Friday, 26 September 2008

Naming Characters

Good morning Novel Racers. I've dropped the children at the bus stop, dosed myself up with Lemsip capsules and made a steaming hot drink in the hope that my brain will start to work enough to write something remotely interesting for you on this sunny but cold morning.

In case you're wondering, the picture is my name in chinese (gosh, how thrilling, I hear you gasp) and I thought it vaguely connected to my topic.

Inspiration for writing comes from many sources, such as photos, objects, smells that take me back to childhood incidents or places, however, before I can really get going with the story I need to write, I have to find a suitable name for each of my characters.

I was about 15,000 words into my current wip when I found that for some reason my hero wasn't taking hold in my head and emotions as deeply as he should. After a little thought (harder on some days than others) it occurred to me that his name was completely wrong and didn't suit him at all.

I knew that I had to find a suitable name for him and spent an entire afternoon looking through baby name books and online until the correct name dawned on me. His new name chosen, he was somehow more complete and I was able to enjoy writing the book so much more than before.

So, my question to you today is, how important do you think your characters names are and how do you go about choosing them?

23 comments:

Captain Black said...

This subject was covered by Paige back in February. See her coffee break post for details. Of course, we've all learned and improved since then, so perhaps we now use different methods for choosing character names than we did seven months ago.

Here are my methods:

* Use baby names on-line.
* Avoid names that sound alike for multiple characters, e.g. Kit, Kate.
* Mix traits from various people you know in real life. Nothing too obvious though!
* I tend to go for shorter names, rather than longer ones. That's because I'm lazy and don't want to keep typing "Marguerite" when I can type "Maggie" or "Mags".
* Weirder names (e.g. for SF) can be made by simply changing one or two letters. Example: "Hella" instead of "Helen".

I used to use word-processor data fields for names, so that I could easily change them globally later. I don't do this any more, as I find that it slows down my writing and breaks the flow (try typing "Ctrl-F2", then taking your hands off the keyboard to use the mouse each time, instead of simply typing "Hella").

Names are very important. If they are too awkward, then the reader won't like them and go off your story. I've certainly got some work to do, as I do indeed have a Kit and a Katie in one of my projects. Also a Jane and a Jon.

Time for coffee first though.

Fiona said...

Names? Oh, dear. I have changed all my characters names at least three times and my poor wip is littered with their discarded ones. The problem is when you have a name like, Sam, and you want to change it, you can't do Find and Replace cos you lose all the 'sames' or anything beginning with sa. It's a problem.

SueG said...

I think names are crucial. People often "become" their names and characters are the same. I have a book called "Naming Characters" which lists hundreds of names by ethnicity/country. For me, a name is like the title to a character's back story. Having said that, my characters' names are often quite ordinary, "every man" type names -- but I guess those carry meaning, too.

Rowan Coleman said...

Hello!! Today I have been told my final draft of THE ACCIDENTAL FAMILY is 'fantastic' and off to the copyediting stage - this great news. Its been a rocky six months and I'm just very proud that I wrote anything at all frankly!

Names, can't remember what I wrote when Paige covered this but for my children books I have taken to naming them after school children I meet. At talks and signings I run a competition telling them that the child who asks me the best question will get a character named after them in my next book. They usually find this very exciting and I have been asked some great questions in return. With my adult books I shamlessly name characters after people I know. Catherine Ashley in THE ACCIDENTAL WIFE is the name of one of my best friends, I asked her permission first and the character is nothing like her in either looks or personality but I thought her name was perfect for a lead and she was delighted to lend it to me. I've always done this from my first novel. My rule for other characters is nothing too pretentious -how many people are there REALLY called Tarquin or Sienna in most everyday settings and for my males characters nothing that could also be the name of a dog. Ben for example. I can't imagine my romantic lead being called Ben. Or Chip. Or Rover....anyway that's what I do.

SueG said...

PS Oops, forgot to say how great it was to meet some of the novel racers at Caroline Smailes' book launch last night! :-)

ChrisH said...

Hi Debs, I can't remember what I wrote last time anyway... and I'm now even more nervous about hosting the next two weeks!

