Tuesday, June 21, 2011

What's in a Name?

I don't know about you guys, but I spend a loooong time thinking up names for my characters. For me, the vague idea in my head isn't really a person until he or she has a name attached, and I have to be very careful about those names because once they're there, I find them almost impossible to change.

I went through some epic name changes with the werewolf novel between this draft and the last one, mostly with minor characters (for some ridiculous reason I gave Rose (whose name was originally Roslyn, called Rose) and her family very Germanic names. And they were still French. I know. Silly me), but that was still hard. Avar was also originally Avar's nickname - his original name was something similar but very complicated and Armenian, which even my Armenian friends couldn't pronounce. So... that had to go.

But character names are important. They often set up the personality of the character, and they have to match the setting and time period of the story. (Right now I have a plot bunny character who really wants to be called Caroline but I'm not sure I'm going to let her; I can't think of names that would go well with it for the other characters in that setting.)

The tricky part is coming up with names for your characters that are unique but not ridiculous. Even if you write historical fiction, nobody wants every girl character to be called Mary, right?

Fantasy and sci fi novels tend to get a bit silly when it comes to names. I can think of two popular books with very nice male leads with utterly ridiculous names, which to me spoils the fun a little bit.

To me, it's finding a balance between the unique and the normal, and even more importantly finding a name that fits that character. Even though Rose was originally just her nickname, she's still been Rose from the very beginning of this crazy story of mine. And it takes a lot of time - I've been known to spend hours surfing through baby names sites to find the perfect names for my characters. But finding a good match is worth all that time (and on my favorite name list, the baby names page on weddingvendors.com, all the popups) to find a good match.

Here is Hank Green's guide on naming, which, though meant for baby names, also works quite nicely for characters.

(I am quite fond of 6 - spell like a normal person. My name is spelled correctly, and yet because there are so many weird ways to spell Caitlin, I still have to spell it out for people EVERY TIME. Although it was a bit weird, Libba Bray (in BEAUTY QUEENS) and Natalie Standiford (in CONFESSIONS OF THE SULLIVAN SISTERS) get major points for spelling Caitlin right. (The sister in Libba Bray's GOING BOVINE was also named Jenna, which is my sister's name. Libba Bray is clearly sneaking into my head and stealing my names. Clearly.)

How do you guys go about naming characters?

(Also, apparently I wrote about this over a year ago, but it bears repeating.)


  1. I'm also very picky about character names, and I can't start writing until I know the exact right name for each character––even the minor ones. I can't just choose a random name. It's almost like the characters already have names; I just have to wait for them to tell me what their names are. And when I'm thinking of names, when I finally get to the right one, it's like the character is poking me and saying, "THAT ONE, THAT ONE." Like, it just "clicks". The name doesn't necessarily have to fit the character meaning-wise, but eerily enough that happens sometimes, even when I don't know what the name means. Kind of odd I guess, but that's my process! :)

  2. My characters come to me with their names, and I'm always told they are not interchangeable. So, I have to struggle if I don't like the name, and most of the time, I win?

    I think names are very important in writing and real life. Picking names that are too weird or difficult to pronounce might put some readers off. I know it does for me.

    Thanks for the link to the video, that was hilarious. XD I have to say even today, every time I say my name is Marilyn, I have to spell it. Most people spell my name Mary-lin... Which... Irks... Me...

    I had actually picked Caitlin for my baby... but he turned out to be a Jack-Henry XDD

  3. I'm exactly the same! I take ages picking a name and once I've done so, it's nearly impossible for me to change it. One of my favourite ways to find names is in the LOTR credits. I get to listen to great music and there are names from nearly every part of the world scrolling by, ripe for the picking!

  4. Brigid: It's weird how that sometimes happens, right? I generally go with the feel of the name more than the meaning, but sometimes it all lines up so nicely.

    Marilyn: Glad you liked the video! And you definitely have good choice in names. ;)

    Sarah: That is a brilliant way to pick names... I should try that next time!!

  5. Oh God, did you hate the name Po too? *sigh* Oh Po. All of my MCs' names seem to end in 'a' - ElianA, StellA, FlorA ... Robyn. Awkward. I usually don't concentrate on the meaning of a name, but if I look it up and it's horrendous, like, "whale-faced harlot", or something, I might reconsider changing it. But that's yet to happen.

    Also, correct spelling of Caitlin FTW! I get everything from Catland to Katelynn. Urghhh. :D

  6. Occasionally they show up with names, otherwise I use the site Nymbler.

  7. Caitlin: Indeed! Also, Catland? REALLY? D: And I know what you mean - I have to work hard not to give all of my characters names that start with A. Heh.

    Linda: Thanks for the recommendation!

  8. When my grandma was my age, she knew two girls named Ima and Ura Hog. If I ever have a TARDIS, I'm going to go back in time and slap their parents.

    Sometimes my characters show up with names, but when they don't I usually go to baby name sites and just surf around until something catches my eye. I'm probably going to have to change Klaine's name at some point (named for Kurt/Blaine from Glee)...

    Also, I feel incredibly sorry for anyone named Renesmee in the wake of Breaking Dawn.