Tuesday, December 22, 2009

WHAT'S IN A NAME?

When I sit down to write a new story, one of the most important decisions I make is to name my characters. A character’s name says a lot about them. It paints a mental picture in the reader’s mind. It must fit the character and embody that certain ‘something’ you want to get across. Should your heroine’s name be cute, feisty or dramatic? Whimsical or unusual? What do you want your hero’s name to say about him? Is he macho, mysterious, sexy, dangerous or misunderstood? Names have a power and magic of their own, and the names you choose for your characters can enhance or detract from the story.

At the same time, names that are too exotic, hard-to-pronounce or just plain weird can be off-putting to the reader. And you want to avoid naming too many characters with similar sounding names, or it can be confusing.

I approach this very important business in different ways. Sometimes, a character’s name pops into my head simultaneously with the birth of the character. Those are the easy ones. Sometimes, I consult a baby name book. Other character’s names are borrowed from family, friends . . . or even people I dislike. For example, the town bitch in the book I recently finished is named after the girl that made my daughter’s life miserable in high school. (One of the cool things about being a writer is this particular bit of evil creative license!) Sometimes when it comes to names I simply make them up out of whole cloth. However I do it, finding the perfect name for my characters is crucial to the story.

What about you? How do you go about selecting the perfect name for your literary children? Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Would your characters BE your characters if you named them something else?

How about when you read a book? How important is it to your enjoyment of a story that you like the names of the main characters? I LOVE romance novels, gobble them up like potato chips, but I have noticed a certain penchant among romance writers for names that sound . . . . well, ROMANTIC. Alastair, Lucien, Damian, Sebastian, Sylvester, Gabriel, Rhys . . . Not a Wilber or Herbert in the bunch. Heroines, too. Penelope, Poppy, Olivia, Emma, Francesca. Mildreds and Ethels need not apply.

Similarly, what process do you go through to name your work of art when it’s finished? If naming a character is tough, coming up with the perfect name for your manuscript is even tougher. I have a pattern of naming a book one thing when I start writing it, only to change it when it’s finished, because the work has morphed into something I did not originally envision. For example, DEMONS IN DIXIE started out as DARK ENCOUNTER, a decent enough name for a paranormal romance, but not funny enough. Who knew when I started writing the darn thing that it would turn out to be funny? Not I, said the little pig. So, a name change was called for, because DARK ENCOUNTER no longer fit.

So, what’s in a name?

15 comments:

JoAnn said...

I agree, Jeanie -- names are very important. :-) When I get stuck on a book, I often find that it's because one or more of my characters has the wrong name.

Naima Simone said...

Great post!
I completely agree! Names are so important. I can't get into a book if the characters' names are off-putting or silly. Or worse, they take me out of the story because every time I read it I'm wondering how in the world do you pronounce it?? NAIMA...LOL!!

I look on baby name sites and at the meaning behind them, too. One thing I did recently, too. I found an entire list of surnames on Wikipedia that I added to my Favorites. One thing that irks the anal soul of me is to have a first name that contradicts the last name! So if Khalil McGuire's father didn't travel to India or the south Bronx and fall in love with Aisha Johnson, then it's not credible!! LOL!

Merry Christmas!!

Jeanie said...

I actually renamed one of the characters in my latest book, because I had an Addy and and Angie -- too confusing, I thought. So, Angie became Evie. When it came to naming the hero, he was an interdimensional demon hunter, so I wanted a strong, warrior-like name. Looked up names on the internet and found one I liked.

Book titles are much harder. You want something catchy that fits the feel of the book. I have a hard time with those . . .

Nannette said...

It's good to know other people struggle with names too! I've renamed the child in my book about 5 times - and there might be a 6th version. names are hard for me.

Naima - I SO want that Wikipedia site address!! I have even more trouble with last names.

Jeanie said...

Naima, me, too! Send that Wikipedia address, please! Nanette, don't despair. You WILL settle on the right name! Maybe you should ask the character what he/she wants to be named. Sounds metaphysical, but it couldn't hurt. You know, close your eyes, envision the character and meditate on it. Let me know if it works, and we'll add that method to the list!

