Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Name Game

Sometimes writers spend more time stressing over what to call a character than they did naming their own child. Authors want their character to have a name that will draw the reader as well as identify the character. It has to sound right. Maybe it implies social status, ethnicity, age, some aspect of the character's personality, or maybe his or her occupation.

We all would like to come up with character names that stick in our heads or just seem perfect for the "person": Hawkeye Pierce, Magnum, Rockford, Mike Hammer, Daisy Mae, Scarlett, Hannibal Lecter, Mrs. Maxim de Winter, Atticus Finch, and on and on.

Authors have multiple copies of Baby Naming books. Some have phone books from different cities. Others keep lists of names they read or overhear. Others buy books designed to help writers or to explain the origins of names.

Some authors choose the protagonist and antagonist names before they ever begin writing, and that name becomes so ingrained with the character that it would be unthinkable to change it. Other authors choose character names, but may change them multiple times, looking for that "perfect" name.

Some names sound "old;" some are new and modern. You can look up statistics for what would have been your character's birth year and find out what were the most popular names given to children in different countries. Also, you can find out what various names mean and decide if that particular trait fits your character--or you can go in the opposite direction and choose, say, for a tall, strapping football hero, a name that means "timid and meek." Keep in mind that all these resource books are nice to have handy, but you don't have to pay to find names. Go to the library, pay attention to movie credits, search the phone book, look in your children's school directory or the church roster, use the Internet, read the lists of political candidates, scan the obituaries in the paper.

As an editor, I recommend writers avoid names within the same novel that sound similar (unless you have some underlying reason for doing this). It's even best to make sure two names don't begin with the same letter (lessens the chance the reader will get the two characters confused) or sound (such as Clarissa and Karla). It’s a good idea to avoid using the names of your friends or family, real life politicians or neighbors (unless that person has, for example, won a raffle to have his/her name in a book).

Usually, it’s not easy to decide on character names. If you just can't decide, try throwing out possible names to your critique group. Sometimes, it helps to hear how other people "see" your characters.
Helen Ginger is an author, blogger, freelance editor and writing coach. She teaches public speaking as well as writing and marketing workshops. In addition, her free ezine, Doing It Write, which goes out to subscribers around the globe, is now in its eleventh year of publication. You can follow Helen on Twitter or connect with her on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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  1. Thanks for this post. I was just thinking about the naming process today as I was working on a story (I'm in two minds about my protagonist's surname), and the links you provided might help me reach a decision. Much appreciated!

    One thing that always catches me are those names that look like the author's keyboard mashed, or used one of those random fantasy name generators. I'm surprised some authors don't think more carefully about ease of reading. If a reader's eyes snag on a name in the first couple of paragraphs of a book, it may put them off reading more. I certainly don't want to keep stopping to work out how on Earth you pronounce the name. *g*

  2. Helen - great post! I'm always struck by how casual some writers are about naming their characters. I'm crazy for getting the right name - I can't go on without the name. Even when I get together with my three pals to write murder mystery entertainments the names come first. There we really play as it is farce but in my novels I get fierce about what their names mean, how I came upon them, how they will affect their lives. I have as my main protagonist in my mystery series - Kitty MacDonald. Kitty is a tough name for a cop to live with but that is part of what has made her. I'm reading a wonderful Louise Penney right now set in Three Pines and my only gripe is she has lots of folks whose names start with the same letters and I'm always losing who is who. Oh and I got into a big argument with my sister over the name of my first novels protagonist. She thought it was awful - took against it as they say. weird.

  3. Interesting post, Helen. I'm struggeling with this right now. It's difficult to find names sounding good, and at the same time fitting the personality of the character. In my so-called novel (in progress) my antagonist is named Dick Head; not sure if that's a good idea ... maybe I'll change it >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  4. Good post, particularly the last paragraph. I have a tendency to turn some of the naming "rules" on their heads. in my first Sean Sean, I deliberately used corporate names for some characters. In the current book, a character calls herself Ann, but doesn't spell it so he always calls her Anne/Ann. In every case, i try to be sure the reader knows these are tongue-in-cheek sallies--or Sallys.

  5. I tend to look up names for a character of a certain ethnicity or country. I find doing so makes the character more believable.

    In that aspect as soon as I have the setting and location, the names (with some well defined searches) come rather easily for me.

    I do agree it helps to ask someone else if the name fits, the given description of a character. It's been my experience, names that are hard to pronouce or remember tend to be distracting. (Hugs)Indigo

  6. This is such a cool topic. Names are crucial for me. I ALWAYS have a name even before I have a title or a story. Most of my books have been born when I hear or see a cool name, look it up, and then get a story idea for it.

    How weird is that!


  7. Thanks for the post. I hadn't thought of considering the meanings of names for characters.

    My critique partner told me I couldn't name my protagonist what I wanted. She said readers would distracted by that name. She will, however, allow me to use it for a different character. I hate it when she's right.

