The Name Game

One of my fans, who is also a writer, asked me recently how I name my characters. I do have a few tips which I will share, but the process is different with each story.

nameless man

BOOKS

When I started my first attempt at a novel (the summer before tenth grade) I used a book called Name Your Baby to choose the names Noelle and Christian. I’d flip through saying various names aloud and checking out their origins. I still have that yellowed paperback.  And sometimes I still use it, though now I often use the Internet instead for that kind of skimming . I’ve also used the phone book when choosing characters’ last names. Recently I bought a book of SciFi baby names, but it was a bit of a let down. Mostly just names of Science Fiction characters and authors. I thought it might have new, odd, futuristic names with made-up origins.  “Gugreel – female, Gugreep–male; Martian for Blessed Gift” – that kind of stuff. But I got it at the Dollartree so at least it wasn’t a big investment.

SOURCES FOR REALISM

When I was writing a story that took place in Kentucky in the 1930s I went to the public library and looked up old records of real families who lived in that area during that decade. It gave the story an authentic feel. While writing The Fetch I turned to the Index at the back of a nonfiction book about the Romanov family to see what common Russian names might be at the time of the Revolution—if more than five people had the name Sergei it was probably safe.

MAKING STUFF UP

Sometimes I don’t want a character to have a realistic name. I love fanciful ones. Holly Golightly (Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s–she was self-named, but still . . . ); Montana Wildhack (Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five); Bilbo Baggins (J.R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit.) I recently played a game that a facebook friend sent me.  Turns out my Super Hero name is The Gray Lamp (color of your shirt and the object directly to your left) and my Spy name is The Blue Otter (your favorite color and the animal you would most like to be.) It’s silly, of course, but sometimes bad ideas put you in mind of good ideas. Think of it as a kind of brainstorming.

COLLECTIONS   

I’ve always been a list-maker–when I was a teen I had a list of what I would name my four children someday (Wesley, Mary, James, and Jane) and I also started a list of names I wanted to use someday in my writing. To this day when I run across a name I’ve never thought of before but that I like, even if it doesn’t fit my current project, I write it down for a character yet to be.

EXAMPLES FROM MY NOVELS

For the death escort in The Fetch I read through a baby naming book and chose a few unusual sounding possibilities. My choice had to be something that would work in the Renaissance. And something that would be odd enough to be memorable. I chose Calder because it meant “river of stones” which said a lot about his personality.  It also sounded like “call”—only a few dying spirits feel called to take up the Key and become a Fetch. It also sounded like cauldron, a magic and ancient vessel.

With the protagonist for A Certain Slant of Light I needed a female name that was not used much in the twenty-first century, but that was often used in the nineteenth century.  It also had to be simple enough for someone (Billy’s brother, Mitch) to hear once and remember. That’s how I chose the name Helen.

TIPS

Finally, here are my naming tips:

I try to make sure my characters’ names aren’t hard to pronounce. I don’t want people sounding out Mr. Gerikov  as “jerk off” or Mrs. Pupontz as Mrs. Poop Pants.

I try to make sure the character’s name doesn’t sound too much like another character or place in the book. If my hero lives in Paris I don’t name him Parrish. I know I wanted to name two of my children James and Jane but they sound too much alike. And I try not to get stuck in a certain section of the Name Your Baby book, otherwise all my characters’ names start with the same letter. Which is confusing. I try to make things easy for my readers.

I make sure I don’t name a character after a famous person unless it’s intentional. In my first novel I named Billy after William Blake on purpose because it was a romantic touch the ghosts would understand but that Billy probably wouldn’t. But when I was a teen I named a villain Phaebian until my sister (eight years older than me) told me Frankie Avalon had a contemporary named Fabian. I didn’t remember him (sorry, Fabian)—I was from the David Cassidy generation.  I changed Phaebian to Valarian.

 I make sure the name I choose has not already been taken. Seriously, I google potential names. I was thinking of naming a female police detective “Easy” as a nickname her colleagues gave her for being the opposite of promiscuous. But then I found out Walter Mosley had a whole series of mysteries with a protagonist named Easy Rawlins (his nickname is still spelled Easy but comes from the first two letters of his real name, Ezekiel.) I have no control over the future (I laughed when a character in an old black and white movie was named Michael Jordan) but I can at least make sure the name I choose is original to date.

I make sure the first and last names sound good together. Gretel is a nice first name but not such a good fit with the last name Eddleman.

I try to make sure the name fits the story’s historical period and geography.  I try to avoid Victorian heroines with names like Stacy or Ninjas called Ringo. (No, wait, that sounds kind of fun.)

The final (and most important) piece of advice I will pass on to my writer friend is this: you are in charge–the most important thing about your character’s name is that it feels right to you. You’ll be spending a lot of time with this person. He needs to answer when you call his name.

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One Response to “The Name Game”

  1. Tracy @ The UnCoordinated Mommy Says:

    This is great! Thank you! I’ve also been trying to come up with something to call my book even though I have no idea what the actual title is going to be so I’m going to use my super hero name 🙂 “The White Door” Turns out I love it! And even though it doesn’t make perfect sense right now I am feeling very inspired by it!

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