Friday, 1 February 2008

Coffee Break: Naming Characters

Welcome to my second week as host of the Coffee Break. How has everyone got on this week? Personally, I haven’t had the chance to do any editing/writing as I’ve been fairly busy with one thing or another. But this weekend I’m determined to get editing again.

By the way, thank you to all who wished my happy birthday last week. I had a great day on Monday and I got my real life chocolate birthday cake and if I could have, I would have shared it with all of you!

So to my topic for this week: Characters - how do you name yours?

I’ve been told I have a knack for naming my characters. Everyone comments that the names I give my characters ‘fit’. I like to think that when I’m naming my characters, that’s when they come to life for me. They become ‘real’. As soon as they have a name I can see them in my mind’s eye and their personality develops as a result.

I have one rule that I must follow when naming a character. All my characters are named so I can’t associate their name with a living person that I know personally. It’s a weird and wonderful rule that I have to stick to or I can’t click with the character.

I have a great little story about naming a character…

About eight years ago I had a dream that I’ll never forget. In the dream, I was sitting around a table with some former school friends and on the table were lots of sheets of blank paper. Written on one sheet of paper was the name of the father of the baby I was carrying (In the dream!! I wasn‘t really expecting!!). I was frantically searching for this bit of paper and I found it eventually. There was the name of my unborn baby’s father. I woke up feeling particularly weird for it was a strange dream to have for a girl who never wanted kids. The name stuck in my mind. I even googled the name and searched for him on Friends Reunited. I may not have wanted kids but I just wondered if dreams could come true…

Anyway, fast forward five years and I began writing novels. I was creating the characters for one of my books; I never forgot the name written on that sheet of paper in that dream I had years earlier. So I named one of my heroes after the guy in my dream. It’s a very unusual name - one that no one has heard of. But everyone who has read about this character says it ‘fits’.

So I’m really glad I had that dream. I’m not sure what it meant but it was something special to me.

How do you feel about naming characters?
Do you have any weird and wonderful rules that you have to follow when doing it?
How do you pick names; by looking through baby name books, websites, are they plucked from thin air?
Do you have any problems choosing names?
Do the names help with the storylines?
Do you think that naming characters is similar to naming your children or children you might have in the future?

I hope this topic is okay. I wanted to choose one that was light hearted compared to my topic last week.

Tell me about your process of naming characters. I’m intrigued.


SpiralSkies said...

As someone who has just realised - 80,000 words into WIP - that she has characters called Kittie and Kat, I may have to refrain from answering this!

I tend to use names that I've pinched from real people, just so that I can get a handle on the character. They tend to change as I go along though.

Great topic. I'm intrigued by names - they really do convey so much of a character's identity, don't they?

Zinnia Cyclamen said...

I do use baby name books, and Google for names of a certain period if I have e.g. a minor character born in the 1940s. I try to make sure that all my characters' names are different so I don't end up in Jen's position! Having said that, I did change a fairly major character's name between drafts 2 and 3, because one of my readers pointed out that I had a Graham and a Gordon - I hadn't noticed the similarity so, Jen, you're not the only one. I don't want children, either, so I don't know whether naming characters is similar to naming children.

In terms of writing, I'm not working on Novel 2 at the mo, having discovered that a string of rejections from agents doesn't do much for my motivation. But I have finished the first draft of a short story that I'm quite pleased with so far, and started on another.

JJ said...

Hi all

First I used the websites that tell you the meaning of names and then my instinct. It has to be believable that the name is the correct age group for the character. The meanings are important to me - I'm not bothered if the reader doesn't know the real meaning of the names - but it helps me to feel the right way about them.

I'm not convinced that my two lead character have the right names, but I'll push on and see how I feel later on.

My problem now are the Thai characters: Thais have really long names and then nicknames - often but not always Westernised - I can't do my research on the Thai names, but the nicknames are often things Ping, Cha, Kim, Maxie, etc. So I can still play with them to show parts of a character.

Trying to get an article off my desk before I can do any novel. I'll be tearing my hair out if it's not gone soon.


hesitant scribe said...

Firstly - I have made coffee morning - hurrah!!!

Ok. Characters. Like JJ, I do like to check up on the meaning of names, and then use instinct. I spend ages naming and re-naming characters until eventually the name works. Or I'll cheat and have a nameless 1st person narrator.

