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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Any other name...(or, why can't I think of clever titles like Janet??)

One of my favorite tasks when I start a new story is coming up with character names. Now, I am a complete pantser, so finding their names is, well, a pretty good chunk of my preplanning. But more goes into it than finding a name I like. Of course it has to be a name I LIKE (and that I don’t mind typing over and over again, so I choose short names like Seth, Gabe, Noah, Alex), but it has to tell something about the character.

I make a list of names I like, then think about what I know about the character. Because I wasn’t the only one who picked out their name, their parents did, too. So what kind of parents would pick out a name like Peyton, the heroine in Hot Shot? It’s an unusual name so I wanted to give good motivation for her having it. It turned out that she’s from a wealthy family and Peyton is her mother’s family name. That bit of information formed who she is.

Lavender, the heroine in my Wayback Rodeo-targeted story, is the child of a free-thinking, artistic woman who doesn’t like to put down roots. Lavender rebels against that lifestyle. But it was her name that gave me that clue to her background and to her conflict.

It would be fun to go against type and make an Emma or and Eleanor a wild child, and make a Tiffany or Britney very sedate, wouldn’t it?

Other things come into play when choosing a name. The age of my character, for one. I’m reading a book right now with a contemporary heroine around my age whose name is June. As much as I enjoy the book, I get pulled out of the story by the old-fashioned name. Now, if I knew why the author gave her that name, if the author made that part of the story, it wouldn’t bother me. I would imagine a historical writer would have to be much more cautious when choosing a character name.

Location and ethnicity play a part. That doesn’t mean Southern characters should be Billy Bob or Mary Jane (remember Susan Elizabeth’s Phillip’s Bobby Tom? That name drove me insane, BTW. No flow at all!), but some names fit some regions better. And if you have a character named Sonia, in Texas she’d spell it with an I and in Minnesota, she might spell it with a J. I have named a 20-something Hispanic hero Seth, which is…not common, and a 30-something Hispanic heroine Jordan, which really doesn’t fit, but I also had a 20-something hero named Hondo, short for Alejandro. I stole the nickname from one of my students, and it’s still one of my favorite character names.

Pronouncability (pronouncibility?) is important, too. I think it was Nora’s last book in the circle trilogy…I stumbled over the hero’s name every time, even with a pronunciation guide. Those Irish names are tough ☺ Sometimes it is just the right name, but be kind to your reader and clue us in. Maybe have the character say something like, “Rhymes with…” when another character has difficulty with it.

I also like to consider how the hero and heroine’s names sound together. Luke and Kelly – good. Noah and Ellie – also good (and rhyming!) Seth and Lauren – good. Taylor and Lavender…meh. But each name has a story of its own.

What if you pick a long name for your character? Do you know how to make shortcuts on your word processing program so you don’t have to type Genevieve or Alejandro over and over? I have Word, and this is how you do it.

Go to tools.
Go to auto correct.
Type in an abbreviation that won’t come up often when you’re writing. For example, for Gabrielle, I typed Gb.
Hit okay.

Now, every time I type Gb, it will come up Gabrielle. Cool, huh? Saves a few keystrokes.

Where do you get your character names? I had an old baby name book, but when I was brainstorming my Wayback Rodeo story, I was at school and borrowed my friend Cindi’s book. (She has it in class because the kids get a kick out of discovering the origin of their names.)


It even has celebrities’ real names, if you’re looking for a way to procrastinate ;)

Another neat place (if you don’t look at the subject headings) is your spam folder. There are some cool names there.

And there are a ton of websites, some easier to maneuver than others.

How do you choose your character names?


At 6:36 AM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

I now have a boatload of English peerage and historical sites bookmarked so I can go search for names. I worried myself into fits about it a year ago when I had started on this, and my very dear cp's (hi Erin! hugs, Pam! thank you, Terry Jo and Marianne!) spent time with me going over last names.

I always knew the h/h's first names. Everyone else took a bit of work.

What I worry about is the difference is names for nobility/gentry and names for working class people. I could use a reference site for that.

I completely agree that a distinct name paints a picture for me right off the bat, especially in a contemporary. It's just a bit disorientating when the author's descriptions don't match my first impressions.

My hero lives in Perihelion Hall. The point in the orbit where the planet is closest to the Sun is called "perihelion". I love that name; it's my favorite discovery so far. And he's a scientist/astronomer, so it fits.

Ok....this is much more fun, but I'll go get ready for work now (sigh).

At 7:26 AM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

What I worry about is the difference is names for nobility/gentry and names for working class people. I could use a reference site for that.

Ask and you shall receive, gillian!
Peerage surnames

But let me tell you what I do. I make up title names and peerage surnames and village names by altering real ones. For example, "Landsdowne" might become "Downsland" Or I'll combine two of them in a unique way so "Portland" and "Montrose" (real titles) might become "Portrose" or "Montland."

Then just to be sure I google "Lord Portrose" to see if I've stumbled on a real person. If so, I go back to the drawing board and look for a new name.

At 8:26 AM, Blogger Trish Milburn said...

Great post, Mary. Picking character names is one of the really fun parts of pre-writing. And I really try to choose ones that won't have the editor asking to change it because once I've named a character, I have a hard time thinking of him/her as anything besides that name.

