by | Jun 14, 2017 | Gayle Lynds, The Writer's Life, On writing | 10 comments

by Gayle Lynds

In my espionage novel The Book of Spies, Eva Blake’s name was originally Ann Blake.  This may seem like a small change for an author to make, but for me, it made all the difference.  In the story, Ann was a pretty woman with red hair and a sunny disposition who was a top curator at the celebrated Getty Museum in Los Angeles.  “Ann Blake” works, right?  She sounds solid, reliable, unpretentious.

But then Ann got into trouble.  The result was her husband was killed — had she really been responsible?  Apparently, yes, and Ann was sent to prison.  She changed, grew quiet, watchful, and strong.  Then in a couple of years she had a lucky break.  The CIA needed her expertise to help find the lost Library of Gold.  When she left prison, she was no longer sunny.  She was complex, and all of a sudden I couldn’t write about her anymore.  She didn’t come alive on the page.  She kept sliding back to my original creation.  The book stopped working.

These are the moments when writers resort to long walks, eat cartons of ice cream, drink a lot of wine, phone friends to catch up after five years of no communication.  These are the times that try a writer’s soul. . . .

“Ann Blake” sucked, and I didn’t know why. 

The truth was, I didn’t know her anymore.

In real life, our names are given to us.  Sometimes we like them, and sometimes we don’t.  If we dislike them enough, we can change them.  If we marry, sometimes we incorporate our spouse’s name into ours, and that can alter or clarify the idea of us as individuals.  Choices and opportunities help us to forge our identities.

And that was true of characters in books. . . . 

Ah-ha!  Ann Blake needed a new name! 

After trying many, I finally settled on keeping her last name, but changing the first to “Eva.”  In a way, Eva Blake was brand-new when she left prison and started on her mission for the CIA, and her altered name gave her (or was it me?) the flexibility and energy to discover who she really was.

I resumed working, and at a feverish speed.  Eva drove the story and beckoned me on as she continued to take hold until at the end of the book she surprised me by choosing a life that hadn’t occurred to me.  But then, it was her life.  Brava, Eva!

Many writers relate to characters strongly through their names.  I’ve spent days finding just the right one, have finished entire novels and gone back and changed others until they rang true.  And it’s always worth it.  But then, that’s who I am.

How do names affect you?  Please tell!

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  1. S. Lee Manning

    How wonderful that simply changing a character's name can make such a difference. And what a great character Eva was and is.

  2. Jamie Freveletti

    Eva sounds more exotic, doesn't it? Names are tough but important! Great post.

  3. Gayle Lynds

    Thank you,S. Lee. I sure did (finally) enjoy writing her!

  4. Gayle Lynds

    Exactly, Jamie. Exotic. She sounded not retiring but adventurous. I love your character names, too. If Emma were Emmy, it seems to me she'd be a different person.

  5. Norma Huss

    Oh, yes! I've changed character names until they fit. Even as a reader, they affect me, so, how can I not?

  6. Karna Bodman

    How right you are, Gayle – the name an author chooses for character means so much. I like Eva (which seems kind of mysterious to me – and to you too, I see). Thinking about character's names in other great stories: "Jack Reacher" – who reaches pretty high in Lee Child's thrillers. After all, that guy is described as 6/5". Then there's "Mitch Rapp" — Vince Flynn's hero who gets into and out of a ton of trouble. Sure fits, doesn't it. But now a personal confession, I never liked my first name all that much and so when I graduated from college I decided to drop it and use my middle name, "Karna" — after that I felt different and many different and exciting things happened in my life. Who knows if all of that would have occurred if I had stayed with the first one? (Never mind what it was) Now, thanks for this great post, Gayle…it really made me think hard about the characters I read and write about.

  7. john

    I prefer names you've never heard of. In the story I'm writing now, one of the characters is named Meddybemps. It helps, of course, that the character is comical.

  8. Gayle Lynds

    You are such a perfect Karna, Karna! Thanks for changing your name to your real you. I had to grow into my name, didn't like it when I was young because it was so different, but now I can't imagine myself with any other name. We were both misfits with our names, and solved the problem in our own ways! 🙂

  9. Sonja Stone

    I love the name Eva Blake. She sounds strong, brave, and determined. When I was a kid I hated my name (Sonja with a 'j') because I could never find it on stickers or keychains. I was terrible shy, and we moved around a lot. My new teachers constantly mispronounced my name (sounding out the 'j'). I didn't want to stand out. I've grown to like my name quite a bit–especially my married name (Stone). So what's in a name? Quite a bit, I would say!