For the novel I'm working on at the moment, the protagonist begins with one name and then ends up with another as she 'becomes' a whole a person, so I hope that works.

Otherwise, I try to follow that old general advice of not having too similar names - help the reader to distinguish between folks easily wherever possible. And made up names. Made-up names say so much too!

Good luck with article JJ - hope you get rid of it soon :)

CC Devine said...

I've had to change names in between drafts like Jen and Zinnia.

In terms of choosing names sometimes I just know what I want to call a character but other times I get stuck and refer to baby name books, the telephone book or magazines/newspapers etc.

It's so important to get the name right. I find it distracting to read a novel about a 'weak' character with a 'strong' name or vice versa.

As for writing progress this week...well, I'm a bit behind and feel quite panicky as I'm away this weekend at a uni reunion and there's little chance of any writing time before going/on returning. Does anyone else feel like this when they're not on schedule or unable to write for a few days due to circumstances?

Zinnia - don't let the rejections demotivate you too much; easier said than done I realise.

JJ - good luck with getting that article out of the way.

Lucy Diamond said...

Hi all,
Another great topic - and I love that dream story!
I don't have a particular routine for choosing names (and I hadn't even thought of looking up what they mean - what a good idea), mine are plucked out of the air to be honest. One agent told me not to have lead characters whose names begin with the same initial, so I avoid that, but otherwise I go for what feels right.

When I first wrote Any Way You Want Me, the best friend character was called Lucy and it suited her perfectly, I thought. But then, when I decided to have 'Lucy Diamond' as my pseudonym, I thought I ought to change my character's name - and that was difficult, because she was really stuck as Lucy in my head. She's Becca now, but it still jars ever so slightly.
The little girl changed too - she was originally Holly, but by the time I'd got a book deal, I'd actually had a little Holly of my own, and I felt odd about having a character with the same name as my daughter. So she became Molly instead (the character, not my daughter!)

Names aside, I'm nearly at the 50,000 word mark which feels like a bit of a milestone. I'm aiming to hit 60,000 this month. Please remind me of that, someone, if I start slacking off!

Leatherdykeuk said...

I get names from the air. I usually just 'know' a character's name to begin with but I do occasionally use baby name sites and/or random name generators to come up with one.

Demon and angel names follow fairy strict patterns that i won't go into and I generally research non-english names and take great care with the Hebrew ones like Jedith, the angel of pestilence.

Don't tell him this but Jasfoup came into being before I'd learned the numerology associated with angelic (and thus demonic) names and his came from closing my eyes and banging down on the keyboard.

Good topic AW. There're some fascinating answers.

Leatherdykeuk said...

Slow week on the writing front but a few short shorts published. Still no word on the novel. My ankle is healing now and I've returned to my martial arts class and bought an antique katana.

Juliette M said...

Oooh my favourite subject! I love names and I think they are so so so important. A lot of my friends disagree but as someone who changed her own name when she was 18, I think names really do make or break the person (or indeed the character.)

I have a stack of baby name books (I'd rather look in books than on the net). My favourite is Babies Names by Andre someone or other, because it's the name book my mum used when she was expecting me. However the most useful is The Melting Pot Book of Babies' Names by Connie Lockhart Ellefson. It separates names by country and even contains Native American, Hawaiian names and various African names from different regions. It's amazing.

I like to choose names that 'fit' the character and I have been told names are one of my strengths. I have changed character names mid-draft and I have one long-running project where the character has had 7 different names, none of which have worked and I have constantly come back to the original one.

I get very cross when people (read: my old writing teacher at uni) told me I couldn't call characters by names with the same initial. Surely the reader can differentiate between a Frenchman named Jean-Marc, a woman named Jessica and a vampire named Jarel...?

I like to choose names that mean specific things relevant to the character, for example a very old fairy is named Oliver because it means 'ancient relic', and another is named Tristan because it means 'sad'. I dont always do that, though. Just when I think it works.

I find it easier to name female characters than I do male ones. I can only think that's because I am female. I have pinched names from my friends too, generally surnames to be honest, but altered them - for example changing a 'son' ending to a 'field' like Mayson to Mayfield and the like. I have some friends who are part of a LARP group and I have asked some of them if I can use their characters' names in a novel, hence Erin and Kira in Quartet who started out as the LARP characters Aderyn and Kiera...

