When it comes to a novel, what’s in a name? There are often dozens of characters in a novel, and some of their names have stories behind them. Others, less than it might seem.
In my first draft of Sweet Like Sugar, I had a very good reason – I can’t remember it now, but I remember that it was a very good reason – that all the characters my protagonist dated had to have names that started with the letter “C.” My husband Mark, who has been the first person to read my work for more than two decades, told me this was confusing. I revealed my very good reason for keeping the names despite the confusion, and he assured me that my reason was not so very good. He was right, of course; that’s why he’s the first person to read my work.
Some characters in Sweet Like Sugar are named for real people. Most notably, an older woman named Irene is based – in the vaguest way – on my great aunt Irene, who passed away last year. My aunt was never in the situations that define Irene the character, nor did she ever say the things that Irene the character says. But there’s something about my aunt’s soul, her perspective on life, her ability to bring people together, to be direct without being cruel, to be loving without resorting to guilt, that I wanted to instill in my character. Giving her my aunt’s name helped me understand my character’s heart, and how she might act in certain circumstances. She’s not my aunt – a woman to whom no writer could do justice – but she possesses enough of my aunt’s essence to warrant her name.
Sometimes hardly anything connects the characters to the people I’ve named them for. In Sweet Like Sugar, for instance, the main character’s roommate is named Michelle, and her boyfriend is Dan. I named them for my own college roommate Dan and his wife, simply swapping which person lived with me. The characters in the book bear some passing resemblance to their namesakes -– Michelle has dark curly hair and alert eyes, while Dan is blond and tall (or taller than I am, at any rate, which is also true of half the men in the world). There aren’t any deeper specific resemblances beyond the physical, though. I just needed names for a wonderful straight couple for whom I could feel some personal affection, and they’re the ones who came to mind.
More often, there are characters who are based on real people whose names have been changed. A dancer from Rochester who opens my protagonist’s eyes about his own sexuality? He’s based on a real person in my life, but his name wasn’t Donnie, as it is in the book. A guy who chases after Jewish men, calling them “bagel boy,” hoping it’ll seem endearing instead of grossly fetishistic? He was real, too, but I changed his name to protect the not-so-innocent. Ditto a bully at summer camp, a finger-wagging grandmother, and a girl with whom I found myself in a compromising (albeit entirely innocent) position as a teenager.
If they’re based on real people, why change the names? This is fiction, remember. Sweet Like Sugar is not my autobiography. Benji, the protagonist, might be a gay, Jewish man from suburban Maryland, but despite those similarities, he’s most definitely not me: We’re from different generations, have very different families and friends, and have traveled decidedly different journeys both as gay men and as Jews. His story isn’t my story. So it’s only right that the characters in his story have different names from the characters in my real life – even in those instances where the characters are based on real people.
Although readers wouldn’t know the difference, giving characters new names allows me to disconnect them from my reality, and it lets me tweak their personalities, actions, and motivations if need be, without worrying about misrepresenting any real people.
There’s one name in Sweet Like Sugar that’s a nod to another author. It is not Rabbi Zuckerman, the old man who befriends young Benji. Yes, I’m well aware that Philip Roth has made the Zuckerman name quite famous already; my father is a Newark native who went to the legendary Weequahic High School just a few years after Roth, so I’m well aware of most everything Roth does. I had reasons – I can’t share them without spoiling the plot, sorry – for choosing that name, but rest assured, I chose it despite Roth, not because of him.
No, the name I borrowed – consciously – from another author is Zisel. A Yiddish nickname meaning “sweet little thing,” it’s also the mysterious moniker of a character in Sweet Like Sugar. I borrowed it from Isaac Bashevis Singer. In his short story “Two,” a young yeshiva student named Zisel “began to find virtues in his own sex,” and built a loving, if covert, relationship with another man. The story has a tragic ending, and the sexual politics of Singer’s shtetl are far from my own. But I loved the name, and thought it would be appropriate for my story, where two men try to bridge the vast gulf between contemporary gay life and longstanding Jewish traditions.
I don’t know if my readers will get the reference, or see the connection. But I do.
Wayne Hoffman is the author of Sweet Like Sugar and Hard, and the editor of What We Brought Back: Jewish Life After Birthright- Reflections by Alumni of Taglit-Birthright Israel Trips.
Wayne Hoffman is a veteran journalist, published in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Hadassah Magazine, The Forward, Out, The Advocate, and elsewhere; he is executive editor of the online Jewish magazine Tablet. The author of The End of Her: Racing Against Alzheimer’s to Solve a Murder, he has also published three novels, including Sweet Like Sugar, which won the American Library Association’s Stonewall Book Award. He lives in New York City and the Catskills.