Character name changes should never be forced

If you’re observing Yom Kippur in lockdown, may you have an easy and meaningful fast despite being deprived of going to synagogue and being with other people!

I recently took a short break in prepping the paperback production of the book formerly known as The Very First (always the title I’ll think of it as) to start work on the final draft of the book formerly known as The Very Next (also always the title I’ll think of that book as). Despite this delay, I have confidence TVF will be ready for its print run soon.

While going through TVN, I began thinking about how many of the Polish characters’ names are kind of boring. Not that that makes them bad names at all, just that they were chosen by a teenager in the pre-Internet age. While naming tended to be more conservative in the old days (i.e., the same small pool of names vs. a wider variety), it wasn’t super-unusual to encounter a name outside the Top 100.

Knowing now that it was extremely uncommon for Polish Jews to have Polish names, I added the detail that the Polańskis and Robleńskis got those surnames from ancestors who converted to Judaism.

A crit partner several years ago thought the explanation/defense of Polish first names is a bit overdone. I took her advice and reworked that aspect so it doesn’t sound so heavy-handed and run into the ground.

All that really matters is that the Polańskis are a modern family who feels it’s important to prove they’re just as authentically Polish as the Gentiles. That includes mostly having Polish names and not speaking Yiddish. They don’t want extra ammunition for persecution.

I changed the names of Krzyś’s older sisters Bogda and Filipa to Salomea and Faustyna, and while those are lovely names, they felt wrong immediately. While Bogda was never particularly developed, Filipa later becomes an important character as Samuel Roblenski’s second wife, the late-life love match he was denied in his first marriage. I can’t think of her by any name but Filipa!

Bogda, however, is also the name of Cinni’s great-grandma, and I’d prefer to avoid confusion by having two secondary characters with the same name. Bronia sounds close enough, and I’ve always liked that nickname for Bronisława.

I also changed the name of Kryzś’s uncle by marriage from Lech Gold to Bruno Lerner. Lech is already the name of Cinni’s grandfather, and Gold was a lazy, thoughtlessly-chosen surname. This guy’s the biggest intellectual in the family, the only one with a Ph.D., working with rare books at the National Library. I also intend to develop him into a more important secondary character, so he deserves more than a placeholder name.

Likewise, I’m changing the surname of Bruno’s adult stepdaughters from Szymborska to Saperstein. Too many names of Gentile origin in the same family feel implausible. It’s pretty obvious I wasn’t socialized in the Jewish community, since I genuinely didn’t know how unusual it was for most people to have surnames native to the host culture!

Bruno’s kids deserve more original names than Zalman and Luiza too. They were originally Solomon and Liza, and later changed to the closest Polish equivalents. Again, nothing wrong with either name, but not chosen carefully, and hardly the kinds of names an intellectual would give his kids.

I played with changing Cinni’s mother’s name to Carine, but that felt instantly wrong. Instead, I changed her birth name from Katarzyna to Karolina, her legal name became Caroline, and her nickname went from Cairn to Carin. One of her great-granddaughters is later named Karyn in her honour, so I couldn’t stray too far.

I’ll admit I was hesitant about keeping her name because it’s now a sexist pejorative. I immediately stop reading when someone calls a woman a “Karen”! If she’s done something legitimately bad, call out the specific action instead of using a slur that terminates thought, shuts down dialogue, and encourages more insulting of and presumptions about a stranger you know nothing about!

The best time to change a character’s name is early on, before you’ve had a chance to become emotionally attached to it. It’s also much easier to change if you’ve had a story shelved for a long time, or this is a secondary character you never got to know very well.

If it feels wrong, you’ll immediately sense it. And if it feels right, that new name might as well represent an entirely different character, nothing in common with the one bearing the original name.

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