Just Call Me —?

I’m at lunch and I just glopped bean burrito all over my touchpad.  Yesterday a cracker crumb went into my keyboard.  If only I could work away from food.  Ah, the life of a writer with a day job!

Just when you thought you had your characters down, their quirks and habits and backgrounds and appearances all in line, it’s time to pick their names.  The process is as difficult for some as choosing baby names.  How do you know what the right moniker is for your heroine, your sidekick or your villain?  What if you can’t think of a name at all, or only ordinary, unimpressive ones?

I’m lucky, I guess.  Names aren’t difficult for me; titles are.  I’ll write a post about that someday, if I ever figure out a way to come up with a great one.  I used to use baby name books (although I’ve lost the book someone gave me) or the name generators on the Internet.  Numerous websites abound with all kinds of ethnic names, traditional, trendy or bizarre.  But how do you actually choose one?

Baby name books usually contain a name’s meanings and all of its derivatives, so that’s one place to start.  You might want your character’s name to reflect her personality.  So a brave character, defender of the downtrodden, could be Richard, Old English meaning “brave one.”  Or you could use a name to show ironic character traits.  Try a bitchy, selfish woman named Charity, or an atheist named Faith.  Pick something that hasn’t been used a million times.  If I see one more plucky heroine named Kate, I think I’m going to scream my lungs out.

If you want something different or unusual, try a man’s name for a woman (Blair, Morgan).  A boy named Sue would be hard to pull off, but in the right story, who knows?  It could be great. In fantasy or science fiction, you will have to think up entirely new names.  Tolkien’s Frodo Baggins has a name that fits him perfectly and is completely unique to the story.

Some names have acquired certain connotations.  We expect someone called Sheldon, Herb or Bernice to be nerdy.  A person named Alice, Johnny or Susie may not be childlike and innocent, but we think they will be.  Tiffany or Britney conjures up a post-adolescent mean girl or pop princess-type.

Very elaborate or difficult names make readers tired.  In an old Peanuts cartoon, Charlie Brown asked Linus how he could read Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, with all those hard Russian names.  Linus replied, “I just bleep right over them!”  Well, it works, but it’s tough to keep up with who’s who.   Keep it simple, if you’re writing plot-driven, genre fiction.  You don’t want to distract your reader from the story.

I’ve heard much advice about not choosing major characters’ names that begin with the same letter.  I did that in Rose’s Hostage.  The bank robber and serial killer’s names both begin with J:  Joshua and John.  I might have to change it later, but I’d rather not.  Those are the names I feel fit them best.  Sometimes the reasons for a name choice are not meaningful, but practical.  My heroine’s name is Libby Ann.  I had a very clear picture of her, but I couldn’t think of her name.  After making a long list, I chose it not as a permutation of my own name, not for any particular significance, but because it was easy to type.

I discovered an unusual names source at work:  spam email.  It had tons of names in all kinds of crazy combinations.  I copied the obviously-fake names and put them into a file on my computer.  I can mix them up later and come up with new pairings.  Also, keep your ears open when you’re in the mall, airports, anyplace people are talking, and eavesdrop a little.  You might hear a name that’s perfect for a new character.

Whatever name you pick, it should feel right for that person.  You can always change it later if you’re not happy.  But you’ll be more comfortable climbing inside your character’s skin if you know what she is called and how it relates to her vision of herself.

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