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Creating Credible Characters–What’s in a Name?

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Have you ever read a book where a character’s name just doesn’t fit? Seen a movie that you enjoyed, but then when you’re trying to describe it to someone afterward, you absolutely cannot think of the character’s name? (If I may, this is one of the things that is wonderful about www.imdb.com—whenever I forget the name of an actor or character, I can always go there to look it up.)

I have written a couple of other posts about naming characters which explain my approach:
Which Comes First–the Character or the Name?
By Any Other Name . . .

Usually the character names come to me pretty easily . . . once I find the Real World Template, I can almost always immediately come up with a name that is perfect.

But like naming children, this process is different for everyone. Some people come up with the name before they even have an idea for a character or for a storyline. Some people want to live with the character a while—to really, truly know who the character is—before figuring out what the name is.

Sometimes, we name our characters one thing and halfway through our novels, they stop, throw a temper tantrum and refuse to cooperate until we change their names to something else. Or sometimes we try to change the name when we think it doesn’t fit any longer, and then the character refuses to cooperate any longer—stops talking to us or doing anything he should—until we go back to the original name.

Some of the factors to think about in naming characters:

  • Time Period. Naming the heroine of a Revolutionary War-era novel “Tiffani” or “Destinee” probably isn’t a good idea, unless she’s traveled there from the 21st Century. Research historical names through geneological websites, historical documents (wedding/funeral registries, cemetery logs are great), and literature written in your time period. If you don’t want to go to that length, Biblical names work well. When I first started working on Ransome’s Honor, set in 1814 England, I sat down with my complete works of Jane Austen and made a list of every single name she uses/mentions in those books (not a very long list, I’ll tell you). I also looked at old Navy Lists for men’s names and names of ships.
  • Region/Ethnicity. Certain names are necessarily going to give connotation to the region where your book is set as well as the ethnicity of the character. Javier Gonzales isn’t going to call to mind a blond-haired, blue-eyed Scandanavian man. Mandy Faye or Tammy Lynn are flags that this character has a Southern heritage. Wojciechowski or Pulaski as a last name tells us the character comes from Polish stock. Minelli, Giovanni, or Alborghetti call to mind dark hair, dark eyes, olive-toned skin and a love of pasta, fast cars, and over-bearing Mamas. In my contemporaries, set in central Louisiana, I have used surnames such as Guidry, d’Arcement, Thibodeaux, Boudreaux, and Babineaux—each time one of these names occurs, it serves as a reminder of the setting for the reader.
  • Age of the Character. In a contemporary setting, someone with the name Edith or Ethel is going to immediately be thought older than a Jordyn or Heather. A great resource for making sure your character’s name is suitable for the age of your contemporary character is the Social Security Administration’s Popular Baby Name website, where you can search the top names of each year going back to 1880 (John, William, and James; Mary, Anna, and Emma) through to 2006 (Jacob, Michael, and Joshua; Emily, Emma, and Madison).
  • All Alliterative Appellations. Y’all know how much I love alliteration. When naming characters in a certain story, I sometimes have a tendency to get carried away with a certain letter or sound (I have one set of characters, five best friends, whose names all end in an A.) For example, in my current Contemporary WIP, I have Major and Meredith. In the same novel, I have Maggie, who is a carry-over from another novel. I also originally had Major’s ex-girlfriend’s name starting with an M. Meredith’s mother’s name is Mairee. But as a reader, I know that having too many characters whose names all start with the same letter can be confusing, especially when they’re around the same length. When we read, we do not technically see every letter—we recognize cues, such as a capitalized first letter and length of the word. So, if you have a Jack, John, and Jake all as primary characters (whether POV or secondary) in your novel, you may want to consider changing two of them, just to give your reader’s eyes a break.
  • Too Common/Too Unusual. You don’t want your reader to feel like you went with the first name you thought of—that it’s too common/too familiar to be memorable. Yet you don’t want the name to be so unusual (or so many syllables) that the reader stumbles over it—stopping to try to figure out how to pronounce it—every time they come across it on the page. Give your characters’ names different numbers of syllables: Maj-or. Mer-e-dith. Anne. Will-iam (two syllables to me, to others it might be Will-i-am). Jul-i-a. O-Har-a. Gui-dry. Wi-ther-ing-ton. Ran-some. Changing up the number of syllables keeps the names from falling into a monotonous pattern that will bore readers to death.
  • Too Many Names Per Character. Most of us will have characters with a First name (“Christian” name) and a Last name (Surname). Some of these characters will have professions or civic/social positions that will add titles to their names (Captain, Sir, Lord, Mayor, Congresswoman). They also have family relationships (brother, sister, Mother, Father), and some will have marital status (wife, husband, Mrs.). Therefore, Admiral Sir Edward Witherington is: Admiral Witherington, Sir Edward, the admiral, Julia’s father, her father, and Papa. That’s six names for one character. If I were to suddenly give him a nickname halfway into the novel, the reader would have no idea to whom I’m referring. If your character is going to have a nickname or title in addition to their “normal” name (one that isn’t a natural shortening of a name, such as “Will” for “William”), you must introduce it almost immediately and you must make the decision of whether the character will use it for himself in his POV scenes, or if it’s just something his best friend calls him (only William’s best friend’s wife calls him Will, for example). I tried reading a book recently where the aristocratic male character is, in his own POV scenes, referred to by his first name, last name, title, nickname-derived-from-title, title+estate name, and so on. It was very offputting, because I had a hard time keeping up with who he was supposed to be within his own head. So if you start out using your character’s full first name in his or her first POV scene, stick with it. Or, if the character’s story-arc includes the character’s change in self image, you can slowly change from the full name to the new name, using that transition as a signpost that the character is changing how she thinks about/views herself internally.

