Monday, April 20, 2009

What's In a Name?

Recently, a couple in New Jersey was surprised when their request to have their local supermarket decorate their three year old son’s birthday cake was refused. Why did the supermarket refuse this request? Because of the boy’s given name. The store felt writing “Happy Birthday Adolf Hitler”, on a cake was in poor taste and just plain wrong.

Obviously, little Adolf’s parents don’t understand the power of a name. But writers need to realize that a name is not just a name. If it’s done right a character’s name will be unique and memorable. Who can forget characters like Scarlet O’Hara, Atticus Finch, Holden Caulfield, or even Harry Potter? Here are a few things to consider when naming your characters:

Make sure the name you choose reflects the era your story is set in.
You wouldn’t name the heroine in your medieval novel Debbie or Jennifer. Pick a name appropriate to the time period by doing some research on names common to that era. Be careful that the name you choose for your heroine was not a name exclusively used for males during that era. If you are writing a contemporary, and your characters were born in the US in the last century, check out the Social Security Name Popularity List for that year.

While you want to be authentic to the period, don’t forget that modern readers are going to be reading your story. The names must be something a modern reader can relate to.
Anne Marble in her article for Writing World says that Egbert was once a popular Anglo-Saxon name meaning “bright spear” but a modern reader might think that your warrior sounds like an accountant.

Choose a name by meaning.
J.K. Rowling is very good at giving characters names that get meaning across without being too obvious. Names like Sirius Black and Remus Lupin let us know instantly their relationship to dogs and wolves. The Weasley family name sounds rather like the middle class, average, slightly bungling family they are.

If your character is a medieval warrior you’ll want to give him a name that reflects that. And if he’s a modern warrior, such as a police officer or a soldier, a strong heroic name is in order. Think about names that reflect not only who your character is in the story, but also your character’s background and the background of your character’s parents. In my novella “Burning Love” I named my female character Iris because her parents were free spirits. The flower child name Iris seemed to suit her.

Avoid weird names, cute spellings and uncertain pronunciations.
Some writers, in an effort to give their characters unique names, may push the envelope a bit too far. Characters end up with such unusual names that they jar the reader every time she reads it. Or perhaps the name is ordinary but the spelling unusual, such as Dyanah instead of Diana. Anything that takes the reader out of the story should be avoided.

One of my pet peeves, especially in science fiction or fantasy, is an unpronounceable name. I judged a futuristic contest entry once in which the main male character’s name was so unusual that I stumbled over it every time I read it. A way to come up with a unique, but still pronounceable name might be to combine two common names. For instance, combine Donna and Veronica to create Donica. However unique you make a name, be sure that it is easy to pronounce and spell. A good example is Bilbo Baggins from “Lord of the Rings”. Unusual name but still easy to say.

Avoid names that sound the same.
If all the characters have a name that starts with the same letter, it’s going to be distracting to the reader and hard for her to tell them apart. The same is true of names that sound the same, such as Craig and Greg. In real life people may have six kids whose names all start with T but don’t do it to your characters.

Choose surnames that fit.
Genealogy sources can be a good place to look for surnames. The phone book is also a good place. I can find a surname from almost any ethnic background in my city’s phone book. If you have an unusual first name, try pairing it with a common last name, and vice versa (eg. Indiana Jones). Say the first and last together a few times out loud to ensure they sound good together. For more information on selecting surnames check out the Google directory of surname sites.

How do you choose your characters’ names? What is the worst character name you’ve either read or written? What’s your pet peeve about character names?

20 comments:

Captain Hook said...

For my first draft, characters only get a first name. And I tend to go for the ordinary. Usually long ordinary so that there can be a nickname.

Then again, my stories are all contemporary and set in the US, so I'm not worried about cultural or time period stuff :)

I do run into the problem of names sounding the same. I need to change one of the characters in CS because right now I have Jack (good guy) and Jake (bad guy) which people are getting confused.

Karen said...

Great post today, Jana. Naming characters is not my strong suit. If I could hire someone to do it for me I would so thanks for the tips.

