Recently, my husband and I went to a local animal shelter to adopt a cat. Leo, my feline love, has recently passed away, and while we were (and are) still grieving, we missed having a cat presence in the apartment. We still love our lost Leo, but we knew we have enough love in our hearts to welcome another shelter cat into our home.
Before we left, I took a quick look online to just get an idea of the cats available. I wanted to meet the cat in person before we brought one home, but it’s still fun to look. And I noticed two things: there are an awful lot of black cats in the shelter, and many shelter cats have crazy names. It is this latter point I wish to address today. I told my husband that if the cat which chooses us has a crazy name, we’re going to have to change it. I’m not gong to call out “Hey Chizzy Chaz, I’m home” for the next 15 years.
So off we go, and after some time we are chosen by a ginger tabby, a marmalade some say, of considerable heft named Lionel. Rich asks me, “Are we going to keep his name?” “Lionel,” I think. “That’s pretty normal. I can deal with it.” “Sure, ” I say.
Now take a moment and think before you read on. What is your first association with the name Lionel?
Then, I turn to the solid mass of fur purring next to me and sing, “Hello, is it me you’re looking for?” It certainly seemed appropriate for the situation and indicates my first association with the name Lionel. Lionel looked up and kept purring.
After bringing Lionel home, I called my mother to tell her about her new grand-cat, and her response is “Is his last name Hardcastle?” You see, she is a fan of the BBC series As Time Goes By, and Jeffery Palmer’s character is Lionel Hardcastle. So, Lionel will now be called Mr. Hardcastle by his Nana.
Next, I went on Facebook to announce the arrival of the newest denizen of our apartment. Along with the many congratulations and exclamations of how cute he is, there were a few more Lionel associations. One friend asked if he likes train–ah, yes, Lionel trains, THE standard of toy trains. Another noted that like his predecessor, he bears a leonine name–seems like a tradition forming here. A couple of friends referenced Lion-O from the ThunderCats–not a bad allusion, but there is no way my Lionel will wear a blue leotard! So many associations from a limited group of people.
This got me thinking. What would come up if I googled his name? Most of the first page of results are links about Lionel trains, then Lionel Ritchie does show up as well as soccer player Lionel Messi (at least he’s not the biter). Then, I clicked the related searches tab for “Lionel name.” Here were the sites related to the meaning of names. To no one’s surprise, Lionel means either little or young lion. It is from the French, the Latin, and the Greek. Every culture seems to have a little lion in it! In Arthurian legend, Lionel is Lancelot’s cousin. (I feel like I should have known that.) Interestingly, according to one site, people with this name have a deep inner desire for love and companionship. I hope that proves true for cats too.
Every year, I have my students research the meaning of their names and ask their parents why they choose the name they did. Then we examine the names of the characters in the novels and stories we read. Often, these names are indicative of the character’s personality or circumstance or cultural heritage. And unlike parents who cannot know their child’s likes and dislikes when they name him/her, we writers know our characters intimately before we publish. We must choose those names with care so that our readers can see them as we do. Mr. Rochester of Jane Eyre seems stony when we first meet him as his rocky name would lead us to believe, and Jane describes herself as plain. In Gabrielle Zevin’s novel All These Things I’ve Done, the teenage boy who is a bit of a, let’s say jerk, has the last name of Ardsley. You know what you’re hearing there, right? That’s purposeful. And the good guy is named Goodwin who goes by Win. Yes, we know who to root for. Which association do you as a writer hope to conjure up in your reader when you name your character?
And sometimes, we writers may find it necessary to rename our characters as we move through our drafts. We get to know them better as we create their worlds and see them move around in them. Sometimes a name change clinches together pieces of his/her character that had seemed tenuously connected. And sometimes, the chosen name is too real. I once named a minor character Steve Stricker. I liked the alliteration and the strength of the name, both of which fit his position in the story. Then, one day my husband and I were watching golf, and there he was! Steve Stricker is a real person, a pro golfer! I had to make a change so that people who know golf weren’t bringing their associations of the real person to my story.
Where does this leave us on Lionel’s name? He seems to respond to it, and I’m just trying to not call him Leo.That’s a fifteen year habit that is hard to break, especially with both names beginning with L. But, I think in time he’ll live up to the little lion that he is, and I hope he’ll continue to exhibit his desire for camaraderie.
What association do you have with the name Lionel? What characters have you named for a specific reason? Have you ever had to change a character’s name? Why? Join in the conversation below.
A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but it will not create the same response from the reader if you call it an Eastern skunk cabbage.