Friday, January 15, 2016

What's in a name? Well, a lot.

     As I’ve mentioned before, one of my favorite steps of writing process is the planning/brainstorming stage, and the act of naming my characters is no exception to this.

     Part of this is because names and their meanings have always fascinated me, even aside from using them in my writing. There's such a variety to them, and while classic English and American names are the ones I'm definitely the most familiar with, over the years I've found myself researching Welsh, Norse, and Germanic names as well. 

     Recently I've been branching out even further, wandering into India and Russia, while "ancient" names from civilizations such as the Mayans and Incas (and the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, too, of course) have also posed interesting.

     But in writing, names are only as "good" as they are fitting for the characters who wear them, and the most fascinating, unusual, or pleasant-sounding name might not be the most appropriate for a particular character. As a historical writer, I find it helpful to look at census records, or lists of popular names during certain time periods. Often, if you read a lot of books written during different time periods, you'll get a pretty good feel of names used during those times. (There are exceptions, such as when authors completely invent - or at least make popular- a name. That name might have become popular because of the book, but it wouldn't have been used before the book was published.)

     One rule you’ll hear many authors say about naming is not to use up any “saved” names you have for your future children. I, too, usually follow this rule with one exception: guy’s names. This is probably because I’m ridiculously picky about boy names and tend to like strong, traditional ones like Edward, Henry, Thomas, Charles, etc. There’s really so few male names that I like that I tend to cave and use them. Hopefully my future sons won’t mind.

     As for girl’s names, on my list you’ll find a lot of quirky names I really like but I'm not quite brave or certain enough to use on my own theoretical daughters.There are also MANY that were on my “names for future children” list from eons ago that I still like but don’t quite make the cut anymore.

     I’ll also look up names based on meaning, depending upon the story. A lot of times I’ll come up with a large-ish list of names that have a certain “feel” and sound good together, and then use that as the name pool for a particular story. (This is especially useful when writing a science fiction or fantasy story where you’re creating a culture, because you want the names to be somewhat cohesive.)

     The thing is, just like story ideas can come from anywhere, so do names. I have a list of them in my Book of Secrets, and I’ve gotten them from a variety of places. Basically, I’m always on the lookout, and when I find a name I like, I write it down. Then, when I’m in the first stages of planning my story, I’ll look on the list and see if a name pops out at me for the character.

     I have a similar list on a different page for last names. I steal last names from EVERYWHERE. From old yearbooks, from other authors off of Goodreads (I mean I steal the actual author’s last name, not their character names), from random people that I meet, from the phone book, browsing through "friends of friends" on facebook, and from my own family history. I also love looking at obituaries and graveyards for both last names and first names. Once I even googled “strange real last names” and got a few keepers.

     So basically I have three lists: one of female names, one of male names, and one of last names. Then comes the really exciting part- putting them together. When I find a first name that I like, I then try to match it up with a last name that sounds good with it. I once learned this tip from a baby naming book, and with a few exceptions, I stick with it. It’s this: if the last name is common or simple, use a more unusual or complicated first name. If the last name is a bit more commonplace, go ahead and use a first name that is more unusual. There are exceptions, but usually I find that names flow together very well if you do this. Of course, with my lists, sometimes I isolate all other factors in my name choices so that I unintentionally put together names that…well, have already been used. Recently, I came up with a list of characters and then accidentally found out (when I was googling something unrelated) that I had unknowingly raided Lord Byron’s family tree. #awkward

     Sometimes, it’s a good idea to google your character’s name to make sure that there’s not a semi-famous person with the same moniker. I know this from experience. 

     Fellow authors, how do you go about naming characters? Is it a task you enjoy, or one you dread? While most of the time naming is not a hassle for me, there have been a few characters who've driven me crazy in this regard. Do you find naming characters easy or difficult? 

11 comments:

OldFashionGirl said...

Wow! What a fun process! I'd interested to hear some of your more unusual cultural names you've found over time, although I realize you might want to keep them private, Take care!~

Naomi Bennet said...

I LOVE naming my characters! Like you, I steal names from all over the place; especially from actors. :-D I have also in one case, invented a name. (It's rather ugly. :-P)

"There’s really so few male names that I like that I tend to cave and use them." SAME. SAME. I love the 'traditional' and 'boring' boys-names. Especially Matthew, James and Henry. Those are my favourites.

Loved this post. There's something about names that fascinates me; I love names. :-)

~ Naomi

Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

Naming characters is one of my favorite parts of writing too! I have a notebook entirely devoted to lists of first and last names (with pages for names of fictional towns and future story titles too). Since all of my books have been American-set so far, I haven't gotten very exotic with my naming, but I do love using "old-fashioned" names that suit my time periods, especially for girls. I find I often gravitate toward Irish and Scottish surnames by personal taste—you'll find a lot of Mc-somethings on my lists.

