When Naming Names

By Rebecca T. Dickinson

One of the most common conversations I’ve had with writers and friends lately is: What do I do about names in my book? or Can writers name real people in their books? The conversation crosses the road from creative art to business.

I know few writers who want to discuss the business side of writing, but I also know many writers and authors who understand knowledge is essential to move through the business world. I read about the various sides of the profession: from agents, numbers, what to say, how to market the book, etc.

The fact is business practice arm wrestles books and stories when it comes to names. Do you change the names? Do you change the name of the town?

Anna Fields’ book Confessions of a Rebel Debutante changes the name of the private girls’ school she attended in Winston-Salem, NC. She did not change the name of Winston-Salem.

Say that you know you’re writing about a controversial history of a town like me. Do you change the name of the town in fear of a lawsuit, or do you tell the real history with the town’s name intact? I believe you can get away with naming the town, because you are showing history.

In Sons of the Edisto I changed any surname connected to the town of Bamberg, SC. My father told me a man lives there who sues those he believes writes about the old families. Is it grounded in fact? I do not know. I’m not going to risk it, so I changed the names. I am keeping Bamberg’s name. While the town is not much to look at in the twenty-first century, its history is rich.

The railroad ran through Bamberg. Passengers from New York and Miami, Florida spent the night in Bamberg before traveling further south or north. A Ford dealership sat on the corner of Main Street and Railroad Ave. The city had gas stations in the 1920s, and auto mechanics. Bamberg also had a private black school with heating. Why would I want to deny the town its history, good, bad or indifferent?

Using people’s names is another story. In the case of a narrative or memoir, I believe it’s common sense for all names to change. What is the struggle for writers? The challenge is to find a name that fits the person they know so well. A substitute name seems fake at first, and a good writer knows he or she must make the name believable to them before it is presented to an audience.

I had a conversation with an English professor who is writing a memoir. It includes her twin sister who is now deceased. She said, “Every name I come up with for twins seems phony, and I just don’t know how to change them.”

You need to:

  • Reexamine the time period in which you’re writing, even if it’s in the present, and review popular or common names. For example, I looked graves from the 1920’s, ’30s, and ’40s. I searched for names with a rich Southern ring: Baxley. If you’re writing in the present time, look at names popular in baby books or online. Talk to people. They’ll tell you what names they like.

  • If a person is a real historical figure, I would not alter their names. Who is going to change President John F. Kennedy’s name if you’re writing about John F. Kennedy. Sons of the Edisto is based on a real 1924 election between Coleman Blease and James Frances Byrnes, but my two characters in the book, Daniel Baxley and William Levi Heber, are not those politicians. I am not writing about Blease and Byrnes. I am writing about the back door politics of the era.

  • Most importantly, if you’re not happy with a substitute name, don’t use it. Find something else.

When I wrote We Never Said Hello, my published short memoir, I changed my husband and son’s names. Due to the sensitive nature, I wrote it in such a fashion I never needed to give any other character a name. My poems and Cooking Sketches are my most personal works. Most of my poetry is more prose poetry, but I write it so no one is ever named. I also want the reader to interpret the poem or story’s meaning for his or herself.

Whatever you are working on, I suggest reading about your genre to learn more. You’ll do a great job.


7 thoughts on “When Naming Names

  1. I never use real names in my stories, and since the novel I’m planning right now is going to be semi-autobiographical, I definitely want to alter names. But even if I pick a fake name, sometimes it still hits too close to home and I’ll have to go back and change it. I use a random name generator to create names for characters, then I go back and alter them if necessary.

    Of course, my novel is going to be set in the deep South… I might have to go back and re-examine some of those names I picked.

      1. It’s based on an old journal I found that I kept when I was 13. It’s going to be about middle school and early high school in 1998 in SC… what I perceived as a vicious, harsh climate.

  2. I used names I wish I named my kids. Weird, right? Well, two of the names are appropriate for the age of the characters (old-fashioned) and their nationality (Swedish).

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