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Creating Characters—What’s in a Name?

Monday, October 6, 2014

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The longer I’m around writers, the more I realize that there are as many ways to come up with characters and characters’ names as there are writers.

When I start developing a character, the first thing I have to do is cast him or her with a Real World Template. Most of the time, the character’s name is an integral part of “who” he or she is by this point in the process. But at times, I have trouble coming up with just the right name.

The problem with that is, I’m the type who can’t start writing until I have the names for my characters; even when I introduce a very minor character, I have to stop and work out some kind of background for that person—including a first and last name—before I can have them walk onto the “stage.”

To me, names, as much as words, have connotations. There are certain images I conjure when I hear the names Bambi, Brittany, or Courtney. There is a totally different image in my mind for the names Edna, Edith, or Gertrude. Or what about how various spellings of a name can change the connotation:

Kelley, Kelly, Kelli.
Francis, Frances, Francois.
Louis, Lewis, Luis.
Shawn, Shaun, Sean.
John, Jon, Johann, Juan.
Marsha, Marcia, Martia!

And, just as with that last example, there are cultural connotations that come with certain names. Think about some of the most recognizable names in TV or Movie lore:

Andy and Opie Taylor
James T. Kirk / Jean Luc Picard
Dana Scully & Fox Mulder
Mike, Carol, Greg, Marcia, Peter, Jan, Bobby, or Cindy Brady
Jack Bauer
James Bond

These names have reached iconic standing—most Americans would recognize any name off this list before they’d recognize Grover Cleveland or William Taft or Millard Fillmore. But with these aforementioned characters we have one major advantage: we’ve seen them in action.

When you read the names, did you picture the characters in your head? (Was it Sean Connery or Daniel Craig?) What makes these characters memorable? Their names? Or the personalities the actors bring to the roles? We remember Fox Mulder for his determined belief in UFOs and alien life; Jean Luc Picard’s bald head and British accent as he commanded, “Make it so!”; Jack Bauer hiding around a corner whispering into a cell phone while trying to save the world; or Andy and Opie walking along with their fishing rods. And of course, James Bond’s signature tuxedo and cocktail.

Names do make quite a difference to the connotation readers associate with our characters. And sociological research has proven this is true.

I once read somewhere—probably in one of the many name books I have—that before a name for a child is decided upon, the parent-to-be should perform a “playground test”: go to a crowded playground and call the full name (first-middle-last) three times. If (a) you aren’t embarrassed yelling it three times in public and (b) all of the little kids around you don’t immediately start mocking it, it’s probably a good name. “Reader test” your characters’ names. Read it out loud; just because it looks good on the page doesn’t mean it’ll sound good on the audiobook or even in your reader’s head. Have a conversation with someone (preferably another writer or someone familiar with our disease) and use the name several times. Pretend you’re introducing the character to someone important in the character’s chosen profession. What will that VIP think of your character just based on that first impression of learning his or her name?

If you read the name Scarlett in a book, whom will you immediately think of—Scarlett O’Hara or Scarlett Johansson? If you’ve never seen Gone With The Wind or read the book, you’re probably either a Millennial (born between 1980 and 2000) or you didn’t have an older sister whose favorite movie was GWTW. Utilizing the name Scarlett in the 2014 carries with it unique connotations to different demographics of readers—those over the age of 40 are more likely to think about Margaret Mitchell’s fiddle-dee-dee saying southern belle—while those under 40 will picture a redhead who likes to kick ass and holds her own with demigods and superheroes.

What about the name George? What image does it bring to your mind? George Clooney? George Takei? George Strait? George Washington? George R. R. Martin? Curious George?

When I first started writing Follow the Heart, I’d named my heroine Margaret (and called her Meg) and her maid’s name was Joan. Both serviceable names. I was having a little trouble connecting with Meg, but I figured that was because I just hadn’t spent enough time developing her character. (Joan was named Joan because the Real World Template for her character is Joanne Froggatt, best known as Anna from Downton Abbey.) But then I picked up Julie Klassen’s book The Maid of Fairbourne Hall, and not only was her main character named Margaret and called Meg, but Meg’s maid was also named Joan! (Great minds . . ., right?) So, back to the drawing board for me.

When I’d found the template I ended up using for my main character, I hadn’t yet cast her (I was template shopping and had added her to my casting book). But I had made a note—Looks like a Kate. I figured since she wasn’t a well known actress nor someone I could get lots of images and/or video of, I’d probably only ever use her as a secondary character—and for a secondary character, I could use a name that was so close to my own.

But as soon as I knew I needed to rename her, Katharine, who went by Kate, was the only name that worked. And immediately, upon making the decision to rename her, I came up on the idea of “Katharine” being, in her mind, a different persona than “Kate”—and that to find a wealthy husband, she must set unconventional, gardening-loving “Kate” aside and become straight-laced, socially acceptable “Katharine” instead. (And the reason her full name is spelled differently from mine—KathArine rather than KathErine—is in honor of my favorite actress of all time, Katharine Hepburn.)

