On Mon­day, Wayne Hoff­man wrote about a fun­ny thing.

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 Jour­nalWash­ing­ton Post, Hadas­sah Mag­a­zineThe For­wardOutThe 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.