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What’s in a name?



One of my favorite things about writing is making up names for characters.

Fun as that is, I think it’s important to choose those names with care. Aside from the basics, like avoiding reader confusion by not having Tommy, Timmy and Tammy in the same story, a name produces an image in the reader’s head (at least it does in mine).  


My old gran used to say, “You only get one chance to make a first impression, so don’t bugger it up, you pillock!” If we apply that sage advice to our characters, then I’d say we should begin with the name. After all, it’s often the first thing our readers will know about them.


Giving a name like ‘Britney’ to an m/c creates a different first impression than if we called her Anya, or Agnes. From the name alone, our brain fills in details about age, appearance and attitude. 


If we’re reading a story in which the m/c learns he’s about to receive a visit from a someone named Cecil Winthrope III, chances are we’d have a different expectation than if that stranger was called Ed Hunter (who may possibly be about to offer the m/c a job in a rival story… ahem, sorry).


Of course, I realize we need to provide a lot more information about our characters than just their moniker. Nevertheless, I think it’s good to have an idea of what image the name alone creates in our readers’ minds - not least because we can use that expectation to our advantage by turning it on its head. 


In my MG novel, Fur-Face, I have a cat named Snowy; a fox named Razor; and a gorilla named Mr. Tinkles. From the names alone you’ve probably got an idea about their appearance and character (though I’m pretty sure you’d be wrong about Snowy).


Here are some names from my current WIP Waking up Jack Thunder:

Bobby Newton
Winzig (means ‘tiny’ in German)
L
azarus
Jonas Van Der Staal

One of them is a hulking brute of a sadistic killer; one is a mysterious international drug lord; one is a shy scientist, and one a CIA agent


 With just the above information, I’m sure you could correctly pin the job to the name, as it were.


Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to tell anyone what to call their characters. I’m just saying that first impressions very often start with a name, so it’s a good idea to choose them with care.


How about you?

What character names did you choose for your current WIP, and why?  

 




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(Deleted comment)
jongibbs
Feb. 3rd, 2010 06:26 pm (UTC)
Winzig is the 'hulking brute of a sadistic killer'

The worst thing about changing names in a novel, is making sure you substitute them all. Word's Find & replace is great, but it doesn't work on typos :(
(no subject) - coneycat - Feb. 4th, 2010 02:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Feb. 4th, 2010 08:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - coneycat - Feb. 4th, 2010 10:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
ex_naomi_ja
Feb. 3rd, 2010 05:05 pm (UTC)
The main character is Wild is called Lizzie Creighton. I picked the surname because she's from a good, wealthy background and I think the name implies that.

I picked Lizzie because she just "felt" like a Lizzie in my head. I'm quite instinctive when it comes to naming main characters; they usually spring into my imagination complete with name. Side characters usually take more thought - I have a book of baby names in case I want a name with a particular meaning, origin or feel.
jongibbs
Feb. 3rd, 2010 06:27 pm (UTC)
Baby name lists are really useful. You can find a lot of them from different countries online.
faerie_writer
Feb. 3rd, 2010 05:27 pm (UTC)
I can't say, because then I'd have to kill you. ;)
jongibbs
Feb. 3rd, 2010 06:28 pm (UTC)
Well, in that case, I won't press you further. I wouldn't want anyone to get hurt (especially me) :P
lunalila
Feb. 3rd, 2010 05:45 pm (UTC)
When I started writing, as a kid mainly I used friends names, even if characters didn't resemble them at all.
I continued like that for years using the first name that popped into my head, till I read an article, or a blog post, can't remember, that talked about importance of naming.
Then I was stuck.
I had to start a story and couldn't think of any proper name for my characters.
Finally, as I wanted them to be connected in some way to elements of nature, and to some qualities, I went into the meaning of names.
I choose Brian Green for main character, as Brian means strong, and he's really connected to the woods, in ways he can't imagine.
I choose Iris Pastor for the girl. She's related to water, and to air, so I searched for a name that connected both and Iris seemed quite right (meaning rainbow). She's living in the mountains of Spain, so she had to have a Spanish surname.
And my lovely british villain who is inspired by the king globlin Jareth performed by David Bowie, is called Mr. David Whitechapel.
jongibbs
Feb. 3rd, 2010 06:34 pm (UTC)
David Whitechapel sounds like the name of a well-spoken, well-educated fellow :)
mongrelheart
Feb. 3rd, 2010 05:58 pm (UTC)
HEEhee, I <3 your old gran! (I did have to go and look up what a "pillock" was.)