I went through a similar process in naming the heroine in Stand-In Groom, which you can read about here. In the Ransome series, Julia started life as Elizabeth. In the original idea for what became The Art of Romance, the two main characters were Jason and Angie, and Angie’s grandmother’s nickname was Manna. Thankfully, in further working with the story and their characters, they became Dylan, Caylor, and Sassy.

An Exercise in Building Characters With and Without Names
First, try building characters from the name up.

  • Choose a name generator from this website (or find another one by Googling “name generator”)—or use favorite names of yours from childhood, interesting ethnic names you’ve heard, family names, anything—and come up with a list of five to ten names. (Just try not to pick names you already associate with a specific person, like a close family member.)
  • In a notebook (or in One Note or however you want to do this), write one name on the top of each page for however many on your list. You can stick just with first names, or you can do first-middle-last . . . whatever strikes your fancy.
  • For each one, do some free-association writing with that name:
    –What color hair does this character have?
    –How old is this character?
    –What time period does this character live in?
    –What is this character’s favorite color?
    –What kind of accent does this character have?
    –And so on.

Then, turn it around. Deliberately build a character without giving him or her a name.

  • Do not label your page.
  • Start writing about a character.
    –Gender
    –Age
    –Time Period
    –The same thing as above—but remember, do not name the character yet.
  • Only after you have about a full page of character info and you have a pretty good “picture” of him or her on the page, come up with a name.

Which was harder? Building a character from a name or naming an established character?

For Discussion: What are your favorite character names from something you’ve read or TV/movies you’ve seen? What do the names mean to you? What are your favorite names you’ve come up with for your own characters? How did you come up with them?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Monday, October 6, 2014 9:19 am

    Actually I pictured Pierce Brosnan. lol, I prefer Daniel Craig’s films, but Pierce has always been the ‘image’ of James Bond for me. 🙂

    Names are a HUGE part of creating a character for me. I usually find that my book starts with a single scene that I can visualize in my head and that starts the story idea. Since I can picture a vague image for the character I already have an idea of the personality and looks for this person. Then I start name shopping. Sometimes that happens fast, others it takes forever! But I look at name meanings and eras the names were common. I try to avoid using a name of anyone that I know personally (that’s hard!) unless I want to honor them because I hate when someone asks if the character is modeled after them – especially when it’s not a nice character. 🙂 Somehow in choosing a name with the right meaning and deciding if I want it to be common for the era or not, how I want to spell it, etc., has helped me solidify a much more solid character. It’s a catch 22 I guess because I’ll discard a name thinking it doesn’t fit the character and yet the name also adds to who the character becomes. lol. Once I have a name and a solid personality, then I start casting my RWT. And I’ll discard many of the ones that could be good fits because somehow they just don’t “LOOK” like the character’s name or personality. It sounds crazy to a lot of my friends but it works for me. And I HATE having to rename a character once it’s established and written. That just sucks.

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    • Monday, October 6, 2014 9:28 am

      Last year, when I watched the first episode of The Paradise I was almost immediately pulled out of the era when I heard the heroine’s name for the first time: Denise.

      Not a name I think of as Victorian. Mainly because it was such a culturally pervasive name in the 1980s, both in school for me (I knew several girls named Denise, even in my small New Mexico city) and because of Denise Huxtable (The Cosby Show).

      Now that I’m watching the second season of the show, the name still doesn’t quite seem to fit, either the actress or the character, but I’ve grown accustomed to it.

      I’ve, fortunately, never had to change a character’s name late in the writing process—all of my name changes have happened either in the planning stage (before I started writing) or within the first 15-20,000 words of the story. And it’s always led to a better fit, a better character, than what I had before.

      One of the hardest renamings I had, one that I agonized over, believe it or not, was Flannery’s cat in Turnabout’s Fair Play when I realized I couldn’t use Lord of the Rings as the fandom that both Flannery and Jamie are secretly into and I had to change it all to King Arthur. It took me forever to figure out what to name her cat that was connected in some way to KA without being completely obvious. But now, a couple of years later, I can’t even remember what name I’d originally given the cat in the LOTR version.

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      • Monday, October 6, 2014 11:31 pm

        I can see what you mean, Denise would probably throw me too. Although I enjoy reading historical, I haven’t tried my hand at writing it yet. But I like using unique names and sometimes the older names are fun. I also usually like to avoid anything that is too common or popular – unless that just really fits the character. lol. I loved your King Arthur tie ins by the way. I’m a huge KA fan. 🙂

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  2. Monday, October 6, 2014 11:40 am

    Reblogged this on The BiaLog and commented:
    Some great tips. 🙂

    Like

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