Peggy Webb said...

Jeanie, great blog! My major characters, like my friends, come to me with names alread attaached. And heaven help the person who tries to change them!

Sometimes a combination of letters seems to get stuck in my head and I'll name three minor characters Charlene, Christine and Charlotte. When that happens, I go back and rename two of them Betty and Susan. I don't want to confuse the reader, and I certainly don't want to confuse myself!

Jeanie said...

Peggy, how wonderfully cooperative your major characters are! I, too, get on a jag sometimes with character names starting with the same letter. Like a broken record or something!

It is hard for me to change a secondary character's name, much less my main character's. Fortunately, I haven't had to do the switeroo on a heroine or hero . . . yet!

Christine said...

Great post! I made a list of all my names for the current wip so I wouldn't repeat letters etc. Man what a struggle.

i also want the website Naima mentioned.

Only 3 more sleeps!

Jeanie said...

Christine, I have to keep a running index of my characters to keep them all straight, especially the minor ones. And an index of things like eye color, hair color, nick names, ages, etc. Otherwise, I can't keep up with it. Right now, I'm revising a previous work, and I've had to go back and refresh my memory, 'cause I've forgotten it all!

Louisa Cornell said...

Jeanie knows I use friends names for some of my minor characters. Should The Deceit of Desire ever see the publishing light of day check out the names of the two solicitors. You'll see the connection to some people we all know. VBEG !

My CP and I just had this sort of discussion the other day. She ended up making a character introduced in the first chapter the hero because the guy just took over. We had a last name, but had to come up with a first name that worked. Because she had painted him so well in this first chapter we went through a dozen or more names before we got the right one. When we hit it, we knew it.

Writing Regency historicals is a little harder. In addition to everything else the name has to be one that fits the time period. Lets face it, there were very few Lady Buffy Throckmortons around! Add to that coming up with a title that isn't one actually in use in Britain and it gets complicated.

One source I use is newspapers from the time period. Some great names in there too.

I have to agree with Naima. If the name doesn't fit and if the two names don't go together it can pull you right out of a story.

And I too have to keep index cards on every single character in the book and I try to add every reference to a character to that card. Things like - hometown, quirks, facial features, hair, eyes, anything that sets the character apart. Consistency is hard over 300 pages!

Great post, Jeanie !!

Cari Hislop said...

I enjoyed your post as well! It's easiest when the characters tell me their name, but usually I have to hunt until it feels right. It's like the character has a specific name, I just have to find it and then they ring the bell and I can stop running. They're training me and it's working.

In one of the stories I've been working on my hero's name is Jack, but the reader doesn't learn 'till half way through the story that it's only part of his name. He has an awful name because his father was a nut-case and it's all woven into the plot.

Jack's story has taken me the longest to figure out the title, but I found it in an article in the New York Times. It sometimes pays to read the news! I'd been banging my head for nearly a year and there it was. I swear the words "Once Upon a Wager" flashed at me. It's the perfect title. I wish I'd thought of it, but never mind...I have it now and I think I may even finish the book sooner than later. Now that would make my year!!!

Jeanie said...

Louisa, might that mysterious, dominant character's name be Tavlin in the book you're talking about? If so, can't wait to hear the first name you and your CP have come up with. Whatever it is, I'm sure it will be perfect! And, yes, writing Regencies adds another layer to the name game. Buffy Throckmorton . . . you crack me up!

Cari, I love the fact that you 'discovered' your title in a newspaper! What a great idea and another wonderful source for writers. I agree that 'Once Upon A Wager' is a killer title! And Jack sounds like an interesting character.

Stern Rake Studio said...

I have a couple books of names that I'll go through when I need a name.

One thing that drives me nuts about some sci-fi stories is using names with apostrophes.

M.V.Freeman said...

Jeanie,
I fight to find names...its hard at times. I don't want the same old ones...(like you, I do use them for the antagonists...)

Lovely post! :-)

Jeanie said...

Thanks, Mary. Good to know as writers we have some of the same struggles! Misery loves company, I guess!