I also "harvest" surnames from all possible locations—school honor rolls in the newspaper, for instance (the first names nowadays, however, are far too outlandish to be any use to me!). I also watch football and basketball a lot, so frequently get some good ones off the backs of players' jerseys. :)

Savannah Perran said...

I absolutely love the naming process :D. And I am one of those writer people who writes fantasy and is not ashamed to use VERY strange names (one of my most recent new characters was dubbed Cerulean Kane. Another is Aaryanna Quicksilver.). Naming characters is typically pretty easy for me ... probably because I like to do it so much!

Hayden said...

OldFashionGirl: Thanks! Well, I won't share the ones I'm using *quite* yet, but I will say that some South American names have been surprisingly perfect for certain science fiction stories I'm working on. :)

Naomi: Oh, James and Henry are also favorites of mine! (I used to not care for the name Henry, but Mr. Tilney changed that;) And Matthew always makes me think of Matthew Cuthbert :)

Elisabeth Grace: I keep a list of town names and story titles, too! Except it does grow frustrating when you have a lovely story title and yet it doesn't match any future story ideas...

I never thought of the sports player idea, though. Maybe it's because I'm not a sports person, but now I have something to do when my dad and brother are watching football. :)

Savannah: Fantasy characters open up a lot of possibilities! And I agree...things usually are easier when you enjoy them a lot :)

Jennifer Wand said...

I've always enjoyed how Charles Dickens uses names that encompass the personality/behavior of his characters!

Emma Jane said...

I stole the name of one of the editors of Cowboys & Indians magazine for a character in my novel. ;-P (Of course I'm going to mention him in the acknowledgements.)

Yes, I love names too! Family names, town names, county names....they made my brain go crazy with writer-frenzy. I LOOOOOVE NAMING THINGS. Definitely one of my favorite parts of writing stories!

Madeline Osigian said...

Call me crazy, but my baby names list and favorite characters names list are one and the same. I often call my characters names that I would never name my children though, especially if they're the bad guy. Wouldn't want my kids to go through life as the bad guy in their mother's books. ;)

Hamlette said...

I tend to wait for characters to "tell" me their names. If they're reticent, I'll try some out on them, see if they step forward and say, "Yup, that's me," but most of the time, I leave it to my subconscious.

However, sometimes I deliberately name characters something to be an inside joke, or because I specifically want that name in that story for whatever reason. For instance, I made up the name d'Yae for a throw-away character that I was imagining as being played by Dana Andrews -- d'Yae being a verbalization of his initials, DA. But I didn't give him a first name, the character "told" me his first name was Marc (and he wound up being an important character, not a throw-away one, but that's a whole 'nother story). So sometimes it's a combo!

When I'm having to search and search for a name, sometimes I troll IMDB for names of characters in similar movies. Does help.

Lily Schreiber said...

I come up with my names based off their meanings. I like the meaning of a Character's name to reflect their personality, or to be a kind of foreshadowing of their ending.

Taking the name Steven Kenton as an example, I have come up with a story outline for a character which bears that name. Steven Kenton is a common man of no importance when we meet him. However, as we travel through his tale we find him, during an “inciting incident”, standing up for his fellow common men when they become miss treated by their “higher ruler” (e.g. A King, The Government, a CEO, James Jonah Jameson. etc). As a result of this, “standing up”, Steven unintentionally is adopted by the common people as “Their Leader”. Steven leads the people in a revolt where they over through their “higher ruler” and take control for themselves. Steven is then appointed/crowned the new ruler.

How did I come up with this? It all came from the name’s meaning. Kenton means: (In English) Royal Leader. Thus my first thought is that this character should be a King or Ruler of some kind. The question is what kind of king/ruler is this character. Good? Bad? Loved? Hated? To answer this question, I look at the first name, Steven. Steven means: (In English) crowned, honor, reward. This shows me exactly what kind of ruler/king this character is. From just these two names I see the whole story. Since Steven means “crowned” I know he will NOT start off in this story as a ruler/king, because he will be “crowned” later. The meaning of “Honor” in Steven’s names lets me know that he is a good ruler/king. Plus, if he is honored, then the people must think he is a good king. Then the last meaning of Steven, “reward”, tells me that Steven is a reward for something…or some people. However, I must also remember that Steven is a common name, so, he should be a common man. Thus Seven Kenton’s name shows me that he is a “common” “honorable” man who will be “crowned” a “Royal Leader” as a “reward” for something. ENTER STORY HERE...or at least that's how I enjoy doing it.

Hamlette said...

BTW, I tagged you here with the Blogging-About-Blogs tag. Play if you want to :-)

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