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Saturday, June 10, 2017

You Named me What?!

Posted by #R. Ann Siracusa


Think about it!. There will be certain ones from movies, TV, books, video games and so on that always come to mind. Now think about the names of these characters. Is the name part of the reason you remember the character? Does the name fit the personality of the character? Would Scarlet O'Hara be as memorable if her name had been Judy Smith?


There's a plethora of advice available on naming fictional characters. All sources seem to agree that choosing character names is an important part of structuring a novel. The name is an important part of the fictional person's character just as your name is part of who you are.
Character names do matter, and bestowing them can be as stressful as naming your baby.  In fact, in a way you are naming your baby. You are breathing life into a character and creating a new being.

Some perfectly good names can be poor choices for your novel, or they may be fine but not as fitting as they could be. The author doesn't really know all the ins-and-outs until the character begins to speak, take actions, and make decisions during the course of the first several chapters.

Jennifer Moss writes that authors often make the mistake of thinking they are responsible for naming the characters. But in the fictional world, just as it is in the real world, it is the character's parents who choose the name. Take that into consideration.

Be observant, listen, and write down ideas. Inspiration for names are all around us. I keep a list of interesting names I run onto. Eventually, a character and circumstance will show up that is appropriate for the name.
Author Dan Schmidt suggests starting with people you know either because of their interesting names or characteristics. Get a map and look at names of towns, cities, rivers, streets. Pay attention to movie credits and products. When he wrote "Playa Perdida" he named one of the characters Charlotte Pipe after a length of PVC tubing he saw in a lumberyard in North Carolina.
His approach is to write first names and last names on separate index cards, so later you want match them up for a specific fictional character. 
Most of the many articles and books I reviewed give "Rules of Thumb" for naming characters which are substantially the same. Do's and Don’ts are essentially two sides of the same coin; it all depends on how you word the sentence. I've limited the suggestion to those I believe are most important.

Thumbs Up Do's 
● Keep names short and pronounceable, even in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Historicals.
Avoid character and place names that are awkward to read or pronounce. 
Even if readers don't say the names aloud, they still pronounce them in their heads. Some awkward names cannot be avoided because you're using them in historical context, and scenes set in one-of-a-kind locations that are vital to the story but happen to have clunky names. Give them nicknames or shortened versions.
● Think about your character's physical appearance, ethnicity, personality, profession, interests, social status, and backstory.
Names should suit the character. Unlike Parents naming a new baby, authors have the advantage of making the character's features and personality whatever they want to fit the story.
● Make the name appropriate for the year and location when named.  
Take into account the names used at the time in history this character was named by the parents, in the context of the location. Take into account the character's ethnicity and national origin
● Speak the name aloud

Thumbs Down Watch-Out-Fors
In my opinion, there are no specific Don’ts. Therefore, I characterize these rules of thumb as "Watch-Out-Fors". Be aware, think about the name, and make an informed decision.
● Watch out for one character with many names. 

Because the author knows the character, he can read the manuscript many times and not see any problem with multiple names. In reality, we often use different names under different circumstances, or different people refer to the same person by another name or nickname.

In real life, a person named Manfred Carlyle McDonald, who is a lieutenant in the military and is also a medical doctor, could be referred to as Mr. McDonald, Doctor MacDonald, Lieutenant McDonald, McDonald, Manny, Mac, Fred, or all of those.
In fiction, the reader tends to associate the character with the name first used to introduce him. When that same character shows up again, sometimes many pages later, and is referred to by another name, it can be confusing.
● Watch out for many character with similar names.  
Authors are smart enough to figure out that two characters shouldn't have the same name. The only exception I can think of would be a child named after a parent, but that would have to be necessary for the storyline.
A more frequent problem results when two or more characters have names that begin with the same letter [Sam and Sydney] or same sound [Craig and Greg]. This is particularly confusing it the two characters spend a lot of time together.

● Avoid famous names
Unless your novel is the fictionalized version of a real event that involves a famous person, famous names are distracting and focus the reader's attention on the famous character [real or fictional] and pulls the reader out of the story. Plus, using a real name may have legal consequences. Even if not using the full name, people will associate characteristics with the famous character and prejudge the character. It can work as a plot device, or if the parents had a reason for naming their child after someone famous.
While Princess Diana may be a perfectly fine name for a character in a fantasy, using it will evoke images of the Princess Diana of our world and distract the reader.
● Avoid trends, overly strange names, and androgynous names. Sometimes names are trendy, particularly those of characters in current movies, TV, video games, etc. Those often become overused.

You want names readers accept and feel comfortable with, even though "cute" spellings exist, particularly today. Watch out for names that could be either gender, unless there is a specific and explained reason at the beginning.
Computers make changing a character's name somewhat easy, but once an author starts using a name, it's often hard to get rid of it. But if it doesn't work, or has some unforeseen connotation you don't want, ditch it! You are not really killing your children.
The caution I would add is to use "find and replace" for all references, including nicknames. Remember Manfred Carlyle McDonald, who might be referred to as Mr. McDonald, Doctor MacDonald, Lieutenant McDonald, McDonald, Manny, Mac, or Fred.
Don't be afraid to change the character's name if it doesn't work, just be careful when you do it.

with a novel by R. Ann Siracusa
The Last Weekend In October
Murder Mystery by R. Ann Siracusa

All For A Dead Man's Leg
Book 1 – Tour Director Extraordinaire Series
Romantic Suspense by R. Ann Siracusa



Melissa Keir said...

Wonderful! I spend a lot of time thinking about the characters' names. I need to see how it sounds for them. :)

Tina Donahue said...

Great post! I learned early on to match character names to traits. I also use the alphabet for first/last names and as I choose them, I mark off the beginning letters. That way I never have a Tim, Tom, Troy, Tab, Tav, Ted, Tate in the same book. Yes, I've read books where the major characters' names all began with the same letter and had one syllable each. Talk about confusing.

jean hart stewart said...

Great advice, as usual. I hate books where names of different characters start with the same letters, so I get confused. Names are so important. I've been know to change halfway through a book when a name proves confusing.

Cara Marsi said...

Interesting. Thanks.

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