Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Name Game (which comes around to writing confessions)

Yesterday’s post, and subsequent comments, got me thinking about names. Once upon a time, when I was much younger and far more of a follower trying to fit in to be accepted instead of being myself, I thought I wanted to be called Sandy. I mean, almost all the popular girls at school had “eee” ending names – Tracy, Connie, Stacey, etc. Connect popular to cute and you start to get an impression of the names that translates to the physical.

Sandra was just so darned serious and boring.

For better or worse, so was I. I thought about trying to go by Sandy once I went to high school, but there was a very popular girl in the same grade who came in from a different school named Sandy. Blonde, too. And while not a total ditz, not the brightest bulb on the shelf. ‘Sandy’ was just never going to take. And so, I have always been Sandra – on occasion Sam.

It’s sort of been stuck in my head ever since that Sandy is a bit of a dumb blonde name, at least where I’m concerned. This was not helped at all by seeing Grease. I’ve known a great number of intelligent women who are neither blonde nor dumb called Sandy, but that’s what the name means to me when people call me that.

And it’s just not my name.

For as much as I didn’t like it as a child, I came to have a real appreciation for being Sandra. For one, it’s a very universal name. Europeans, Africans, Latinos… pretty well everywhere I’ve been, from Costa Rica to Germany to Tunisia to Bali, people have been able to manage my name.

Kevin, on the other hand, turned out to be a real burden for people in non-English speaking countries. Go figure.

The surname thing becomes a pain in the butt as well. For years I was – believe it or not – too shy and insecure to correct people who said my name wrong.

But if you want to know the honest truth, people calling me Sandy actually bugs me a lot more.

The reason is assumed familiarity. Pet names are what we give to friends, family, lovers. When someone calls someone by a variation on their name it says something to everyone around, that they have a connection to that person and to do that without permission is highly presumptive.

I mean, could you imagine someone walking up to Laura Lippman and calling her Laurie? I do find myself getting supremely choked sometimes - why do people just assume they can call me Sandy? Or that I’d want to be called that? It’s a notion I haven’t even entertained in over 20 years.

If an abbreviation is widely used, that changes things a bit, yet I still asked JD Rhoades if I could call him Dusty.

I have a confession to make: I sometimes use the name of a person who’s been a jerk to me as the name of a jerk in my stories. Not typically the victim, because if I don’t like someone I don’t want anyone else to feel sympathy for them.

See, I can be petty that way.

It doesn’t always hold true, though. Sometimes, the name just suits the character. To me, how a name fits a person is one of those almost mystical things it’s hard to explain. I think that names go through transitions in perception, and also, how we feel about a name is often affected by people we know.

I mean, can any American think ‘Hillary’ and not think Clinton?

Whenever I’m working on a new book or story, the naming is something that will take hours for me to process. In almost everything I’ve worked on, major characters have gone through a name transition.

What Burns Within
Ashlyn started off as Natalie. Another name I tried? Gina.

Suspicious Circumstances
Lara was once Tessa.

Lara was a particularly tough name to deal with, because of a comment Linda L. Richards made yesterday, about her middle name and the mispronunciations. How could I communicate to readers that it was LAYR-ah? Having a scene early on with someone who had trouble with the name so it could be said ‘Lara rhymes with Sara.’

Not Lahra.

A tricky thing for many people. Ian Rankin started having people refer to Siobhan as ‘Shiv’ (which drives her nuts, btw) to get people familiarized with the correct pronunciation. All I can say is, thank goodness he didn’t name her Roisin – I mean, I knew how to pronounce Siobhan, and I know how to pronounce Roisin, but few people do.

Without a pronunciation key in a book, names do tend to get ingrained, and sometimes they get programmed in wrong. In the comment trail yesterday I mentioned being embarrassed that I’d said my boyfriend’s surname wrong, although I have to be easy on myself. After all, this was the first time I was corrected on it.

It’ll be a problem if I keep saying it wrong. I’m just glad he told me so I can get it programmed in properly sooner, rather than later.

I bear all of this in mind when I’m writing. For example, it still surprises me that people aren’t sure if it’s ‘Sandra’ or ‘Sondra’. Honestly, that’s the one variation on my first name I don’t mind. Well, okay, not the only one. Because of the nature of the work I did in the past I had kids who couldn’t manage my name. One called me something closest to Anna, and another called me Sara. Neither bothered me, particularly considering the reasons – a triple consonant blend in the middle of the name is a mouthful, especially for a child with speech delays, and one of the kids couldn’t pronounce ‘S’ properly.

But, for the record, it’s Sandra.

In my reading, sometimes names have jumped out a lot. Part of the reason has been overuse of names that sound similar. I keep an alphabet list for first names and last names and try to limit multiple use of the same letter as a starting letter for names. I know it sounds silly, but when you’re reading a book that has 10 POV characters and there’s a Jen, Joan and June, you’re damn relieved the fourth woman’s called Betsy. Truth was, in Suspicious Circumstances I wanted to call the twins Megan and Mary – not an uncommon thing for people to use the same first letter for twins – but early readers balked. Mary became Susan.

(Oh, another pet peeve, and if you really want to piss me off you call me Susan. I mean, ha ha ha, you’re so funny, nobody’s ever thought of that joke before. Gag. It was old more than a decade ago.)