I can't remember any awful character names but I do have a favorite writer who uses unique character names. When I first heard the names Wrath, Rhage, Zsadist (my favorite), Butch, Vishous and Phury they seems a little over the top to put it mildly. But once you get into the books created by J.R. Ward, they really work. But then I have a thing for vampires.

I have to agree with you, if I can't pronounce a name it turns me off the book.

ban said...

that goes for me too and i read/write fantasy, which means i run into marielanothria and theonialle all the time :D

ban said...

oh, and ditto on the vampires too - love movies like underworld and blade ...

Jana Richards said...

Hi Captain Hook,
I write contempories too, and I've run into trouble with people getting confused with my characters because of their names. I once named almost everyone in a story with a name starting with a C. The funny thing was, I didn't even realize it until someone pointed it out to me!

Thanks for signing in today, Captain.
Jana

Jana Richards said...

Hi Karen,
Those characters sound like bad, bad guys! Very scary. But that's the point, isn't it? They're vampires and they're probably supposed to be scary. Those names tell us instantly that these characters are to be feared. Notice that while they are unique names, they are not unprounceable. They can be easily sounded out as you read so you don't trip all over them. They don't jar you out of that reader's trance. Like you say, an unprounceable name often turns readers off to the book.

Jana

Jana Richards said...

Hi ban,
Names like that drive me to distraction. The name in the contest entry that I was talking about in my post had a silent first letter (according to the writer), followed by an apostrophe and then I string of letters I found impossible to pronounce. It was a good entry but I couldn't get past that name.

Jana

Janet C. said...

Great post, Jana. My main characters all come to me with first names intact. Last names are my job, but their given name is set in stone. Spelling can be changed - Lady Bells hero, Hugh, went through a couple of drafts as Hew (researched), but I just couldn't read it without thinking of chopping something up :)

Secondary characters do come with names, but often get changed. In my contemporary, Gillian's father's name is Jack. I think it's perfect, but my hero is Mac and I'm afraid the two are too close in sound to remain as is. Jack might be getting a name change.

And as for those secondary characters - I like certain names and tend to use them over and over again. My favorite is Anne. Anne shows up all the time. It's a good thing my hero and heroine come with names or they would be stuck with the same names in every story (Anne and Thomas probably).

Interesting post.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Janet,
Yes, I noticed Mac and Jack when I was critiquing your contemporary. Good names both, but maybe not together?

Sometimes names come to me and sometimes they don't. In my current WIP my heroine had one or two other names before I settled on Bridget. The other names just didn't feel right. Thank goodness for find and replace. I've got two secondary characters in this story with names that I've used for secondary characters before (I've never used the same name for a main character in two stories). I was going to change their names, but they feel right for these characters, so for now at least, they will stay as Ben and Rebecca.

Cheers,
Jana

Captain Hook said...

I love those books too, Karen! Fell in love with V in the first book.

Mine don't always come with a definite name. Cassie did. I wanted her name to be the same as a famous psychic in history. An irony directed at her parents who named her but didn't believe in her ability at first. What better name than Cassandra (cursed by Zeus to always know the future but never be believed) and Sylvia (as in Browne).

In Absolutely Livid, I had the title and knew Livid would be the superhero name, but I had no idea at her Clark Kent name. I finally (I think) decided on Olivia because it's a reasonable jump between the two for a young teen.

Others I just kind of draw from a hat. Or the CC name generator.

Erika said...

My characters have been coming to me with first names same goes for my secondary characters. As far as last names I went to a website and picked what I thought sounded like it was suppose to be together.

My favorite is Rhage. *sigh* I love that man, I mean vampire. The silent H's drive Silver crazy. It makes me giggle. Is that wrong?

Karen said...

Amen, Jana. I'd be in huge trouble without Find and Replace.

Captain Hook and Erika, can't wait to get my hands on Rehvenge's story.

Jana Richards said...

Hey Captain,
I haven't had a chance yet to read your story on the beta blog. I'll do it as soon as I can. What great background for the name of your character Cassandra, especially since she follows the same path as the original Cassandra.

