Wednesday, May 20, 2009

What's in a Name?

As I begin a new book proposal, I remember what it's like to open a fresh can of Playdough. The odd kid-scent of it. The vibrant colors. Hefting it in my palm and digging my fingers into the soft, yielding medium. The possibilities for creativity are endless. I can make a hot pink pizza with neon yellow pepperoni, or I can roll it out and make hot dogs or french fries or 'bisghetti'. (Can you tell I taught preschool?) I think new beginnings for writers are a bit like fresh Playdough. You can take your idea, work with it, reshape it and toss it 'back in the can,' and no one's the wiser.

One part of the creative process that Sharon posted about is how important it is for the writer to have the character's appearance firmly in mind when discovering that character's story, but not to 'paint a portrait' for the reader. Other attributes may say more about the character than a physical description could. This was brought home to me when I received the book cover art for Raising Rain. As I wrote it, I found headshots for everyone except for Rain as a child. When I saw her on the front cover standing apart from the women who raised her, my heart filled with compassion. Her part of the story came alive for me, and I yearned to pick her up and comfort her, though I never saw her face.

While physical attributes are important, names can also give insight into a character. Willy Loman, in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is a 'low man' who comes to a bad end (oops, spoiler alert!). To Kill a Mockingbird's Boo Radley is the perfect name for a character who starts out with an ominous air about him. The name 'Whiskey Priest' describes the troubled state of Graham Green's character in The Power and the Glory. Hannibal (rhymes with cannibal) Lechter is pretty self-explanatory, and Dorothy Gale's name (Wizard of Oz) is descriptive, though not overly subtle.

A character's name can be an outright attempt at description, or a very subtle tag. It can suggest a character's situation in life, including where they are in the birth order (Jr.?), the time period in which they live (Fitzwilliam Darcy), the country (Madeline) or even the section of the country where they were born (Ma & Pa Joad). In fiction, it's not advisable for two characters' names to begin with the same letter or to sound similar unless a relationship is implied, such as with twins or siblings. A strong character might have a shorter name with harsher consonants (Captain Kirk) and a softer character might have something more flowing (Buttercup). Some authors choose names for the cadence (Inigo Montoya) or for an unusual quality (Spock). Most authors steer clear of hard to pronounce names, such as Hermione in the Harry Potter series. The author finally cleared it up by having Hermione explain the pronunciation of her name to a visiting Bulgarian student with whom there was a language barrier. Smooth. Maybe I should have thought of that. One of my new characters is named Roberta - Bebe for short - and people are already mispronouncing it. I should have had her explain "Bebe, as in BB gun" to someone. The author should always avoid anything that causes an interruption of the story by the reader stumbling over words or names.

While many name generating online sites are specifically for people searching for fantasy game names, there are also websites specifically for authors. One such website is, but the names are chosen randomly and this doesn't really give any insight into the character or take into consideration your story. I prefer to take the time to choose just the right name for my character to live with. Work that Playdough a bit longer.

Does a name come to mind that describes a memorable character for you? How do you go about choosing names for your characters? We'd love to hear!


Anonymous said...

I had to be really, really careful with the names I chose for Latter-day Cipher. I wanted to choose distinctively Mormon surnames, but the problem was that most of those which would be familiar to the average reader were familiar simply because they were associated with a famous LDS person. For instance, I named one of my characters with the very-Mormon name of Romney when I began the book in 2001. By 2008 that was a super-charged name for an unsavory character, and my editor asked me to change it. Of course I did.

And names: imagine poor me at Bandelier Elementary School in Albuquerque writing, "Celeste Latayne Colvett" on all my papers. :(

Latayne C. Scott

Michelle Ule said...

This is one of my arguments for the veracity of the Gospels. What writer would include three or four Marys, a couple of Johns, and all those alliterative names unless those were their actual names?

I just renamed half the characters in the manuscript I'm working on now because one of my critique group pals that they sounded too old.

Of course they did, I've been living with these characters since I was a teenager!

Now they're more up-to-date and I'm . . . not. :-(

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Yes, Latayne, I can see where the name Romney may have been a sticky choice, considering last year's election, and I would bet that in the 7 year you worked on the book, you never dreamed it would have a political association.