Ultimately, I think we’re all a bit sensitive about our names. Some people may never experience that, because their name is never shortened or altered or mispronounced.

Imagine if started calling James Oswald Jamie or Jimmy.
Or called Stuart MacBride Stewie.
Daniel Hatadi as Danny? Mark Billingham Marky?
Any takers on calling Patrick Shawn Bagley Pat? (I’m betting that’s where the ‘hitmen’ thing comes in…)

If you value your life you won’t call Val McDermid, well… I won’t even say it. (But I’ve always thought for her, Val must be short for Valiant.)

And can we imagine anyone daring to call The Pope of Galway, the wondrous Ken Bruen, Kenny?

A name either fits, or it doesn’t. So if you really don’t want to call me Sandra, please please please, go with Sam.

And Daniel, in the event I’m regularly called Sam, no, I will not change my surname to Spade. ;)


Lyman said...

Even though my name is often mispronounced I'm glad I have the name that I do. Though I know there are other Lyman's out there, I've only met one other in person and he's my Dad.

I was elated when I learned Jon (From the comic strip GARFIELD)had a best friend named Lyman. I never did find one of those personalized license plates for my bicycle. (I still check to this day. Sad I know.)

I won't even mention the hell Feero is for a last name.

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

"Pat" is something you do to a dog.

Actually, I went by Pat until my early 20s. I started using Patrick in my by-line when submitting stories. Before long, I decided I liked Patrick better and announced that no one could could ever call me Pat again.

There are a few people who haven't been able to break the habit: my sister and brothers, friends who knew me in high school. I put up with it from them, but I don't like it. Anyone else who does it gets the stink-eye.

angie said...

Actually, I can kinda see Stuart as a Stewie (as in, the baby on The Family Guy).

I went back and forth as a kid between Angela and Angie. Angela just sounds too formal and I don't like it. So...Angie it is!

And while pronunciation isn't such a huge issue (though some folks get tangled up and say "Smit" instead of "Schmit", getting people to spell my last name right is always a headache. It's Schmit. One 't,' no 'd.' Ah well, small potatoes in the grand scheme o' things!

Sandra Ruttan said...

Ha Lyman - personalized bicycle plates are one of the reasons some people I know are morally opposed to unique names. Kind of silly, and now you can custom order them.

Patrick, I just can't imagine calling you Pat. But perhaps if we spend enough time in the bar at Noircon I'll chance it and see how it goes over.

Angie, I can imagine being clobbered if I called Stuart Stewie.

And at list if people drop something from your surname, it isn't the m. That wouldn't be good.

Linda L. Richards said...

Not many people have trouble pronouncing my name. But I get the Sandra/Sandy thing. My partner is David and it's odd when people called him "Dave" as they occasionally do. He just is *not* a "Dave."

As to how readers pronounce character names: I can think of few instances where the readers pronounciation would really matter. A character should be identified by the shape they leave in the world, I think. How their names are pronounced seems to me to be like the color of their hair or what they're wearing: potentially of interest but not necessarily so.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Linda, I meant your middle name. Ooops.

The worst character thing I ever heard was Rebus pronounced 'Rebbus'. It was on TV (Book TV) and she kept saying it. Drove me batty.

I think it is one of those things where it might matter, it might not, but once you get it ingrained in your head one way it's hard to retrain yourself. And maybe I'm just overly sensitive about it, because while I consider Sandra to be such a simple name, I've ended up with two names that are routinely bastardized.

My niece is Arriel (R-E-L) short A on the front. But people always try Ariel from The Little Mermaid. Elder nephew is Athaniel, and he gets right annoyed at people who can't get it's Nathaniel with no N at the beginning. People have called him Daniel, Samuel, etc.

I can't wait to see what Dashiell gets when he goes to school. Probably his life will be simplest, and he'll be Dash forever.

JamesO said...

People have tried calling me Jim, Jimbo, Jimmy and Jamie. Their remains have never been found.

norby said...

My first name is pretty easy to say, and has two different shortened forms, both of which I'll answer to because as a kid I hated the full version. Now that I'm older, I don't mind the longer form, but my husband used to call me that all the time, and now that we're getting divorced, forget it, anyone calls me that and they're getting punched. Hard. Petty of me I know, but I've earned it.

Anonymous said...

Norby, you know what i'm gonna be calling you from now on, right? And your little arms won't stretch over far enough to punch me...

I don't care much about what people call me. If i don't want to i just won't answer.

I once had a job where i told all of the staff my name was Charlotte. So when i was in work i answered to that and at home i was me.
I can't say why i did, i'm sure i was joking at first but it stuck. You know one of those moments where you can't back out? My boss at the time got a real kick from it.
So i was Charlotte for a few months...

Sandra Ruttan said...

There are a whole bunch of people here who don't know my name. One guy would always call me Karen. And honestly, not my favourite name (long story there with a personal reason about why) but I never corrected him. I just didn't care. Rare to have such indifference though.

Honestly, I like the idea of having different names at home and at work. As long as people can pronounce them.

norby said...

Oh chel, you forget, I know your mother. She'll smack you for me. ;o)

Daniel Hatadi said...

I hate the name Danny as much as you hate Sandy, so I guess that makes us even.

Grumble, grumble.