How do I keep it all straight?
In addition to my character boards I keep in PowerPoint, where I collect as many images of the RWTs as I can find, I have started keeping a spreadsheet for each novel I work on (especially with at least two if not more projects going on at once) to keep track of both characters and settings. Keeping a written summary of the decisions you’ve made about your characters (and settings) becomes especially helpful if you’re someone who doesn’t write every day or when you come back to a first draft for the revision. That way, when your character has green eyes in chapter three and brown eyes in chapter sixteen, you can go to your “bible” to see which decision you made—and if it isn’t written down there, you can make the decision and change what needs to be changed in the draft.

So, how do you do it?
How do you name your characters? How do you keep it all straight?

7 Comments
  1. Monday, June 25, 2007 8:33 am

    I’m one of those gals who has a story idea first, mulls it over for awhile, then the character names come to me. Since I much prefer historicals, I like to use Biblical names. I’m also partial to Scots surnames, so I tend to pair first names with favorite clan names when possible.

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  2. Monday, June 25, 2007 7:09 pm

    If you can think of a method to name a character, I’ve probably used it! Since I’m character-driven, the plots usually arrive after the character has appeared.

    Naming them can sometimes be a real challenge. One of the characters in my Epic is on his third name. I’m hoping this one is the keeper! Since I do love Russia so much, I tend to have a lot of Russian characters popping up in whatever I happen to be writing. So that presents the challenge of making sure the names can be semi-decently pronounced by people who aren’t familiar with Russian pronunciation.

    I’m also very proud of my Irish and Scottish heritage, so I tend to use a lot of Celtic/Gaelic names too.

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  3. Tuesday, June 26, 2007 9:17 am

    I let the character name come to me. Sometimes I have a feeling but may need to search some name lists before I find what I’m looking for. Most recently, I changed the hero’s name midstream because I changed his role in the story. His name no longer fit. That was a first!

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  4. Wednesday, June 27, 2007 9:06 am

    Oh, I can’t stand it when a book has character names that are similar because I have to pause to sort out who I’m reading about and it slows me down. Recently I tried to read a book where all the names we a bit unusual and I couldn’t get a grasp on the characters, so I gave up.

    Great post. Naming characters does not come easy to me. (You should have seen the trouble we had naming our children!) But usually I can name the protag right away, after that it’s a toss up. I went through about 4 names with Slater.

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