Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Character by Any Other Name

by Laurie Boris

Along with their physical descriptions, speech patterns, and those quirky gestures however irritating or endearing, your characters' names can speak volumes about their personalities.

Consider Cruella de Vil from A Thousand And One Dalmatians. Would she inspire the same fear if she were named Becky Jones? Would Hannibal Lecter be as menacing if he were Sheldon Greenblatt? What about “Call me Fred.”? Doesn't have quite the same je ne sais quoi, does it?

But how do you come up with just the right name for your character? Here are a few things to think about:

1. Choose something age-appropriate. If I'm writing an American, middle-class character about my age, I think back to high school. Kathy, Lisa, Donna, Mary, and Karen were very popular names for girls, and there were a lot of guys named David, Steven, and Mike. Not that you wouldn't find something more unusual floating about, but in fiction, readers are more likely to go with the probable than the possible. If my character is in her thirties, he or she may have a spunkier name like Jason, Jennifer, Stephanie, or Stacy. (My thirty-something protagonist of The Joke's on Me is named Frankie.) A teenager may have been named after his or her mother's favorite pop culture star. Hence the number of Ashleys, Olivias, Justins, and Britneys floating around.

2. Choose something regionally, ethnically, or culturally appropriate. This is a dicier area, because you don't want to offend your readers by using a cultural or ethnic stereotype. If you have a character in your story who comes from an ethnic or cultural group different from your own, do some research. In some countries, babies are given very specific names based on their meanings. In some cultures or religions, it's considered bad luck to name a child after a dead relative, while in others, this is done frequently and almost expected. What has helped me is a directory of worldwide baby names with their meanings. And my good friend, Google.

3. Consider your character's role in the story. An unlikely hero (or heroine) may have an unassuming name, like David Copperfield or The Grapes of Wrath's Tom Joad. Or, a timid character saddled with a heroic name (or a larger-than-life relative's name) may struggle to fill those big shoes.

4. Avoid making a name into a reading bump if possible. I loved the name Lisbeth for one of my characters, but my writing group's feedback convinced me to change it to something simpler because they kept getting stuck on it and feeling distracted from the story. She's now Liz. No harm, no foul, no reading bumps.

5. Unless you're writing comedy or a funny children's book, avoid any name that rhymes with said. I never thought about this until I wrote a contemporary novel in which I'd named the husband Ted. Imagine page after page of “Ted said” and all those readers laughing to themselves because of the unintentional rhyme. I actually considered putting the whole thing in present tense so I wouldn't have to deal with that particular issue! It was much easier, and better for the story, to change the husband's name.

6. If your character cries out for an unusual name (think Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye or Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces), he or she will most likely pay the consequences, just as in real life. But this is rich material for character development. These consequences (teasing, bullying, even scorn for being named after an infamous figure) may end up shaping the character.

7. Still stumped? Open the phone book, peruse baby-naming books, or scan popular culture for an interesting, appropriate name.

How do you name your characters? What are some of your favorite character names from the books you've read? Any that you felt didn't fit the character? Or fit him or her exceptionally well? Any name you're really tired of hearing? Let's talk about it!

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Laurie Boris is the author of The Joke's on Me, due out from 4RV Publishing this summer. She also blogs about writing, books, and the language of popular culture at http://laurieboris.com.

14 comments:

  1. Excellent topic.

    I have used a variety of techniques for picking character names. For one book, I created a poll on writing.com and had people vote for their favorite name. Four years later, people still vote on the poll. I've also used name generators like seventh sanctum to spark ideas. Most of the time I go over names in my head and contemplate what feels right for the character. For the paranormal romance story I have done research on both angel and demon names, but have to negotiate nicknames out of many of the older ones because they wouldn't fit in modern day if they kept certain names.

    My favorite name from when I was younger is Juniper. I read a couple of books that used it and it has stuck with me ever since. I'm serious considering naming a daughter that if I ever have one. Lately it has been weird seeing character names that I'm also using. Not that I think only I should use them, it's just I never noticed it in novels before. Like the paranormal book by Hilary Duff uses the name "Sage" which is one of the main characters in the book I started writing in March. Felt very weird whenever that character came up as I read her book.

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  2. My characters seem to name themselves, and their names always fit. I'm not sure how or why, but as long as the process works, I'll continue allowing them name themselves.

    Vivian

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  3. @Dawn, interesting ideas! (PS, my nephew's name is Sage.) @Vivian, I love how that process happens! I've had many characters name themselves.

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  4. A good source if you want to get a popular name for a specific time period is the Social Security's page on popular baby names by year at http://www.ssa.gov/oact/babynames/

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  5. Laurie, this is great. :) I am with Vivian. My characters have always named themselves. The main character in my novel's name is Amy. I knew that before I knew much else about her! Luckily judging by your checklist here they all seem to have appropriate names. ;)

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  6. I once had a character who named herself Ellen. It never felt quite right to me...then found out about 3/4 through writing the first draft that after high school she'd changed her name to Helene. When I changed her name in the ms, she began to blossom (and nearly take over the book!)

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  7. Thanks for this Laurie! Character naming is so important to any story even picture books! I am always searching for just the right fit for my picture book people. This article is an eye opener and I value your words to the wise. I do have some favorites, however, and I try to incorporate them when I am able.

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  8. I couldn't resist writing this in my MS yesterday: "Right," said Ted. I'm cheeky that way.

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  9. I felt a little cringe start while reading Jennifer Egan's "A Visit From The Goon Squad." I LOVE the book, but in one chapter she introduced a character named Ted. I kept waiting...waiting...every time he spoke she (so cleverly) used "he said" or "Ted asked" or "Ted cried." So far, just one instance of "Ted said" but at this point, I can forgive her anything.

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  10. It's funny because I never even thought about that when naming my character. I may change it when the first draft is complete.
    Can't wait to read Egan's book.

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  11. Never wrote fiction, so never thought about it. Tricky, huh? Great blog, Laurie.

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  12. I usually pick a name that pops up in my mind while writing it; it has to come to me naturally. I also try to not use friends names or already famous fiction names so sadly, my characters will never be Carrie, Charlotte, Samantha, Rachel, Monica, Joey or Chandler no matter how much I love the names.

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