I've used the baby name books and sites, but I've also just flipped through the local phone book and looked at the names there. The spam mail folder is a good idea though. Might as well get some use out of that garbage.

At 8:57 AM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

I have one baby-name book, and I consult ethnology listings for last names. Also the phone book. I have a phone book from Eden, North Carolina that is a treasure trove of southern family names used as first names. Also bible names. Good for older secondary characters.
But that's for a different series. For my elf books, I pick first names by sound. Galan is the elven hero of my first book (out in May). I didn't want anything too esoterc for my romantic lead, even though he's an elf. There's a slight Celtic sound to 'Galan'...maybe. The heroine is Erin Chandler. She's very capable, very matter of fact, and that seemed to fit. As for the secondary elf names, they just pop into my head based on sound. 'Kutara' is a name with hard-sounding consonants because she's the chilly, Vulcanlike organizer of the elves. (Her interaction with humans provides much of the humor in the book.) The villain is Fellseth. "Fell" is an old-fashioned adjective for "deadly."

In the second book, the heroine is an elf named Adlia. She's an uneasy character -- uneasy with herself, others, and her place in the world. The reader has to choose: is it Adlia with a short 'a'? Because otherwise her name starts with "odd'. I didn't think of that ahead of time, but when "Adlia" popped into my head, I liked those features.

How people refer to each other (nicknames, lies) tells a lot about characters' relationships. At one point, Adlia is giving herself a fake childhood for the sake of her human lover, and she calls Kutara "Aunt Kootie." I almost wet myself writing that. If Kutara heard that, she would have kittens -- except that she hates cats. I use the word "elfy" a lot for that reason -- it would totally tweak Kutara.

At 9:39 AM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

Thank you, Diane!

I got my second wish as well, no work today.... but it's come with (another!) ice storm. Maybe in between board games with the kiddos, I can get a bit more done with my story.

At 10:08 AM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Gillian: Make the kiddies help you with plot twists. Their random little minds should be good for that.

At 11:21 AM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

Ever use name generators? Talk about a way to entertain the kids AND waste a few hours....

Fantasy Name Generator, which is cool because it allows for length of name, vowels, hyphens, etc.

This is a d&d site; I've never played the game, but I like the names and the fact you can ask for a 'noble' or a 'commoner'.

At 11:27 AM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

This is a fun post, Mary!

I love picking names for my characters and I, too, sometimes use the phone book. I also use my kids' school directory, which doesn't always work out well. One of my mains characters has the name Dominic DeMarco and he's a classmate of my youngest daughter and she says if my book ever sells I have to change his name. Ha!

I loved making up names for my medieval characters. I had Otgar and Hugo in my first book. I found those names in one of my many research books...can't remember which one now.

I tend to pick simple names for my contemporaries. So far my heroes are: Max, Joe, two Dereks, Jackson, and Dominic, to name a few. For secondary characters I like to use names of people I Esri! :) I like that one!

At 12:50 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Names are really important. I've been diddling around with names for my heroine in the proposal I'm working on and FINALLY I've found one that I think fits.
My heroine was Laura for many weeks, but, lovely as the name is, she just wasn't a Laura.
Suddenly now that she's become Rowena the chapters are so much easier to write!

At 4:56 PM, Blogger Terry Odell said...

I try to avoid names that are similar or even start with the same letter. I've done a spreadsheet with all the letters of the alphabet in two columns, one for first names and one for last. I try to avoid repeating too many (like the time I was writing a scene with Laughlin, Lalone and Langley -- had to change two of those!) Also, on advice from a workshop, I do everything possible to avoid using the initials of my h/h for anyone else in the book at all. Of course, things get tricky when you get to recurring characters and realize you had a throwaway name (Janie) used once in book 1, and then she comes back as an 'on the page' character in another book, and she's in scenes with Jennifer. But since both characters were in the first book, I was stuck.

For finding names -- I use names of people I know, but never same first and last. And I manage the membership for a 2000 member international society, so when I need a 'foreign' name, I'll search the database by country.

Age of character is a biggie, too.

At 5:18 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Amen, Terry! I, too, make certain I do not repeat letters of the alphabet for character names in the same book.

That is one of my biggest pieces of advice about naming characters of a book.

Another pet peeve of mine is naming female characters with male names, especially minor characters. I cannot see the sense of it and it makes things so confusing.

At 8:39 PM, Blogger doglady said...

Hey, Gillian. BIG HUG! You write such fabulous characters it was no chore to play the name game with them! And you really came up with the perfect names for your hero and heroine.

I have no idea where some of my names comes from, but I do need to remember to check and make sure I am not coming up with a real person out of thin air.

I loved my heroine's name so much I now have an 8 month old dachshund/basset cross puppy named Adelaide.

Thanks for the link, O Divine One!

It is so funny, but my hero's two best friend's names came to me like some kind of gift from heaven.

Harold Creighton who is a male gossip and troublemaker and the poor clueless, says whatever comes into his head one is Benetton Tildenbury, known as Tilly.

At 9:29 AM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Clever names, O Doggy One!

At 9:36 AM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Those are GREAT names, Doglady.


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