Absolutely agree that if a name doesn't suit the character it holds everything up. I do the usual trawl of baby names then for surnames I look in magaznes, open a telephone directory at random and pick a name with my eyes closed (I know, I know.. how tragic is that?) and then I roll it around for however long it takes to get a good fit.

Congrats to those who are getting published, nice news Rowan and Caroline.

Q Is the Novel Racers Private Place to do with the Novel Racers meet or are you all hiding from me?

Debs said...

Oops, sorry about that and apologies to Paige.

I did go back over past posts, but obviously not far enough.

Congratulations to Rowan and Caroline from me too.

D

KeVin K. said...

I usually have meanings for the names I choose. The meanings don't always have anything at all to do with the story, but they are never random.

Lily Sheehan said...

I had the same problem with one of my male characters and when I changed his name he became more believable to me. Its weird because you can't tell when naming your child what will suit them but somehow they do. I wonder if I were given a different name whether I would still be me (if that makes any sense)

Helen said...

I settled on a great name for my character, which means strength, only for me to come back to it some months later as I tackle the 2nd draft...and now I'm not so sure. I'm like Kevin, I like to have meanings for my character's names...so it may be I'm back to the drawing board.

B.E. Sanderson said...

No sweat on the repeat topic, Debs. I'm lucky if I remember a topic from last month, let alone earlier in the year.

I spend more time on my secondary character names than I do on my main characters'. With MCs, I'm happy as long as the name is easy to say, easy to remember, and rolls off the tongue. After all, a reader is going to encounter those names most. For secondaries, sometimes I like their names to mean something - and more so with villains than heroes. For instance, a secondary in my first book has a name that translates into 'looter' and the villain in my WIP's name means 'death' (although why anyone would want to name their child something that means death is beyond me. Different strokes for different cultures, I guess). If I have a character from a different country or a certain place, I try to come up with a realistic name to fit the locale of their birth. But since most of my characters are American, that's rarely necessary.

Also, I try to think of the image a name will invoke. For instance, to me, Tiffini wouldn't make a good FBI agent, and Winifred wouldn't be a femme fatale. Tiffinis are young and blonde; Winifreds are old and bake cookies. I wanted a tough chick who could take on the world without batting a lash, so I named her Myke (short for Mykaela to give her that touch of femininity).

You just have to try them out and see what works. And if the name feels wrong, change it.

Graeme K Talboys said...

For 'Wealden Hill', which was set in a small part of Sussex in the 1880s, I visited graveyards and found names for the period and the place. I mixed and matched given names and family names.

The characters in 'Thin Reflections' are named fom period sources (and from family).

I also make great use of The Oxford Names Companion (well worth the investment).

Having gathered names that are right for the place and period, I also look at what they mean and consider their personal resonance. I find it easier to write sympathetically about someone who has a name I like or which belongs/ed to a real person I like(d); likewise unsympathetic characters t names of people I don't like.

sheepish said...

I find it important to get the names right and I can't make much progress until I'm happy. My heroines name was easy but after that it was more difficult. I too do the rounds of the local cemetary, unfortunately one of my vilains turns up in a best seller so I think I shall have to change it at some time in the future. I know I could leave it as it is But I don't want any link to that book however tenuous. To me names are very important and I can't fill my characters out if their names don't suit them.

Flowerpot said...

I think names are very important - they convey so much. I havea list of names on my computer and I also have a printout of a passenger ship list from teh days when I used to be a port rep for a cruise ship!

Paige said...

We were sure to duplicate subjects eventually, I really don't mind Debs! It's nice to have a little reminder of how we all go about naming our darlings!

Apart from my subconscious knack of naming characters after P*rn stars (I swear they ARE normal names and not Kitty Noknickers or anything equally as awful!)

I think names are important. Once my characters have names I find it near impossible to change them. Once named they become 'real' to me. They've been born so to speak.

I'm not sure where I get names from but I know I can't name characters after any friends or family members. I tend to associate the name with the person so if you are a friend of mine your name will never appear in one of my books!

Paige said...

P.S. Well done Captain Black for remembering my post! Do you have a list of subjects we've covered!? If so I would love to see it! Would make a good book in itself!!

KAREN said...

Great topic. I'm with Paige in that I can't name characters after people I know, but I LOVE choosing names and spend far too long picking out just the right one.