I could go on about character names all day, can you tell?

Fiona said...

I find names difficult and have continually changed most of the names in book - which makes editing interesting. At one point I had a Max , a Mat and a Mel.

Caroline said...

I google to match the time period and see what fits.

Jude from In Search of Adam was linked to a friend, the Beatles and the time. I have been known to change neams of characters within the final draft - the names have to match the name given, so I guess I must associate names with personality traits.

Jude's dad is Bill Williams(!) ... but he was never a William.

Interesting topic.

I'm starting the race next week, off to Malta to research. I'll miss coffee morning, but will enter the race running ... hopefully.

Kate.Kingsley said...

LOL at Kittie & Kat ~ I think you should keep them, you might get a marketing deal from a certain pet food manufacturer ;-)

"my characters are named so I can’t associate their name with a living person that I know personally" ~ me too, although i sometimes use names from people I've known in the past, if I want to invoke a certain personality type. But only people I didn't know too well, more out of fear of being sued than anything else!

I'm actually quite indecisive about my character names ~ they NEVER seem to "fit", and i've chnaged the name of one of the characters in the current WIP four times now. Like Fiona, this makes editing a very "interesting" process. Ho hum....

Sometimes I take names from newspapers or tv ~ if someone is behaving in a similar way to a nameless character of mine.

And like Lucy I've also never thought of looking up the meanings of names ~ certainly will be using that one in future.

I think I want to change my lead character's surname now.... :-(

Captain Black said...

I find this part of the writing process takes an incredible amount of time. I can agonise for ages about names. I can never even decide what sex, ethnicity, age, nationality or anything. Quite often, when I have finally started developing a character, I change my mind and have to rework the text (see tip below on that).

I do "cheat" a little bit and use the internet to find baby names, just like Zinnia. I also mix up traits from different people I know to blend them into new characters. Please don't tell them though!

If you're good at using computers and word-processing software, here is a tip that can save you time: When you type in your characters' names don't type them directly but use a data field, or whatever the equivalent is on your system. That way, if (or when in my case) you change your names then you only have to change it in one place and the computer will do all the work for you.

Writing sci-fi in a future setting is a bit easier, since the names can be totally new and weird without being too unbelievable. Not much help unless you're writing for that genre.

A book I read once called something like "Nice Work" had a good character naming trick whereby the author gave them nicknames that sounded like their real names. It made it easier for the reader to get to know them. Stuff like Mr Grant-Paynton having "graph paper" as a nickname. Who was that by? Er... hang on... David Lodge (ah, the power of the internet).

Graeme K Talboys said...

I do take care with names, and their meanings are important - not just their derivation, but their cultural association. 'The Oxford Names Companion' is a handy standby, especially when so many 'British' names aren't of British origin. It also does place names, which is handy as many surnmaes are associated with place.

Graveyards and church registers are also an excellent source, especially for historically based stuff. All the characters in one of my novels were named from a single small graveyard close to where the novel was set; I mixed first and surnames so you won't find the actual characters, but they are all genuine for the period and right for the place.

Having chosen a name, I never change it. I invest too much in a character and to change their name part way through would involve, for me, a massive rethink about how other characters react to them.

Cathy said...

Goodness, I've never thought that hard about my characters names!

I write fairly contemporary fiction, so I tend to base names on people I have known myself (not family or close friends though), therefore I know that a name will fit the period. Apart from that I just pick them because I like the sound.

Rowan Coleman said...

hello all, I am late. Great Topic again!

Names are tricky, I steer away from characters that have names that are too gimmicky or cute and clearly made up to go in a novel, because that wouldn't suit my type of book. I do use the names of people I know very well - but always with their permission! My first novel I used the name of my best friend for the heroine. The character was completely different to her and I didn't have a problem muddling them up. In the book I have just written THE ACCIDENTAL WIFE the lead character is named after a friend called Catherine Ashley, because its such a good strong name (and also the name of Elizabeth 1st's nanny/lady in waiting, coincidentally) that I thought it would make a perfect name for my character. The real C.A could not be more different than the fictional version and soon she claimed the name for her own. I always thank my friends who lend me their names in the acknowledgments. Seems fair! But the real problem I have is male names!! I try not to have anything to common, but then again I don't want anything to pretentious - and if you want your hero to have an air of attractiveness about him getting the right name is essential. And hard. I have not used a baby name book yet, seems like an genius idea. I might copy you lot and give that a go. (Incidentally in one book I had two children, sisters, one called Izzy and one called Bella. Not until after the book was printed did anyone notice they could both be derived from Isabelle, and no-one's mentioned it since - until now! - It happens to all of us)

B.E. Sanderson said...

