Monday, February 27, 2012

The Challenge of Naming Characters

The protagonist in my work is an Italian American woman named Caroline Woodlock. I’ve been challenged on several fronts by people who think she should have an Italian surname. I’d have thought Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, with her Italian mother, would have put that question to rest a long time ago, but apparently not. It seems just a wee bit sexist to suggest that someone must have an Italian father to be Italian. But I digress.

Kathleen Turner as V.I. Warshawski
Choosing names can be a challenge for a fiction writer. I want a name to feel good in my mouth and to tickle my ear when I say it aloud. When I first dreamed up Caroline, I was drawn to the name Caroline Whitlock. It felt right. I had gone through lists of first names and settled on Caroline early. Whitlock just seemed to fit. But as I developed the character’s personal history, I discovered that her father had Irish roots. Some internet research showed that Whitlock could never be Irish, but that Woodlock could. So I changed her name. She seems happy with it and so am I.

When I first began writing in Italy, I scanned the phone directory and newspapers for names, but that was unsatisfactory. Most Italian people can recognize the geographic origin of a surname, but I don’t know how to do that. Internet searches proved unsatisfactory as well because the sites I found were devoted to helping people find their genealogical roots. People could key in their surnames or that of their grandparents to learn where they came from. I wanted the opposite: I wanted to find names from geographic regions to give authenticity to a character from Venice, for example.

I had a wonderful serendipitous find about four years ago on a trip to Florence. I was waiting for a bus, in no particular hurry, when I spied a man selling used books on a street corner. About twenty years ago, I had browsed through the wares of a used book seller on another Florentine street and found a really interesting book about the 1966 flood with lots of photos. But I was in a hurry and I didn’t buy the book. I’ve regretted it ever since. Whenever I’m in Florence, I gravitate to used book sellers in hopes of finding it again.

This time, as I approached the table, a huge book leapt out and bit me: Il Grande Libro dei Cognomi (The Big Book of Surnames). In 450 pages, this book lists the 5,000 most common surnames in Italy along with their origins and meanings. It includes history of the name, such as when it came into the language, and famous people who have had it; the geographic origins plus variations and derivations. It’s a goldmine for me!

The Italian name that corresponds to Miller, for example, has many variations. Mill in Italian is mulino, but the miller (the job) is molinaro. The name varies up and down the peninsula: Molinèr in the extreme north, Monari or Munari in Veneto and Emilia-Romagna regions, and Mugnai in Tuscany. And other variations abound: Molinaro and Mulinari, Mulini, Molina, and so on.

Soon after I found this book, I found another one on a remainder table called simply Libro dei Nomi (Book of Names). It’s much shorter that the other book, but just as useful. It’s the kind of books that parents might use in choosing a baby name. The first chapter gives the signs of the zodiac and their influence on names. The book doesn’t suggest names for particular signs. It lays out the personalities that come with each sign. Because all Italians celebrate their Saint’s Day in addition to birthday, the idea is to balance the personality between the sign of the birth with that of the saint chosen for the baby’s name. I find this amusing, but not especially useful.

The rest of the book is an alphabetical list of names and that is useful. While the entries are brief, they give tidbits about the name’s origins and information about the saint or historical figure from which the name derives.

Since I write for an English-speaking audience, I try to keep things simple. I sprinkle in a few familiar Italian names like Giovanni or Giuseppe. Sometimes I use the English version of a name (Julia for Guilia) or choose names that are just as common in Italian as in English (Amanda or Cristina). I try to avoid names that would cause pronunciation problems for English speakers (Gaetano or Guglielmo). And since the Italian language is such a collection of vowels, I try to balance sounds.

I have made one mistake, a pair of brothers named Nino and Aldo. In retrospect, I fear that confusion may arise because the names are short and end with an “O,” as does their surname. But they’re already in print. I hope they’ll see print again, but since they’re both middle-aged, it’s too late for a name change.


Kelly said...

What a timely post, since I am in the process of renaming my characters in my novel, set in a foreign country. I struggled, too, with trying to find names that were not too hard for an American audience, that would not be distracting to follow...thank you for your perspective!

Patricia Winton said...

Kelly, I'm glad this was helpful. You do have to find a balance. Good luck with your novel.


In my novel River Rat (A Lucy DelRose Mystery Series)Kindle Edition I went through a list of French names to represent the DelRose family and a list of Gypsy names to represent a villain. The process is time consuming, but educational. Good luck.

Patricia Winton said...

When you found the names that resonated with you, did you feel as if the characters were pleased? I felt that way.