“A Rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” That may be so in Shakespeare’s world, but not so much in our writing. Imagine reading the classic novel, Gone with the Wind, if the heroine was not Scarlett, but Pansy. I read that was her original name until a wise editor suggested to change it. As strong as the story is, I can’t imagine it affecting us the way it does if Pansy had been the heroine, can you? How would To Kill a Mockingbird affect you if Scout were Agnes, or if Bo was called Clark or Rhett? In this age when celebrities name their offspring Apple, Blanket, and every other imaginable inanimate object, it might be tempting to come up with unique and presumably unforgettable character names. In most cases, that might not be the best decision.
Personally, I am no more impulsive in naming my characters than I was in naming our offspring. They were going to carry the name through life, and the females would have the option of adding their spouse’s name should they marry. My first newspaper job was writing the nuptial news, and I came across some pretty ludicrous combinations. Unless we writers want to make the name a point of contention in our story, we need to consider our options carefully. I start out with a general idea of my characters, but it isn’t until I’ve done a lot of agonizing soul-searching to find the perfect name that they grow flesh and bone. Some names are common to a region, socioeconomic status, or even faith. Others sound different in Brooklyn, Los Angeles or Providence. Consider how they might be shortened or turned into a nickname.
It is often tempting to name characters after our friends or relatives. I know of one writer that lets someone pay to have their name in her stories and then donates the fee. I can’t see myself doing that. We writers must give our characters flaws and challenges. When it is someone we know, we might be cautious not to offend and wind up creating a character that is too blah to be interesting.
Given names sometimes blend or clash with the character’s personality and appearance. If we want a touch of humor, we might name a klutz Grace or an underachiever Les. But mostly we look for names that fit so well that we cannot imagine any other choice, a name that doesn’t outshine the personality. In some ways, it defines the character.
I needed a strong name for the teen boy in Singin’ Somebody Else’s Song. He was ranch-born, sturdy of spirit and body, morally incorruptible, so I browsed the dictionary of Bible names for a week, saying the names aloud until Gideon clicked and an image of him formed. I needed something rural for a surname and rummaged through my vision of ranch life until Bullock seemed a perfect fit. Gideon Bullock came to life.
We have some great resources online and in specialized books to help us come to the important decision. If you are writing a contemporary story, a quick check on the web will reveal the most popular names in descending order in any given year. Other sites give you names common in other countries and other eras. You can find surnames and their meanings and origins. If you are writing science fiction or myth, the dictionary of new age names is helpful. I won’t list addresses here. They are multitudinous and often change in the web search.
As we expand our cast of characters, we might keep in mind that too similar names become confusing to our readers. I got completely lost recently in a story with two Ed’s and a Rick, Nick, and Dick. I had to keep flipping back to when each was introduced to keep them straight. If readers have to start jotting notes, we’re in trouble. It’s a good idea to make an alphabetized list of your entire cast, including those walk-in’s that say their piece and disappear from the story. Look for and consider changing rhyming names [Harry and Larry, etc.], and names that start with the same letter or sound. Can you see your way clear to rename one of them? Make sure that not everyone has one-syllable names [Sam, Bill, Tim]. Consider an alternative to names that are difficult to pronounce or spell.
For those who write for children, it is especially important not to get too cutesy with names, especially when it comes to anthropomorphic stories. Editors find Barry Bear and Perry Parakeet and the like a big turn-off. I once made an exception to that in my Penrod and Griswold early reader series. There was no better name for the little porcupine, the grumpy old bear’s nemesis. I could get away with it because once I gave their full names only once. After that, their ID is established and not only unnecessary but annoying and wordy.
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Vijaya Bodach: http://www.vijayabodach.blogspot.com
Kristi Holl: http://kristiholl.net/writers-blog/
Christine Kohler: http://www.christinekohlerbooks.com