    I started my novel with a protagonist named Rue. She was the most depressing woman imaginable. When I changed her name to Molly, she cheered up, developed a sense of humor, stopped boring us both to death. That may be why my CP wants me to stick with Molly.

  8. Correction: She said readers would BE distracted by that name.

  9. Jenoliver, I agree on the unpronounceable names. If I can't pronounce it in my head, how am I going to remember it?

    Jan, I've read books where characters have similar names or names that start with the same letter. I'm with you, I have trouble remembering who's who and who did what.

    Cold As Heaven, you certainly made me laugh. I'm assuming the name fits. Unless the book is a farce, you might want to change it. In reality, if I were named Dick Head, I would make sure I called myself by my middle name!

    Carl, sometimes the way to get your readers to remember certain characters is to do just what you're doing - turning things upside down.

  10. Indigo, I do that too. I try to make the character name fit the ethnicity. On the other hand, there are plenty of people here in the states who are given names that have nothing to do with their ethnicity. It can give the character a "handle," something to talk about that sets them apart from the other characters.

    Karen, I usually have a name, esp for the protagonist. But I sometimes change it in the rewrite stage.

    Kathy, Rue and Molly certainly bring up different images in my mind. On the other hand, I'm old enough to associate "Rue" with Rue McClanahan (is that how the actress's name is spelled?).

  11. I love thinking about names...and never thought it would be a part of a writing exercise...but now I think it will be!

  12. Good points, Helen. I have a tendency to pick a letter of the alphabet per novel and if I'm not careful I end up with several names that start with the same first letter. Like in my newest one coming out -- the letter was M. And, as you might guess, I ended up having to change a couple of them. One I didn't because my editor at Crickhollow Books thought the name fit the character so well we'd just go with it!

  13. What a terrific post. Names are so important and sometimes I just plug a name in to have one. This reminded me of the importance of putting more thought into it than that. LOL

  14. Liza, naming characters is a lot like naming your children, except you can go back and change them even after the kids are born.

    Sylvia, always listen to your publisher's editor. Smart author!

    Maryann, it's okay to plug in a name. Just remember to look at it again once the manuscript is done.

  15. My favorite name source is the daily obituary!


  16. I used to manage the membership for an international organization. When I needed a "foreign" name, I'd go through the database.

  17. Naming is not an easy thing for me. Sometimes I have the name right when I start and it fits, unchanged. But I've also been known to change names throughout the writing process. I should get my hands on a phone book or two.

    Another good place to look for names is cemeteries. Some of the last names on old graves are just fantastic. Also, cemeteries are a great place to let your imagination run wild if you're stuck.

  18. Sometimes names just come to me. Sometimes I have to fight and struggle and stab. Sometimes I'm trucking along with a name and suddenly it doesn't fit anymore and has to be changed.

    Their importance to me seems to depend on the story, theme, and often time. If I'm writing something that isn't contemporary, I work harder at names.

    Where I have trouble is future fiction, especially if you're dealing with aliens. I've seen crazy unpronounceable names to Christian names. Both kind of bother me, but it's hard to say if any are right. Depends on the story.

  19. How funny that you should post on this topic right at the same time I did! I like your thoughts and suggestions :)

  20. Dani, I used to do that, but realized I had begun to search them to see if anyone I knew had died. Decided it was time for me to quit.

    Terri, great idea.

    Joshua, I can get stuck on a name. When I do it's difficult to change it. I'm having to do that now with the protagonist of the book. I still see her as the name I gave her, but feel that it must change.

    clancynacht, it seems to me that I see names in books sci-fi or fantasy books that are names we might see today, but spelled differently.

    That's because, Miss Rosemary, we are twins separated by birth, time, place and parents.

  21. When I need random names for a character I like to check my spam folder. There are some great names in there.

  22. Jonmurphy, good idea. And I have a huge spam folder to cull from!

  23. I had to change two characters' names and one character's profession while writing my first book because of people I met and became friends with. It felt hard at first but I actually now prefer the new names. Still struggling a bit with the profession because that really tied in with the personality.

    Word 4 Writers on HearWriteNow
    Blood-Red Pencil

  24. What happened, hearrightnow? Did the people you met have similar names and profession to your characters?

  25. Me, I select names from whatever is around me at the time. I'll look on books and take the first name from an author and the last name from another author and there you have it: Staci Bevere. Her alter ego Cathy Bennett was taken from the character Noah Bennett from the TV series Heroes that I had just watched on TV before I wrote the character. Two security guards are named Hendrix and James because my neighbor was blasting out some Jimi Hendrix while I wrote that particular scene.

    Stephen Tremp

  26. Stephen, I too end up naming a lot of my characters after the authors on my bookshelf! Nice to see I'm not alone...I thought the bookshelf was the lazy man's baby name book. Obviously not! ;)


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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