Friday, September 16, 2011

The Art of Naming Your Characters

As I enter my fourth month of pregnancy (which is the good news I mentioned in a previous blog before things in my family went downhill), I'm starting to contemplate the all important conundrum that all parents face:  What in the world am I going to name this new bundle of joy?  For some couples--those super anal-way-too-organized-pairs-who-already-have-a-list-of-names-to-go-on--this essential part of child rearing was accomplished before conception even took place.  For the rest of us, there's countless hours of pouring over baby name books, looking up names on the Internet, and thinking of the names of those individuals in high school who annoyed the holy hell out of us--and avoiding the usage of their names like the plague.  There's arguing with our spouses over the aversion to some names as they sound too stripperish and beating our heads against the wall when the only names they suggest are also their favorite beverages (i.e. Bailey, Bud, Miller, Gin-ny, Jack, Daniel, Jim, Jose, etc--although we did end up naming our daughter Bailee so I guess, in a sense, he won that argument).  In the case of my husband and I, we have chosen not to find out the gender of our baby and, in essence, have thrown ourselves into the seventh circle of hell as we now have to come up with TWO names instead of one.  And so begins five months of nothing but arguments.

All joking aside, naming a child is something that a parent absolutely cannot eff up for reasons too numerous to yammer off.  The name you bestow upon your child sticks with them for the rest of their life.  It defines them, often painting a mental picture of them to those who've never personally met them.  For example, the name Bertha conjures up an image of a portly woman who could mop the floor with my ass any day of the week.  Whereas the name Fifi, on the other hand, brings to mind the image of one who is prim, proper, and dons and overabundance of pink. 

Since finding the perfect name for the real characters in our life is so important, shouldn't finding just the right name for our literary characters be equally so?  Like it or not, your readers are scrutinizing your characters and forming their own mental pictures of them based upon the names you've given them even before they get to actually "know" the characters themselves (and most of the time those mental images are completely skewed). 

As writers our goal is to write a story that resonates with our readers; one that leaves them both fulfilled and wanting for more.  We're like entertainers on paper whose duty it is to keep their eyes glued to the pages and their rears in their seats.  An essential part of this lies within the characters we create for our audience and associating names with those characters that they won't soon forget.  For instance, who doesn't know who Scarlett O'Hara, Atticus Finch, Howard Roark, and (unfortunately) Edward Cullen is?  I have to say that I will never be able to hear any of those names (either first or last) without associating them instantly with those characters. This is something we as writers need to accomplish and why finding the perfect names for our characters is so important. 

Therefore, the following is a list of questions to ponder prior to naming your literary bundles of joy:

1.  Is the name appropriate for who the character is or the image you want to convey?--Who is your character?  Are they a manly man or a string bean?  If the latter is true, then you may not want to go with Hercules, Steel, Tank, or Chuck Norris as names for this particular character (unless you're writing satire, then those will work just fine).  For a less than He-Man-like image, stick with names such as Mortimer, Leonard or Frankie--otherwise known as names that don't exactly scream sex symbol (no offense to the Mortimers, Leonards and Frankies out there). If you decide to use a more conventional first name, think of a last name that would convey the way you picture your character.  As writers, we need to get to know our characters; envision them in our minds; then put a great amount of thought in how we label them.  What names fit?  What ones miss the mark?  If there's a particular image you're trying to convey, amplify it with a name that makes your reader think, Yeah, that sounds like a Jessica.

2.  How memorable is the name?--Granted you don't want to go overboard with choosing your characters' names, but you also don't want to pick names like John Smith, Jane doe, or Mike Jones either.  Using  a combination of first names and surnames which your readers may hear on a regular basis will make your characters seem generic.  Pick an interesting yet simple combination of names that will both stand out to your readers and keep your characters from fading into the background.

3.  What's the character's ethnic background?--If you're creating a character who has a distinct ethnicity--say Irish, for example--and you name your character Vladmir Jankowski, you may find yourself creating a dark smudge on the otherwise flawless picture you're trying to paint.  Know you're character's family background.  Research common names associated with their ethnicity.  Sure it's fine to deviate every once in a while, but make sure there is a reason for this deviation that your readers will understand without leaving them puzzled and wondering how your Japanese protagonist can have Smith as their last name without having been adopted.

4.  From what era is the character from?--I sincerely hope that none of you out there are seriously considering naming a character from the 1800's Makenzie, Shaniqua, Dakota, Skyler or Hannah Montana.   If you want your stories to be believable, you need to research your characters names just as you would the events surrounding their story.  Using trendy names from 2011 is going to seem incredibly out of place on characters who lived 40, 50, 75 or 100 years earlier.  Use search engines to look up those names that were popular back in the days of yesteryear.  The Social Security Administration has an index of popular names that goes back quite a ways (how far, I'm not certain). 