For the most part, I just wing it. I've been told I'm very good at names, but honestly, they just come to me on the fly. On a rare occasion, I will do research to give seconday characters' names some hidden meaning - for instance, I picked a less-than-flattering word and translated it into French, then used it as a last name for one of my villians. Probably no reader will ever figure it out but it tickles me.

L-Plate Author said...

Hi everyone

Gosh, I was beginning to think I was the only morbid one until I got to Graham! I look through the obituaries in my local newspaper, list in a document lots of first names and lots of surnames, and pick them at random. So whenever I’m stuck for that man who has appeared out of nowhere and needs a name, I don’t have to stop in mid flow. I type a line of xxx’s and then go back to my file. For me, it's also good for getting the name of the character relating to the time that they were born.

Major characters are a little different. I write contemporary fiction so tend to choose those type of names. Then I write a character biography. It is only at this process that the name either fits or doesn’t. Once the name is right, I’m with Graeme again. I never change it. (Although I was told a great tip by my previous agent. Change a name of a character through the manuscript and read it again. Then change it back. It’s funny how many things that ‘Lucy’ would have done before but not as ‘Sarah’. Great for seeing if the characterisation is right too).

And on the subject of name changes. One of my main characters is Will. You can’t do select and replace on that one!

Oh, and to make things worse, book two is based on a housing estate. Lots of streets and what to call them. So, you’ve guessed it. I chose first names. Davy Road, Winston Square, Christine Street. This was for easiness at first, like I said earlier. When I need my characters to walk along a certain street, I’d just pick a name, but even that becomes hard once you’re halfway through the book.

Great topic.

As for book three? Not doing so good on the word count as I’ve been concentrating on taking some of the slang out of book two before I send the first three chapters out into the wide and scary world. Am hoping to get back to it this weekend. So slowly but surely….

Crystal Jigsaw said...

This is something I have been thinking a lot about recently. Having searched my head for names I always come up with the same ones. I decided to try google and found some new ones to use but always tend to avoid names if they remind me of people I don't like! I have always found it hard to decide on surnames too. I scour the phone book, sometimes coming up with my own concoctions.

Crystal xx

Lane said...

Sorry, late again. Great topic A. Writer and thanks. The responses are fascinating.
I love choosing names and to a certain extent I build the character from the name. I think it's instinctive when you hit on the right one.

I remember looking at a baby names book many years ago, searching for inspiration for new offspring and many of the names were quite bizarre so I named one child after a favourite writer and the other after a dog (not Lassie). I love the gravestone idea though.

The rewrite has been sporadic this week to say the least but this weekend, I'm on the case.

Have a good weekend all.

Leatherdykeuk said...

Street names? There's a can of worms. I have six books set in the town of Laverstone and I've ended up having to map the place out to get the road names consistent.

Helen said...

All the names I have in Verity mean something...and relate to who they are. I have spent a lot of time on researching stuff to fit. I am struggling with street names at the moment, but that's because I want them to have a hidden meaning that will become clear later on.

L-Plate Author said...

In my mind, I used the streets on the estate that I used to work on so Davy Road was one of the main drags and some of the streets are only mentioned once if my housing officer makes a visit. It's easy to keep track that way. I just hope no one guesses that it's where I used to work!

CTaylor said...

I pluck first names out of the air and test them out until I find a name that matches the 'feel' of the character (if that makes sense). I think the name you choose is shaped by your experience of people with that name. Like Lucy/Sue I've got a real soft spot for the name Lucy (I've known lots of lovely Lucy's in my life) and it was the ONLY name that suited my main character in novel #1. If an editor asked me to change it I'd be gutted!

I've got a book of baby names but I don't use it very often.

Oh, and sometimes I use a website that lets you know which names were most popular in a particular decade (link on my blog) if I want to find a name for someone who was born, say, in 1920 or 1950 (just to make sure it's an authentic name choice).

