What’s in a name?

your name ribbon
Yes, yet another gif from your name. :p

When I start a new story, I don’t really focus too much on character names right away.  I’ll give them a placeholder name that I think fits at least for now.  If it sticks, it sticks.  If it needs changing, well… that’s what Find/Replace is for in MS Word!

I rarely assign a name based on what the name means.  Instead, I go with how their name — and sometimes its spelling — resonates with the character that I’m creating. I’ll at least ensure the name fits the character’s culture, but that’s about as far as I’ll take it.  The character’s name, in my opinion, should fit their family’s dynamic.

For instance, Caren Johnson from my trilogy:  she has a very unexciting, stereotypical last name, as she’s supposed to come from a very blue-collar family that’s been in the police force for ages.  And her first name is deliberately spelled with a C and not a K, even though her Mendaihu name starts with a K, to hint that there’s a bit of a rebel in her.  She’s someone who doesn’t want to stick out, but she doesn’t exactly want to fit in, either.

Now, did I really think that at the time of creation?  To be honest, no.  Her name just sort of popped up when I started the book and it sounded right to me.  It wasn’t until a few chapters in that I realized that the personality I imagined from the name could be imprinted on the character.

Yeah, I do tend to do a lot of things bassackwards, but hey, if it works…!

Anyway…

For the new project, have the names of about a dozen or so characters.  All but one was created in the same way: just a name out of thin air that sounded right to me.  I still do this for the same reason, actually.  I usually have a basic idea of who the character is and what they’re about, so the name becomes a memetic or an anchor for the idea.

Sometimes the original name I came up with no longer fits and I have to change it.  I changed five or six names in the trilogy over the course of writing it, one major change taking place well into the revision period.  And that’s okay too.  Sometimes the name I come up with is just a placeholder, waiting for me to figure the character out a little more before I can assign a much better fit.  I’ve already decided to change the name of one of the main characters in my next project, because I’ve finally figured out his own family background.  Thankfully, the only places I’ll need to change this is in my notes, as I haven’t started the first draft yet.

This process of naming characters might not be for everyone, but it seems to work well for me.  I like the idea of a character’s name not always being a perfect fit; it reveals part of their personal background and fleshes it out.  That background may have nothing to do with the story itself, but it certainly could help reveal why they might act as they do.

Names

I’ve heard all kinds of advice about names in fiction.  Some say you should really think it over before you chose a character’s name; others just suggest that you make the name believable and pronounceable.  I think most of us have grown out of needing a Dickensian hit-you-over-the-head name like jilted sweetheart Rosa Bud from The Mystery of Edwin Drood, of course.

What makes a good character name, though?

I’ll admit that I don’t think too much about it.  Just enough to make sure the name fits the character I have in mind.  I go with the sound of the name and the mood of the character.  Alec Poe’s name came to me when I wanted someone whose family was part of the collegiate crowd, and yet doesn’t quite fit his personality due to him being adopted.  Caren Johnson’s name was chosen because I wanted her to have a simple name despite her very important fate, to the point that I spelled her name with a C instead of an K.

Back when I was first trying out this whole writing gig, I didn’t even go that far; I just picked names of people I knew.  I knew three Scotts in junior high and used that as the Infamous War Novel’s central character.  I knew a few Stephens in high school and used that for Belief in Fate.   [‘Stephen’ became my go-to placeholder name for a lot of my stories at the time, especially around 1986 when I found it was Morrissey’s first name.]  Come to think of it, I knew absolutely no Simons, and that was probably my first not-based-on-anyone character, again in BiF.  I used Simon again with my anti-me Murph character (his full name is Simon Murphy — yes, it is in fact the same character who gets a cameo in The Persistence of Memories!), getting ‘Murph’ from the nickname of one of my managers at the college library.

It really wasn’t until 1993 when I started writing science fiction that I actually started focusing on choosing the right name, going just a slight bit further than just ‘because it sounds good’.  The characters in the original Vigil story were newer and better names for older IWN characters.  Most of the names in True Faith were chosen for a specific reason: there’s a family whose full names are all two syllables and the first name has double vowels; another family’s first names were only a single syllable and contained either O’s or A’s.

That’s when I realized that naming conventions could be used as a way to describe a family’s culture.  I could have a bit of fun with them by briefly telling the reader about the character’s background without actually having to do an infodump.  [There is a reason why the Shalei name is so prevalent in the trilogy: it’s an extremely common Meraladian clan name like the Vietnamese ‘Nguyen’ or the English ‘Smith’.  It’s meant to show that they are the largest Meraladian clan in this story’s world, even if they aren’t all closely related.]

Since then I’ve stayed with my own naming conventions, especially with the new projects.  There are a few characters named after the person or character that inspired them, and there are a few whose name fit their background.  I still don’t linger all that long on finding the best one, just one that rings true to who they are and what they’re about.  I’ve expanded over the years to include more names from different countries and cultures as well.

Do I have a list of names I’d like to use?  Sure I do!  It’s in my head, of course…one of those ‘I should use that somewhere’ lists that come up whenever I’m reading or watching something.  I own a few baby name books and name-meaning books as well.  I don’t think I’ve ever used a name specifically because it means anything, though.  More that I’ll use it backwards; a character I’ve already named might have some secondary or minor traits that fit in with said meaning, just to expand on their background.  Either way, it’s a necessary part of the writing process, and I’ve come to have fun with it.

 

And now I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve used the word ‘name’ so many times in this post it sounds like a silly sound effect in my head. :p