But, what if you don't want a common name?  What if you still want your characters names to be somewhat original?  Just because you select a name that fits the era you're writing about doesn't mean you're going to be stuck with a Frederick or a Mabel.  Pick a name toward the bottom of the list.  You may be surprised at how "trendy" some of those names were back in the day.

Fun fact:  The present day "female" names Ashley and Madison were, at one point in history, exclusively names for males.

5.  Is there meaning behind the name?--Does your protagonist enjoy gardening, have a fondness for animals, or a love for the water.  What about names such as Violet, Faun, or Brooke?  Perhaps their name could foreshadow events in their lives.  Maybe they're named after a special relative.  You don't have to get too literal with your fictional children's names, just have fun with them.  Incorporate a special meaning behind them and the story.  Make them relate to something in your life. By doing this you'll make them seem more real and believable which will only add to their overall development.

6.  Research surnames--As I stated above, surnames are just as important as first names.  Make your surnames match up with your character's background.  Look up popular names from different countries around the world to acquaint yourself with names that would be believable to your readers and fit the person you're trying to create.

7.  Are you going overboard on the exotic?--As a writer, I love creating names that I never heard before (which is widely done in science fiction).  The name of the heroine in my first novel is a combination of two different names and one that I've not personally come across (but is one that is not too out there in the feasibility department).  Although it's fun to get creative, authors need to rein in their creative liberties to consider their readers when naming their characters.  For instance, how hard is the name to pronounce?  As a reader, there's only so many times I want to tackle Shenaboquazowalskimich in a manuscript.  Keep your names unique, but simple.  After all, we want our characters to be memorable for all the right reasons.

8.  How overused is the name?--There are certain names that are a dime a dozen (John, Jacob, Jingleheimerschmidt).  Although writers can't avoid using common names altogether, I believe that they should try to incorporate the uncommon into their story.  Take Esther or Winifred, for example.  If you're writing a novel set in the present day, these names are not exactly ones you would hear every five minutes.  Consider the untrendy and write your characters in such a way that the unpopular seems trendy.

Okay fellow writers.  What are some names that you find unforgettable?  Names you automatically turn to when writing?  Names you have vowed to stay away from?  How do you find that perfect name?


Thanks to the wonderful Rob Pruneda @Sharkbaitwrites on Twitter, I have renewed faith in the potential of my first novel Enigma Black and am going gung ho on revisions.  This means that I may not post much in the next month (though I will try to get at least one per week out).  I've decided to check into smaller publishing companies first and then Kindle and/or Smashwords if those don't pan out.  My goal is to get something accomplished in the next three months so, hopefully, you'll be seeing my first novel out very soon!


Ruth Madison said...

I purposely played with name expectation in my book (W)hole. Even though it's a serious book, I gave the male character the name Stewart. He is not at all geeky. He is an athletic tough-guy. The subject of his name is brought up by another character once in passing. Stewart is all about defying expectation, so in that way his name suits him.

BornStoryteller said...

Most of the time my character names are chosen for their meaning. Elora, the name of my female protagonist in the novel I am writing, means "of light." It was how I saw her character, and I wanted a name that brought that forward to me. I've done that often, choosing a name after doing some research.

The rest of the time, it is just what "fits". No other reason then. Phil and Amy have no meaning beyond they sounded right in another.

Rebecca Bloomer said...

I like to toe the name=meaning=reflects character line. I have to say though, I do like Ruth's idea of setting people up with a misconception. I might try that!

As to naming children. The big tip there is never to tell anyone what you plan to name your child. Keep it to yourself. Once the baby is born, they won't care what it's called (especially not if you threaten to withhold cuddles).

MKHutchins said...

Sometimes I think it can be fun to give a character a name that's an obvious misfit, like the Little John of Robin Hood's merry band.

linda said...

Ooh, congrats! How exciting! :D

When I was younger, I loved super long, fancy, girly names. It's been a while since the last time I collected names I liked, though. And I can't use any of them in my WIP anyway since I'm writing an Asian-inspired fantasy, which means names need to be some sort of Asian. I still haven't decided if I'm going to cobble my own set of Asian-y syllables together and create names from that or choose names that actually make sense in Mandarin (the Asian language I know best). Naming characters and places is so hard for me!

Sara Furlong-Burr said...

Ruth-I like that the subject of his name is brought up and that he defies the name itself. It's when the writer arbitrarily names their characters that I don't agree.

BronStoryteller-I'm completely with you. I love characters that have meaning with their names and whose names fit their personality or lot in life.

Rebecca-That's a good idea! I may try that. Especially since I'm one of those people who likes off the wall names and who doesn't appreciate the looks others give me when I go down my list of possibilities.

MKHutchins-I agree that it can be fun. I just don't like it when an author takes a "because I can" approach to their writing.

Linda-Thank you! It's hard for me too! I think it has a lot to do with the importance of the name. It's what your readers are going to know your character as and it seems so final. If I were you, I would definitely play with names. You may create something unique that you really like and will stand out to your readers. :-)