Saturday, August 4, 2012

Naming Characters


It's that time for another reader question!

Q:  How do you go about naming your main character(s)? 
I know some authors can't start writing unless they have chosen a name, claiming it helps them to get to "know" the character. Others, couldn't give a firecracker about it.

A: I don't consider myself to be firmly in either camp. Allow me to explain:

I don't/won't wait until I've found the perfect name to start writing a story. Mostly because I'm impatient. If the right name doesn't come to me fairly quickly, I'll pick a placeholder name and just change it later if/when a more suitable one strikes me (or as the character evolves), using the trusty 'find/replace' function.

Most of the time the right name just pops into my head. Sometimes I use the internet to find it. Occasionally I scroll through Facebook for inspiration. Rarely do I use a phone book, because that involves actually having one.

But don't let my impatience lead you to believe that I don't think picking the perfect name is important. I do. The right name can do a lot of the author's heavy lifting characterization-wise, and I'm nothing if not a lazy bastard (Just kidding! hehe..).

But seriously. Take the name Misty: it calls to mind a certain personality, right? A totally different personality than the name Eleanor? Is Helga not a completely different woman in the mind’s eye than a Kimmy or a Brittany?  A Summer or a Willow or an Autumn-Sky?

But wait a minute, Michelle. Isn't that stereoptyical? I know a neurophyscicist named Mistylynn and a prostitute named Eleanor.

Yes, it's stereotypical. But sometimes stereotypes can work in your favor. Sure there are always going to be exceptions, but does that mean it would be in the reader's best interest to name a character something completely out of the realm of what's expected? (It could be. Depends on the story. Sometimes a twist on stereotypes can be fun. Sometimes a strange name is memorable. Anything can work if executed well. But I digress…) Let's say that's not my goal. Let's say my goal is to immerse the reader into my fictional world, to build the character up in the reader's head, and to make it easy for him/her to suspend disbelief. Well then I don't want to make my readers work harder than they have to in order to make those things happen. Because I love them (these hypothetical future readers).

And now comes the portion of the evening where I give tips that no one asked for that are quite possibly obvious:

-Pick a name that reflects your character's personality

-Avoid giving characters similar sounding names (Jack, John, Jane, Joan, Jean). Sure, there are two Alexei's in Anna Karenina, but unless you're Leo Tolstoy, that's probably a bad idea.

-Avoid cutesy spellings that are hard to sound out/pronounce. If your reader is constantly tripping over your character's name, it can have the unpleasant effect of pulling them out of the story.

-Use names that fit the period. As in, don't name your 19th century priest Kayden. (I bet you couldn't figure that out without my expert guidance. You're welcome.)

-When in doubt, the name Michelle is cute :)





29 comments:

  1. Oooo! Good post! I also don't wait to start my story until I have a name. If I come to a part in the book where I HAVE to use a name and I don't have one? Guess what I call 'em?

    NAME.

    Yup. I'm original like that. Haha.

    But maybe next time I'll just call my mystery person Michelle...

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    1. That sounds like a solid plan, Julie :D

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  2. Really good post! I generally have a name. But not always. Sometimes I have a personality and attitude. When I mix that with the plot and setting THEN I search for a name. So I guess it goes both ways with me.
    Thanks for posting. I enjoyed reading:)

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  3. Okay. I will have to have a Michelle. I never had a character named Michelle before. I like it! I even think I know who it's going to be. Congrats! You're fictionalized! :)

    I knew the name of my MC before I started writing, but every other character gets named when they pop on stage the first time. Sometimes it's spontaneous, and I just type the name without really thinking about it. Other times I spend hours trolling baby name sites trying to find the perfect name (with the perfect underlying meaning, too!).

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  4. Awesome post! I hadn't thought about character naming in a long time, but hey, you inspired me! I wanna write a blog post about this too. I'll link to you, of course :)

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  5. Great post! Naming is SO important! And I love it when I fall in love with one of my character's names, which I have. Yay!

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  6. Great post, Michelle! I also have to say - don't force your characters to have a name they don't like or think is 'them'. The boyfriend/love interest in my novel is named Cassidy (Cass), but in the beginning I tried to make him anything but! I tried David, Tristan, Ryan, Evan, Zach, Matt, etc... Nothing but Cass fit his personality! :)

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  8. Oooooo !
    I'm glad to have read this.
    As a reader, I pay attention to character names. I really appreciate how an author incorporates a back story to the name. Did I ever mention that horrible names like "Renesme" make me roll my eyes and think less of the author? Well, they do.

    I have another question I will be asking you soon. It will have to wait though, because it is super sexy. Also, you just posted a reader question. Which makes me feel super fuzzy inside.

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    1. OMG Renesme. How I loathe thee.

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    2. GAH! Renesme! Quite possibly the worst character name in the history of forever!

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    3. Also, ask away! I'm perfectly happy to answer anything you like :)

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  9. Is this just a plan to make an army of Michelle characters? I see through you! : D

    I am generally horrible at naming characters and pick names that need changing frequently. At this point, I keep forgetting one of my characters names. He is now officially 'Eve's brother' in my head.

    I've also managed to use rejected names from ms1 in both ms2 and ms4, which is not at all stupid of me. Nope.

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    1. There simply aren't enough Michelle characters out there. I'm doing this world a service.

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  10. My characters always seem to enter with a name right from the get go. Once they've introduced themselves, it becomes impossible for me to change their name. I mean it would be quite rude, wouldn't it?
    The problem I always have are last names. To solve this, I look at death records. Yeah, it's a bit weird, but I look up death records within the actual town or general locale I'm writing in.
    Call me strange, but it works! : )

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    1. HA! I've done the very same thing! Guess I'm a bit strange too :)

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  11. I'm in the 'couldn't give a firecracker' camp. When I start writing, I make up random character names (think Bob, Sue, Stan, Jane). As I get further into writing, names will usually come, and that's what find/replace was made for :)

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  12. Great post! I am a total research names based on where the story takes place, the character's qualities, and the time period of the story kind of writer. I usually don't start writing until I have them nailed down...at least for the main characters. BUT most of the secondary characters and walk ons? They are all "insert generic name here" situations until I'm done drafting.

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    1. It's so interesting to hear what other writers do!

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  13. When I first started writing, names seemed terribly important. I've learnt not to be so precious.
    Great advice and a great post. :-)

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  14. I love this, for some reason, names are never that difficult for me. I'll take an average name, and I can change it...even just with the spelling!

    I really liked you advice, and I love your blog. Great help for aspiring writers :)

    Following!

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    1. Woo! Welcome new blog follower! Glad you like the site :)

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