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Whats in a Name?

October 6, 2009

A Rose by any other name…

a special rose for a special day

Percival Ditherington-Smythe? Shaun O’Conner? Ullro Pverssson? Whats in a name? Is it really that important what your characters are called?

Regardless if you are writing a tome to compete with Lord of the Rings with countless fantasy characters sprawled across the lands or a short story with two girls in a café; at one point or another, you will need to give these people names, and most importantly remember who they are; should they need to reappear at a later date in your work. Sometimes, characters appear fully fledged, name tags in hand; other times you can really struggle giving that character the right name.

The most important thing to remember is that as a writer, you are going to want your audience to remember your characters’ names way after they have turned off the screen or put your book down. I’ve collated a few points which have come in handy for me along my journey as a writer.

Allow your story and genre to mould your characters.
Readers of certain genres have specific expectations about characters. You, as the author, have a responsibility to fulfill those expectations. Snake Eye Bob might be better suited to a Shootout in the OK Ranch rather than placed in a Contemporary Romance within a modern city

Must Be Easy To Pronounce – otherwise most people will forget it – or jumble it up. This is a pet hate of mine within Fantasy or Sci Fi novels. Sometimes the author tries to be too clever with double consonants and double barreled names in order to appear exotic or alien. It usually comes across as lame and forgettable.

They Shouldn’t Start With The Same Letter – unless you want to depict a congeniality or familiarity between them. Don and Debbie sound like a middle aged neighborly couple rather than enemies or thrill seekers.

Avoid Stereotypical Names – particularly those of religious or cultural significance ( Elvis, Jesus, Mohammed) You can run into a wall of trouble doing this when really, there are thousands of other names you can choose from and save yourself the grief.

With these points in the back of your mind, the next step is to get to know your characters. How do they move- what are their actions voices like – what are their motivations within your story? For the organized writers who like to plot and plan, this will be an easy task to complete before you begin writing.  For pantsers like myself, characters appear and basically tell me what their names are.  One of the main characters in my NaNoWriMo refused to be called what I had planned to call her and I had a difficult few hours devoid of any positive writing before I bent to her will.

A characters name needs to reflect their personality, his/her ethnicity, and the century in which they were born or planet/ solar system.  You also need to decide how important names are to your story – or if you are going to use names to demonstrate a point or theme. There’s no hard and fast rule on what name fits what personality, however Suzy -Mae immediately conjures a different character than Mildred.

A name can help you clarify a character’s personality – so choose carefully. Its difficult not to associate names with people you know. If you like a certain name but know and dislike a person who has that name, would you feel comfortable using that name in your story?
Seventh Sanctum is a good starting point as a name and occupation generator for a myriad of genres, from fantasy to horror.  It also has an action generator for combat scenes, as well as one for skills and abilities.  It also provides a real potential for wasting time and lots of laughs.

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Annie Evett sends Dale some very quiet and gentle wishes as he is not well today.  He’ll return to his normal post next week with his usual charm and wit.
Image by Marlis1 via Flickr
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6 Comments
  1. October 6, 2009 8:46 am

    I keep having moments where characters arrive bearing the name of someone else – a very famous someone else. Notables are “Marvin Gaye” (whose parents had no inkling there was a black soul singer by the same name – and thus my rather geeky scientist has had to live with the fall out of that!) and Dirk Hartog (my hard nosed spec-fic detective). There is nothing worse than being told to bite it as a writer because there is no name change going on.

    While I holiday I came across a name I was totally enchanted with. “James Henry Barry” … he will definitely be a character one day … when the characters steps up to claim his name.

    I used to labour over names – I would clip the births, deaths and marriages section from the classifieds and I even have a baby naming book (used for characters not for children!) .. but now the names seem to just float into my head.

    The one trouble I have with names, and anyone who has ever worked in education or childcare or coached a kids sports team … there are same names which are just destroyed for you and because of the sheer number of children you come across, the number of un-usuable names increases!

    Last year in for NaNo I used a system of two syllables to name my aliens … it was a way of delinating their place in the social strata and a rather lazy way of just randomly generating names for seriously foreign dudes. Like you Annie – my pet hate is names which are totally unpronounceable.

  2. October 6, 2009 9:13 am

    My characters tend to have false names or spend the novel trying to flee their names. Unreliable narrators even to the name they supposedly bear.

    Having said all that, being a huge sports fan of 35 years, I have a large mental database of surnames to draw on for characters and just have to avoid the really famous ones like beckham, jordan, montana etc. Even got a good load of Spanish surnames thanks to baseball!

    Great post

  3. October 6, 2009 9:48 am

    I often struggle to pick names for characters. Last week I used “Tonya Tucker” for the name of a girl who kissed my protag. I was told that the name took some readers out of the story because of its closeness to “Tanya Tucker” a famous country music singer. A correlation I totally missed.

    You’re spot on with unpronounceable names. That’s a pet peeve of mine too.

    One good place to find lots of names is the end credits of movies. It’s amazing how many people it takes to make a film.

    Thanks for the great article Annie.

  4. October 6, 2009 9:50 am

    I hear the name Tonya and I conjure up Tonya Harding & expect your kisser to then turn around and attack him with a hammer (!)

  5. October 6, 2009 12:50 pm

    I struggle with names. Usually it’s Surnames that drive me nuts and so a lot of times my characters just go with one name… Fred, Susie, Sara, James… There are only so many “Jonses” or “Smiths” you can use in a story and it is far to easy to cast a false idea of a character’s cultural history by using something that might be from one culture or another. So, when I must, I grab a surname from my memory or from randomly flipping the phone book open (yes, I still keep a real phone book around!). Or, I will flip open a dictionary and randomly point to a page and make a name from a word there.

    I have had times where I’m three-quarters of the way through a story and I realize the name is wrong and have to change it. That stinks, especially if I built things around the name such as the person’s occupation or a running joke within the story. I have had entire stories fail because I got stuck on the name!

    In my fantasy or science fiction works, I’ll usually take a common name and use it with some letters moved around or with an apostrophe in the middle to break it up. I often use variation of my children’s names… Rosa became Asor in one story, Nicholas became Olas in another… and then I’ll use names of their friends to do a similar re-spelling of the names. I couldn’t come up with a name for an annoying little kid… so he became Qwerty when I just stared at the keyboard for a while.

    Like you, I find the unpronouncable names typically found in these genres to be annoying and distracting. But I also find the stereotypical names for any genre annoying, too (“Rod”, “Steele”, etc. in Romance novels for example).

  6. October 7, 2009 12:09 am

    This post was really helpful. I always struggle with finding names.

    A lot of the time because my characters are prone to being based on people I know I can’t disassociate their name with the character.

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