I also use websites to look up names for characters with a different nationality/ethnicity to me. So I might look up Indian names for example, or German names.

Surnames I find more difficult. I often run through the people I've met in my life (often as far back as primary school!) to come up with surnames. If I get REALLY stuck I go and look at Friends Reunited to see if any of the surnames fit!

Have I used any of the names I'd liked to call my own children. No, funnily enough! I'd never really thought about that before.

CTaylor said...

Oh, and p.s. I try and make sure I don't have characters with the same initial (though there's a Geoff and a Graham and a Bob and a Brian in novel #1. Ooops!)

Helen Shearer said...

Hi there. Just in the door. We are being pounded by a crazy snowstorm. We've had fifteen cms so far and they're calling for ten more by morning.

Names tend to just come to me out of the blue. I have used the baby name book on occasion but I find that names just pop up. One of my characters is named after a friend's grandmother. I never met the woman and know nothing about her but she has a name I have never heard before and I liked the sound of it so I shamelessly swiped it. A few years ago I wrote the first draft of a children's novel and I couldn't think of a good name for one of the main characters. It had to be strong and masculine and almost mystical, but Gandalf and Dumbledore had already been done and Bernie and Fred just didn't seem to fit. Halfway through the story I was still writing ??? for his name. Then I bought a new car and when I registered it the four letters in the license plate (ALRN) sounded like a good name. I added an e and the character became Alren. I still have that plate on my car.

Have a great week everyone.

wordtryst said...

Some are the names of people I know, but usually the character has nothing but the name in common with the real person. Some I research, especially for non-Anglo names. Others just pop into my head,like the nickname of one of my favourite characters in novel one. I'm well into novel three right now, and some of my characters are yet to be named; for now they're 'father' and brothers one, two and three. The main characters, however, have to be named before I begin the story. And I've sometimes changed characters' names on later drafts.

Zinnia, I try to use the insurance salesmen's motivation trick with regard to rejections: they believe that every 'no' brings you one step closer to the 'yes'. For writers, every rejection brings you one step closer to the acceptance. Don't be discouraged!

liz fenwick said...

Great topic......sorry I'm late but I'm in the Maldives (ducks head to avoid the objects being chucked at me). In the first draft I just wing the names and change at will.......after the first draft is done I will do the searches and make sure the name fits the character who has emerged. I have trouble with last names because the books are set in Cornwall and I want Cornish names but need to make sure I haven't pulled on some acquaintances name!

Now back to my hammock :-)

Debs said...

Sorry I'm late. I love names and apart from baby name books and the internet especially for names of children born at a certain year (the 1930's or 60's), I look in graveyards as I find them fascinating. What that tells you about me, I'm not sure but I find that reading some of the inscriptions, with the names, inspires stories in my head.

I also look at the birth, deaths columns and also the credits on all the films/tv progs that I watch. No that my firm has grown to over 200 people, I've also found myself scanning through to check out their names too.

I think names are fascinating and to find the right one takes a lot of thought but I do enjoy it.

SpiralSkies said...

Oh, I forgot to say that this site is really fun and helpful for names and procrastination:

A. Writer said...

Lovely comments! It's really interesting to know how you all pick the names.

Thank you all for making both my weeks as host very enjoyable! :)

Kate said...

I tend to search for names in the credits of movies (I always stay til the end of the credits in the cinema) and also use an atlas, street directories and name generators.

I tend to be pretty lax with using character names while actually writing (ie Boy 1, Friend 1 etc) until a name as heavy as a moon-size clump of gold descends and refuses to budge. I would hate to have an editor insist I change a name that I have already settled on.

The main thing for me is to not rush it. I generally let the character tell me about themselves before I name them - and I find that they simply present their names to me when the time is right.

What the h*ll am I talking about! Characters don't subsist outside of my mind!... or do they? I think I've had too much rum!

A. Writer said...

Forgot to say that I had to change the name of one of my characters as when I googled the name I found out it was the name of a porn star AND a murderer. Oops!

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My main characters seem to arrive pre-named and pre-formed whether I like it or not. Smaller characters generally pop in pre named but sometimes I have to make up a name, since in my current work the characters are French I have fun with these smaller bit parts coming up with suitable names which when trnaslated into English reflect thier character or work.