In my current WIP, I have two main characters, Mercy and Tannar. Mercy is an old-fashioned "virtue name", which fits well with the place she comes from (a religious dictatorship). As for Tannar, that was a name that I randomly ran across on the internets. I liked that it was an unusual spelling of a common name, and it fits his character (he's not quite as ordinary as he seems to be).
jongibbs
Feb. 3rd, 2010 06:39 pm (UTC)
Good names, especially Tannar :)
(no subject) - mongrelheart - Feb. 3rd, 2010 07:06 pm (UTC) - Expand
coneycat
Feb. 3rd, 2010 06:12 pm (UTC)
Confession time: a *very* long time ago, after seeing the Disney movie The Rescuers, I tried to write a mouse adventure story. It went nowhere but I had a lot of fun naming the cast of characters:

Timothy Cheesecrumb, a brave young mouse. (Also his brother and sister whose first names escape me.)

Roderick Booknibble, their scapegrace cousin, now imprisoned in a laboratory (the Cheesecrumb siblings have to rescue him.)

Thomas Aquinas Blacktip, a rectory cat who believes in ecumenism and also interspecies peace. (This was long before I met my pacifist vegetarian cat, Coney.)

Susan and Henry Thatchmend, a pair of helpful sparrows.

Veronica Flickfeather, a glamourous swallow.

Willy Seaboots, Leading Seacat, a young cat raised in the principles of Mr. Blacktip, who is now ship's cat on a sailboat and agrees to provide the Cheesecrumbs with passage.

A pair of Able Seamice whose family name is Sheetclimb. Can't recall their given names.

Louis Alleysneak, a villainous rat. (My apologies to rat fanciers.)

As I say--I could never really get the plot in hand, but MAN, I enjoyed coming up with all those names!
jongibbs
Feb. 3rd, 2010 06:40 pm (UTC)
Those are great names! Have you ever tried to revive the story?
(no subject) - coneycat - Feb. 3rd, 2010 07:01 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - out_totheblack - Feb. 3rd, 2010 07:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - csecooney - Feb. 3rd, 2010 08:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - coneycat - Feb. 4th, 2010 03:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
wendigomountain
Feb. 3rd, 2010 06:39 pm (UTC)
Recently, I've been working on a story that has been going from slush to slush for the last 6 years. I have decided to rename my main character because I have recently reconnected with extended family, who are directly descended from the guy this story was loosely based on and is also his namesake. I'm keeping the first name, but have changed the second. The name change also does what you are talking about. It provides a tag for this person's ethnicity, which is integral to the worldbuilding. Plus, I didn't want angry calls of "Why'd you use great-grandpa in your damn story!?!"
jongibbs
Feb. 3rd, 2010 06:42 pm (UTC)
Sounds like it's as well the story never made it out of the slush pile before now. After so long, does the new name seem odd, or would you say it's a better fit?
(no subject) - wendigomountain - Feb. 3rd, 2010 06:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
lindaabdavis
Feb. 3rd, 2010 06:57 pm (UTC)
I heard in an interview once that the guys in Vegas with the tigers (can't remember their names right now) name their tigers with names of only one syllable, and the name always start with a hard consonant, like Kai. This helps the tigers differentiate what is said more easily.

I've modified this method for my character naming. All names start with different letters. This helps the reader know who it is right up front without having to go further into the name to find out. I try to make the names distinct...no Bobbys, Tommys, or Marys need apply. Some of my published character names have been Zella, Martha Jane, Jediah, Henry, Mazie, Therese, Dori, and Jiji. I also try not to get to wild with the naming as to sound ridiculous unless that's part of the story (their sucky name), but I do have characters named Shot (a young adult sf adventure), Cosmo (a 70s retro fantasy), and Steen (a Civil War era fantasy) that I'm hoping to sell.

I've noticed that I tend to also prefer names that start with consonants. I think it's because I like strong characters and I did like the advice of the tiger guys. If it's good enough for them, it's good enough for me. If I had a character that I wanted to be soft and flowy, I'd probably pick a name like Alicia or something similar.

Mileage varies, of course, but we all have to name our characters something, and it helps me to like the name. During the draft period, I'll often just stick in a holder name until I have the perfect one for this character. A lot of times, I know more about the character when I'm done with the story, and then I name them.
jongibbs
Feb. 3rd, 2010 07:05 pm (UTC)
I know what you mean about waiting to name characters. I have to force myself to use temporary names, even though I know it makes more sense to get on with tghe story and figure it out later :(
(no subject) - mongrelheart - Feb. 3rd, 2010 07:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - lindaabdavis - Feb. 3rd, 2010 07:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Feb. 3rd, 2010 07:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
temporus
Feb. 3rd, 2010 08:10 pm (UTC)
I think names are crtical. For at least the reasons you mention. And often struggle with names, trying to ensure my characters have just the right name. My latest published story had several name changes throughout drafts, because I wasn't happy with them all, though the two main character's names persisted from the first draft.