Michelle, I have often thought it would have been so convenient in the Gospels if the people had last names or tags to identify them. It helps that John was tagged as the disciple 'whom Jesus loved' and Mary and Martha's names are most often used in the same sentence or story. It makes you wonder how they kept everyone straight.

Patti Hill said...

I'm writing a story where names are more important to the story than I've ever tried before, twins Goodness (Goody) and Mercy. They express qualities of their names but not necessarily how you'd expect. It's been fun.

Another practical tool is Googling "Most Popular Names of [birth year of your character}]." I do this to be era appropriate.

Remember Marjorie Morningstar? Oh, I would have generously donated my eye teeth to trade Patti Kegebein for such a melodic and hopeful name.

Celeste Colvett? Ever considered writing romance novels, Latayne?

ConnieBrz said...

In my WIP, my hero named himself. Never could figure out where that name came from, but it's perfect. The female lead? Not so much. I used the first thing that came to mind and spend at least an hour a week trying to find something else.

I chose her name based on number of syllables and hard sound of first letter (Carolyn). Googled favorite names in the '60's, meaning, etc. and everything fits.

Bottom line? Without divine intervention, she's probably stuck :)

Bonnie Grove said...

There is a character in Talking to the Dead I renamed. A preview reader pointed out his last name was too similar to another character's last name.

Because this character is a doctor, it was important his last name stand out. I loved the name I had chosen for him, it symbolized so much about his relationships with his patients. But he needed a name change!

I simply choose another of his attributes to highlight - his reserve and emotional distancing. Then I picked a name that I felt embodied those attributes. And ta-da! -Dr. Alexander-

Kathleen Popa said...

There's actually a book about names titled The Writer's Digest Character Naming Sourcebook, by Sherrilyn Kenyon (who is a romance novelist, with such titles as Fantasy Lover and Sex Camp Diaries to her credit).

I can vouch for her sourcebook. She's included names and surnames for some 57 or so nationalities, a reverse lookup of names by meaning, and a list of popular names in the US for every year from 1880 to 2003. I used it to think through the names for my characters in The Feast of Saint Bertie.

Latayne: your name suits you. It's unique, distinctive, and regal. And how many people are identifiable by first name alone? Let's see, there's Cher, Elvis... who else? Oh yeah! Latayne!

Anonymous said...

I keep programs from college (and high school) graduations I go to for great name ideas -- and unique spellings. One of them is from 1993!

I must admit, I love the names of Sarah Palin's children. I'm using one of them for my protag in my current WIP. Thought about using two of them, but will save the other for another time.

I have the sourcebook you mentioned, Katy. It's a great reference, particularly for various nationalities. I love this topic. Love the process of finding the right names. Writing has saved me from having to have more babies!

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Ha-Sharon! The writing profession may be the ultimate birth control!

Nichole Osborn said...

In my WIP, my main character is based on King David so her name is Davina. Her caregiver is very earth oriented. After much searching I came up with Rosewind. I my opinion fantasy character names are harder than historical or contemporary characters.(I mean you want creativly different names, but not completely off the wall.) I love this topic. Thanks Ladies! :0)

Janet said...

I wanted names from a certain era. So I read history books and other historical documents, noting names and surnames as I went. I used those lists to make combinations that worked for me. Except for a few names I pulled out of my head for whatever reason.

Lori Benton said...

Because my characters are 18C southerners, I chose several names from my family tree, which dates back to the late 1600s in VA and NC. In naming my Scottish immigrants I had to do some digging on Gaelic and Scottish naming sites, as well as questioning an acquaintance who is well versed in Gaelic folklore as to which parts of Scotland and the Isles certain given names were popular in that time period.

The hardest to name was a French immigrant int he backwoods of Carolina who insisted on calling herself Cecily. I finally found a way to make that work. She renamed herself after fleeing the Revolution in France.

Stubborn characters!

Janet said...

Lori, C├ęcile is a common French name (although hopelessly old-fashioned now). Your character could just have anglicized her name.