Naming characters, for some writers, is a complicated process. They want an original name for their original character. Perhaps they want something that describes strength and power, or maybe they want something that will tell a reader this person is a nerd. Maybe an old name, from their grandmother’s era, to say something about the character or their family.
For other writers, they log on to baby names and search through for the perfect one. The perfect one might be based on sound, consonants and vowels, rhyming, colors, meanings.
For me, sometimes, characters name themselves. The character develops and the name comes. For Our Gentle Sins, Jack’s name came to me like that. But some of the other characters were actually named for the students in the class that I mention in my acknowledgements. I was inspired by that class.
it was January 2017. The world was changing and people, some of my students, were afraid, others were angry. That semester, I was asked to teach the History of African American Literature. The students were expecting another teacher. When I walked in – they weren’t certain what to make of me or what this class might become.
I said – I love literature and we are here to learn together. If I say something or do something you don’t like – you tell me. Later, I was evaluated by our expert in African American Literature. He said, “never have I seen a class so open to talking about gender, race, culture – and being respectful about it!”
That was my rule – we don’t have to agree, but we should learn how to respectfully disagree.
It was a wonderful class.
Our Gentle Sins began just before the semester, I was so inspired that I would write before class as the students walked in and after class as they walked out. They asked me what I was working on – I told them. At one point, they asked me to read them a section. I agreed.
What I told them is that I’d been so inspired by the class that I’d named some of my characters after some of the names in class. Not after the students themselves because I didn’t match up characteristics between real person and student, just their names. They loved the idea.
Many, many times, I’ve had people think the story was about them or that the character was somehow inspired by them. I had, at least, one person (maybe more) stop talking to me because of a character name. I didn’t realize it right away. It was only when I looked back on our messages that I saw the dates and the topic – the story they were about to read. The name had NOTHING to do with them or the friend they believed the character to be named after. It was just a name and it felt right in that place.
The truth is – if I really disliked a person, I would never use their name, not for good guys or bad guys, not for the character who might die or a stray dog gracing the pages. Why would I want to be reminded of someone I disliked? The name might be similar – but it was never about them. It was a character.
Although my students appreciated I used some of their names, none of them felt I’d used them personally as the inspiration for the character.
Our Gentle Sins is about people finding their way in life – recovering from past mistakes. Aren’t we all?