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Sunday, June 3, 2012

By Any Other Name


Ah characters. Where would be be without them? The embodiment of those voices in our heads. The proof that we really aren’t insane.

That’s what we’ll be talking about this week.

And I’d like to start with a simple question.

Character Names. How do we come up with them?

Yes. There’s the Baby Name Book routine. I’m sure this has worked wonders for many a writer, and I’ll probably have to break down and buy one eventually. But as yet, never needed one. I’ll tell you why in a moment.

There’s the, Historical Fiction route. Which is pretty self explanatory. Just make sure you do your research, certain names were never heard of in certain times. And it gets a bit boring, and hard to keep track of four men named Harry.

The “Meaningful Name” bit. Tread lightly with this one. You can’t be naming your Lead Female Chastity and having her be the town whore. It would be like fingernails  on a chalkboard for the reader.

There’s the, what I lovingly refer to as, Scrabble Tile Method. Most often seen in science fiction or fantasy books. (I’m looking at you Weis) I swear the author reaches into a scrabble bag, pulls out three to five tiles adds a few vowels and Voila! A name! Who cares if no one can pronounce it! It’s fantasy! It’s a different planet! They’re a different Race! Foreign! All very good points..indeed. But. Let’s not go so far as to ostracise our readers. I’ve read many books where I have to skim over names, only catching the first few letters. Which works ok, until more than one character has that same first letter. Then it’s confusing.

You can put regional flair into your names. This is a great way of pulling culture, very subtly, into your work. Jacqueline Carey did this quite well with her Kushiel’s Dart series. She had the Roman element mixed with flares of French and a bit of Spanish. From the get go this set you up in a very subtle way for what type of book she was writing. Political intrigue (Roman), wrapped in a sultry (French) Magical (Spanish) world. Very subtle.

Or. You can name your characters whatever you damn well please and to hell with you all! Think of the success Charlaine Harris has had with Vampire Bill. A vampire. Named Bill. That is brilliant. Can’t you just IMAGINE the brain meltdown she had trying to come up with a name for him? You can’t tell me the first time you read that your brain didn’t go...”Huh. Bill. Really? HA!” But. It makes perfect sense. 

There are online resources to try. Seventh Sanctum is one of many name generators. 


What has worked for me, thus far, is wandering about cemeteries. Big. Old. OLD. Creepy. Cemeteries. The older the better. There are some wacky names in cemeteries. I keep a small journal with me. (Who doesn’t!) The ones I like the best I will try to say out loud as much as possible. Because, let’s be honest. You’re going to be with this character for a while. You’d best like their name. My parents are very fond of telling my sisters and I that we got our names by my Dad going out to the back yard and yelling a bunch of names at the top of his lungs. The ones they liked yelling, won. I suggest you do this with your character names.

Though, if they answer back...you could have problems.

Honestly. I’m not sure there is a surefire way to name a character. There is no secret formula. So I want to know. How do you name your characters?

20 comments:

Mel Chesley said...

I LOVE Seventh Sanctum! I used them all the time for lots of different things. As for coming up with names? Honestly, it is one of those things that just comes really easy to me. I like the sound of a common name and will rearrange the letters or the spelling or just add one extra letter and I've got it. Half the time, I'll be thinking of a name for a character and have it in a matter of moments. Other times, I will browse the name generators and combine one or two. Great post!

Sharon Bayliss said...

You know, I never put that much deep thought into it. I just sort of know their names. And once I pick a name, it's almost impossible for me to change it. It's like changing the name of a friend of mine.

Brooke R. Busse said...

Sometimes it takes a while, but eventually I reach a name and just know it's right. And, like Sharon, I find it almost impossible to rename, not that I haven't.

L. Blankenship said...

People have associations with certain names -- which is why vampire Bill is so great. Bill is an ordinary name, people envision an ordinary guy. It also works because William has been a popular name for centuries.

When I named one of my MCs Kate, it was because she fit the associations most people have with the name.

It's something to bear in mind.

Huntress said...

Man alive, i love walking around cemeteries also. And I thought I was the only one to hear voices. I don't know about the insane part. Might be a little kooky though.

Anyway, one of my faves is a character I named Ruin. He was a mess, a man who couldn't experience true emotions. He was 'ruined' in other words.

Trisha Leaver said...

I spit my coffee across my keyboard when I read this:

"The “Meaningful Name” bit. Tread lightly with this one. You can’t be naming your Lead Female Chastity and having her be the town whore."

Thanks for the early morning laugh!

Alicia C. said...

I just found out about this site through Charity! I looks pretty awesome though! If I ever get stuck for a name I may try it out.

Though I did notice it had a section for town names and such which is something I DO have issues with.

Alicia C. said...

I was going to have a whole section on this post about how characters sometimes name themselves...But it was getting way too long. And that could be a WHOLE discussion all on it's own!

Alicia C. said...

I agree. Sometimes my characters wander about nameless for a time until I find a name that fits them.

Alicia C. said...

Exactly! Perfect. Plus he was made a vampire during civil war times (if I remember correctly) so William would have been one of The most popular names.

Alicia C. said...

That's an example of "meaningful name" working well! :)

I love cemeteries. Plus it gets me away from the keyboard...some air in my head for a bit. Never a bad thing...

Alicia C. said...

You're Welcome! Glad you could stop by and join in the fun!

Sam F. said...

All of these are great! Sometimes I choose a theme that goes along with the book. For example, if writing a story set by the ocean, I'll use the English and sometimes Latin names of obscure (and not-so-obscure) sea creatures for surnames, and then pair them with ordinary but fitting first names.

And if I get really desperate, I'll go through my Facebook friends and pull from their names...

Gina Gao said...

I never really put much thought to how I come up with the names that I do. Thanks for blogging about this topic!

www.modernworld4.blogspot.com

Aldrea Alien said...

Sort of reminds me of Pratchett. ^_^

Liz said...

Names are the hardest for me. I change them constantly. I use "filler names" most times and then go back and change them. And change them again.

Alicia C. said...

Those are great ideas! Though I think if I used my Facebook friends for names everyone would know who I was talking about... :P

Alicia C. said...

There's more to come! Thanks for stopping by!

Alicia C. said...

I have a hard time sometimes too. Sometimes none of the names I have 'in reserve' seem to fit the character I'm writing. Sometimes looking up meanings of names helps guide you. I have a great book that has all these great names and their meanings and their 'power number' and star sign and all that jazz. But the interesting thing is when you really start looking into how the names tie into each other. Jennifer has the same "power number' as John. Very powerful warrior types. That sort of thing.

Angela Brown said...

I stopped with the meaningful name bit when I tripped myself up by naming an MC Melody and her cat Harmony. Just didn't work. I've done research on surnames to get the general idea of national history. But as for the first names, I just come up with them now. I write with them for a while. If the name suits, then I don't make an issue of changing the name. If I find the name doesn't fit, then I don't make an issue of having to change the name.