details I’d created for the characters. I directly referenced only a small percentage in Always Gardenia. But the back-stories helped me to understand how each character would feel, react, and make decisions. When writing dialog, I could imagine how each character would speak because I “knew” his or her life story.
It has been several years since I settled on the names for the characters in Always Gardenia and began writing about them. But they seem so real to me, I forget that I made them up.
NEXT FRIDAY: MAKE A SCENE