Some stories will grind to a halt to me because I don't have the right name, and it just doesn't work for me. Sometimes just knowing someone is a Bob instead of a Bobby or Rob let's you as the author better understand the underlying personality.
jongibbs
Feb. 3rd, 2010 11:56 pm (UTC)
'Sometimes just knowing someone is a Bob instead of a Bobby or Rob let's you as the author better understand the underlying personality.'

Exactly!

Thanks for sharing, Ed, and congrats again on that sale to Abyss & Apex :)
creatinglifegm.blogspot.com
Feb. 3rd, 2010 08:16 pm (UTC)
I love coming up with names. And titles of work. If I start writing something and I can't come up with a winning title in the first few days, I tend to drop the project.

In one of my current WIP (a YA epic fantasy series), there are a couple of human characters with very distinct names, Baron - who will lead the rebellion - and Baldwin - who is more the confident playboy. In fact, Baldwin is a direct reference to the term in Clueless ("He is a bit of Baldwin"), which pretty much means charming and attractive. Yea, Clueless, I know... but I find inspiration in all its forms!

As for my otherworldly characters, all the races tend to have their own sort of cultural preference. The elf-like community (I call Cyphras) tends to lean towards short names that start with vowels (Alden, Ethin, Aric). Other names are simply monikers pertaining to what they do (Archer, Wishmaker).

Names are a lot of fun to research and put a bit of thought into, at least for me!

BTW Jon, thanks for visiting my blog and leaving a comment the other day. I really appreciated it and haven't gotten a chance to tell you yet!
jongibbs
Feb. 4th, 2010 12:01 am (UTC)
Hi Geoff,

My pleasure, I try to visit folks off-LJ when I can.

I agree with you about it being fun to research names, they're definitely a big part of the creative process.

Thanks for sharing :)
karen_w_newton
Feb. 3rd, 2010 08:33 pm (UTC)
Well, it depends on the book of course. One of the first writing tools I got was a WORLD BOOK OF BABY NAMES. In fantasy, I usually pick a country or culture and use only names from that culture, unless someone is a foreigner and then I use a radically different country/culture for that character.

Another thing is, if I want a really unusual name for a character that's hard to pronounce, I give him/her a nickname. I once set a book on a planet settled partly by Greek immigrants, and had one particular family who named their children after famous Greeks from history and Greek gods. Artemis was fine as she was, but Praxiteles used the nickname Prax.

Now that I'm writing more contemporary YA fantasy, I use my daughter's friends' names for my teenage characters.

jongibbs
Feb. 4th, 2010 10:10 am (UTC)
Interesting. That book of baby names has a lot of uses.

Thanks for sharing :)
ailsa_cf
Feb. 3rd, 2010 08:57 pm (UTC)
Some of my characters come complete with names - the mc in my current one was like that - the whole story came from the opening scene, and when I typed it up, the character being described went "we need your help, Martha".
The other main characters are Douglas and Cameron - I wanted traditional names, because they're vampires, and Cameron was meant to be Scottish. I hmm-ed and haa-ed about having two Scottish names for principal characters, but I kept Douglas in the end, because it fits him.

Definitely agree with the "I'll know it when I see it" thing. Evan got his name after I spent ages trying to find something, and got to asking for suggestions - Mum's first one was Evan, and I thought 'huh, actually, that works."
jongibbs
Feb. 4th, 2010 10:12 am (UTC)
Hehe, maybe we should all just email your mum the next time we're stuck ;)
wordsrmylife
Feb. 3rd, 2010 09:42 pm (UTC)
Lu, from in "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." Because she's a teen who, when all the other girls were dotting their "i's" with little hearts, decided to dot with a diamond to be different. It's an idea I came up with ages ago, but when I was looking for a name for this wip, it seemed to fit. Of course now it's been shortened to Lu, but that's fine. Using that name gave me the start of her character.
jongibbs
Feb. 4th, 2010 10:15 am (UTC)
Yeah, once we've got that starting point, it's usually plain-sailing from there - at least as far as that character goes.
debikm
Feb. 3rd, 2010 11:39 pm (UTC)
In my first-draft-is-finished novel, the main character is Valerie Roark. Often my mainstream stories have characters of Irish or Scots background, and Valerie just seemed like a good name for a kind of regular woman.

In my newer piece I'm working on that I wrote for NaNoWriMo, the FMC is Molly Whelan. Her name was going to be Karen or something like that until the first scene I wrote, where she was going to the cemetery to visit the grave of her long-dead fiance. When she hesitated at the gate and was talking herself into going forward, she said very distinctly "C'mon, Molly, move." She named herself. I had no control whatsoever.;-)
jongibbs
Feb. 4th, 2010 10:17 am (UTC)
Some main characters are just plain pushy :(
(Deleted comment)
jongibbs
Feb. 4th, 2010 10:18 am (UTC)
He's a gentle giant (and aptly named) :)
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