My favourite method is eyeing the credits at the end of a drama or film (or any tv programme come to that!) and scribbling down likely pairings. "Casey Solomon" leapt out using this method, and I'll definitely use it somewhere :o)

Debs said...

Thanks, Paige. I feel such a dope, mind you I look like one too today.

x

Lane said...

Debs, don't worry at all. I think most subjects have been covered or at least touched on by now. I can't speak for anyone else but my memory is not what it was so it really doesn't matter. Also, we evolve our ideas/experience/opinions so it's always fresh anyway.

I love naming characters and am quite particular about matching the first name and surname for the right sound. It's only when I've hit on the right name, that the character can begin to live.

Big congratulations to Rowan and Caroline!

And Chrish - the Novel Racers Private Place is the blog set up for the meets but it's had a name change:-) It's there if anyone wants to post something that isn't for general consumption. I think JJ is the admin so email her and she'll add you.

Have a good weekend everyone:-)

liz fenwick said...

I struggle finding the right name for my characters and have already changed the name of my heroine in the wip (I wish, Fiona, I have knows that is I did find and change all what it would do when I did it! Her name then was Ali :-)

The key thing for me as all the books so far have been set in Cornwall is that I find Cornish names for some of the characters and researching them has been great fun and led to hours of procrastenation.

Huge congrats Rowan!

Clare Sudders said...

It's not very important to me at all, as my attitude on names in general is that no matter how you agonise over it, the name will quickly come to suit the subject (because of the connections made) rather than the other way round.

My main criteria are to choose names that are memorable but not too weird, and to try never to give two characters in the same work names that are similar or confusable, and ideally to have no two names beginning with the same letter.

I have often changed names halfway through a work cos they weren't working for some reason, and in my notes I use codenames which are unchangeable, so that if the actual name in the text changes, my notes still make sense and don't have to be changed.

In my second novel, the characters didn't have names at all during the planning stage, they just had initials based on the role played. It was all about different kinds of loss, so I had Love Loser (LL), Body Loser (BL), Drug Loser, etc. What's interesting is that in the end, without me intending it and initially without me even noticing, their initials bled into their chosen names. So BL became Belle, DL became Denzel, LL became Leo, H (for Heroine) became Henrietta and TW ("Train Woman") became Tawny.

My basic criteria is that they should be memorable, distinct and believable. It's so much easier to remember who a character and not get them muddled with other characters if their names fit those criteria. For the same reason I also try to give each character a distinctive tic (physical or otherwise) that can be frequently mentioned when they enter a scene, so that readers remember who they are.

Clare Sudders said...

It's not very important to me at all, as my attitude on names in general is that no matter how you agonise over it, the name will quickly come to suit the subject (because of the connections made) rather than the other way round.

My main criteria are to choose names that are memorable but not too weird, and to try never to give two characters in the same work names that are similar or confusable, and ideally to have no two names beginning with the same letter.

I have often changed names halfway through a work cos they weren't working for some reason, and in my notes I use codenames which are unchangeable, so that if the actual name in the text changes, my notes still make sense and don't have to be changed.

In my second novel, the characters didn't have names at all during the planning stage, they just had initials based on the role played. It was all about different kinds of loss, so I had Love Loser (LL), Body Loser (BL), Drug Loser, etc. What's interesting is that in the end, without me intending it and initially without me even noticing, their initials bled into their chosen names. So BL became Belle, DL became Denzel, LL became Leo, H (for Heroine) became Henrietta and TW ("Train Woman") became Tawny.

My basic criteria is that they should be memorable, distinct and believable. It's so much easier to remember who a character and not get them muddled with other characters if their names fit those criteria. For the same reason I also try to give each character a distinctive tic (physical or otherwise) that can be frequently mentioned when they enter a scene, so that readers remember who they are.

wordtryst said...

I take 'em where I get 'em. My first hero was the name of my first big crush (I was about 8 years old). The surname of my first heroine I got from one of my students. A neighbour's daughter, a friend's baby - they've all been called into service. If I like a name I reserve it mentally for whenever it might come in handy!

I've also looked at baby books and online.

Rowan & Caroline, congrats!