I absolutely love the title "Absolutely Livid". What a great title. Olivia is the perfect name for her alter ego. They both can go by the nickname Liv.

Jana

Jana Richards said...

Hey Erika,
You're lucky that names come to you that easily. That's not always the case for me. What website did you use for your last names? I'd love to hear about it.

I am so far behind in my reading. I've heard a lot of good things about J.R. Ward's books. I'm definitely going to have to check her out.

Jana

Jana Richards said...

Ah, yes Karen, the wonders of Find and Replace. It's not quite my friend the way Google is, but it's right up there.

Cheers,
Jana

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Jana, great post! I'll be sure to check those links - thanks.

Naming the characters is usually the first thing I do. Does that mean I'm a character writer - like a character driven story? I don't know, but I need to know who my characters are before I can write about them.

I listend to an audiobook once that had 2 similar names for the heroine and her friend. From the way the narrator spoke, I was never sure which one was speaking.

I called the hero in my contemporary ms Brewster Jorgenson because I wanted a real 'country' name and I wanted to give him an instant background, which the Scandinavian name does. The heroine calls him 'Brew' when they start dropping their guards with each other. But, my critic partner at the time didn't like it saying it reminded her of a bully (like Brutus). I thought long and hard about it, kept the name, and entered it in some contests. No one else said anything about the name and one judge even gave me a 246 out of 250!

Most of the time, however, my names are common or Biblical.

Jana Richards said...

Hey Anita,
I like the name Brewster and I think Brew is a great nickname. You were smart in signalling his ethnic background with his surname, especially if that background is important to the story.

Sometimes one person's great name is another person's fingernails on chalk. If only one person didn't like the name, it's not an issue.

Jana

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Great topic Jana. I come across some pretty unintelligible names in fantasy sometimes, and they great my nerves. Those names that feel long and elaborate for the sake of being long and elaborate. I don't mind a flowing name (elves always get them for some reason) if it actually flows off the tongue, but it shouldn't take time to pronounce. There's always an element of error in pronouncing created names, but if I can at least find a way they sound right to me, I'm content.

On the other end of the spectrum though, there are troubles with ethnic names sometimes. If you don't have a grasp of French, the names in a series like Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel books can be a bit off-putting, but she encourages people to pronounce them however sounds right. Likewise names accurate to Irish culture are something I find very off-putting, as I know I'm probably pronouncing them wrong, but don't know the correct approach. My Irish lit prof once told me to look at the word, decide how it looks like it should be pronounced... and then do the opposite. I still read words like 'sidhe', 'Niamh' and 'Caoilte' differently than I would say them out loud. Something in my brain just can't make 'sidhe' sound like 'shee' in my head. Still, I love them in books for their atmosphere (when appropriate).

Christopher Paolini (Eragon) gets around that by including an extensive pronunciation guide at the back of his books, detailing everything from characters and locations to bits of the italicized languages. It's all very fascinating, but it never seemed to flow for me. Tolkien felt real, felt like I could adapt the names and words and not stop and sound them out each time, but something just doesn't click for me with Paolini.

Like most people here, I find baffling names a really difficult spot to get around in a story, but I can't recall anything where I gave up on the book because of the names, although that might stop me from buying it in the first place. If things are just unintelligible or intentionally preposterous, I don't feel like I want to put my time into it.

For my own fantasy, I try to develop names out of regional language sets (anglo-saxon, italian, etc) so that if I pull any tricks with the language (silent letters like some g's in Italian and a lot of end-letters in French), the reader will potentially pick up on it and interpret it the same. If not, I try to make sure it will at least not sound awful if pronounced differently. I've heard several pronunciations for Alkaia, and none of them seem unpleasant to me :)

Linda said...

The names I dislike the most are Russian names. They sound so much alike and confuse me when I am trying to read a book. Needless to say, I don't read Russian stories.
Second would be the 'fantasy' book names. Too weird for my taste in most circumstances.

ban said...

hayley,
you should hear guys with nothing higher than a video game IQ try to pronounce my name :D