Thursday, September 23, 2010

Naming Characters

What would you name these two characters? Tom and Harry? No, that's too common, not colorful and memorable enough. How about Darren and Dave? No, those names are too similar and readers might get confused if they were both in the same story. How about Leonardo and Alfred? What does that say about their ethnic background, their personalities?

When an author is creating new characters for a novel or story, picking names for those characters can be a difficult and delicate task.

For one thing, you don't want your readers getting confused about who is who. I use a simple tool to make sure that not too many of my characters have first names that start with "T" or last names that start with "P." For each book I write, I create and maintain a three column chart. The first column contains the 26 letters of the alphabet, the second contains the first names of my characters next to the letter of alphabet they start with, and the third contains the last names of my characters in the same row as their initial letter. I put ALL of the character names in this chart, even the walk-ons. I try to make sure that no more than two first names and two last names are in each letter row, and if possible, that one is a minor character name and one is a major character name or one is female and one is male. Also, I try to make sure they don't start with the same two letters, like Darren and Dave above. Or the last names of Smith and Smothers.

For my significant characters that will have major roles in the story, I work to pick names that match their ethnicity and location, age (Miriam for an older woman and Brittany for a younger one, for example), and personality. For ethnicity and location, I often use a phone book. My Claire Hanover gift basket designer mysteries have been set in Colorado Springs and Breckenridge, Colorado, and I have used phone books from those cities to pick names for my characters who live in them. I won't take a full name verbatim from the phone book, but will mix first and last names from different listings until I get a name that "feels right" for that character. For my Rocky Mountain Outdoor Adventures series, which is set in Salida, Colorado, I use a Salida phone book.

For personality matching, I will often look up the meaning of first names, especially, on the various baby naming websites to see if the name fits that character's personality. And people do attach emotional meanings to names. I remember playing the Barbie Queen of the Prom game when I was a girl. Everyone wanted to win a date with dreamy Ken and no one wanted one with creepy Poindexter! So a strong action-oriented male figure may have a short, clipped first name like Dirk, Brad, or Curt, while your computer nerd might be Peter, Ronald, or Chester.

Then there's the added complexity when someone wins a character name in one of my books from a mystery conference charity auction. I may find that after I assign their name to a minor character in one of my books that their first name or last name is too close to another character's name. So, I have to change that other character's name, too. Or, maybe the physical look or personality I've given that minor character doesn't match the auction winner's name. So, I'll change the character's hair color, or add glasses, or even change the ethnicity.

Names are important!

If you're a reader, please tell me your favorite fictional character names and why you like them. And if you're a writer, I'd love to know how you go about picking your character names!


Mary said...

Don't really have a favorite character name. I find it takes away from the book if the name is one that causes me to hesitate each time it appears - breaking the flow is so irritating.
I have a notebook and enter names that strike me. A list for each first and last. I too check for meaning because that subject has always fascinated me.

Alan Orloff said...

Excellent suggestion about the alphabet chart--it really helps to avoid similar sounding names. I use a neat tool on the Social Security Administration website that gives you the most popular names for different birth years. That way, I can pick "appropriate" names for characters of different ages.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

My fav fictional name is Atticus Finch.

One of the best character naming tools I have is a thick baby name book. I use it a lot. For last names I research ethnic surnames to match a character. Sometimes I overhear a name and think *wow, what a great name for a character* and file it away for use later. I jot the names for my WIP on a white board, along with short character notes, and consult it while writing. Before I settle on a name, I like to say it several times outloud, or read dialogue from the WIP to take it for a test spin. If it doesn't flow, it gets changed.

KH said...

As a writer, I have to admit that most of my characters' names just pop into my head the first time they appear in the story. Later I may go back and make changes and use a name that more suits a character, or to eliminate similar names in the same story.
I am currently working on a story set in Britain during WWII, and so have been trying to find suitable names for the time and place.
As a reader, some characters are larger than life and this is partially because of their names. I think of Atticus Finch, Scarlett O'Hara, Hester Prynne, Jay Gatsby.

Ricky Bush said...

What I've always found problematic with choosing a character's name is the fact that I taught high school for many, many years. The problem arises when my mind rambles back to a specific student from one of my classes. I have a hard time shaking my image of their personality in order to create a fictional character. Had the same problem with choosing names for my children. It's hard to choose a name that I haven't taught. Guess that's why I invented the name, Mitty Anderson, for one of my characters in my debut RIVER BOTTOM BLUES. Never taught a Mitty--did read about Walter Mitty, though.

Beth Groundwater said...

I really like Alan's idea of using the SSA website to find appropriate names for characters of different ages! And I agree with KH that a character's name really has to "feel" right. Often I don't name my characters until I've gotten to know them somewhat. And yes, Ricky, it is hard if the character name is the same as someone you know in real-life--unless you're modeling that character after the real-life person!

Beth Groundwater said...

And here's another set of questions for Inkspot readers:

Have you ever bought a character name in a charity auction? If so, what book was your character in, and what type of character was it? How did you feel about having a character named after you, and would you do it again?

N. R. Williams said...

I have a huge name resource book that I have lent to a critique partner so I can't tell you the title today. I write fantasy, so pulling from the phone book is not an option. There are also some online character naming tools that I use for fantasy including one for naming elves. I keep a doc. file with the names and their meanings in it.
On a personal note, my favorite name for girls is Jennifer Ann, but with a last name like Williams I didn't name either daughter that because their nickname may have become 'JAW's.
N. R. Williams, fantasy author

Pauline Alldred said...

I use a baby name book. I note the names of my children's friends for young people. Sometimes, I namw a character and then have to write several scenes before I'm sure the name suits that character.

Beth Groundwater said...

As Nancy points out, those who are writing fantasy, science fiction, and ancient historicals have special naming issues that baby books and phone books don't help with. Are there such things as handbooks of fantasy names, futuristic names, or cave people? :)

Darrell James said...

I have a character naming book from Writers Digest Books that I use a lot for first names, and use an L.A. phone book for last names (you can find every ethnicity you would ever want there.) I also use IMDB film credits, there seems to be a lot of interesting names among the credits. I mix first and last names sometimes.

Favoite character name:
"Chili Palmer" It's so right!

Anonymous said...

In my WIP, I realized the name I'd given to a nasty character was fairly common. When I googled the name, I discovered that not only was it a common name, but there were several real-life people in the same profession. I finally came up with a name that I could not find on google, although it did mean delibertely using an alternate spelling for the last name.

G.M. Malliet said...

Interesting post, Beth.

I keep a list of names. If I find a name that intrigues me in the paper or a magazine, I add it to my list. If it's the name of a living person, I make sure to alter it somehow before I use it - maybe just use the first or last name, not both together.

Beth Groundwater said...

I loved the name "Chili Palmer", too! It had the hot, sexy spiciness associated with Chili and the sleazy trickiness associated with "palming."

Yes, to keep the number of potential lawsuits down, it is a good idea to give your villains an uncommon name. :) Often, I'll google my main characters' names, both good and bad, just to double-check that they don't match some celebrity's name.

Nezzy said...

Character names just pop into my head. My very vivid childhood imagination never left when I became and adult. My brain is filled with all kinds of useless stuff unless ya need to pull up characters.

God bless ya and have a most beautiful day!!!

Diana said...

I love great characters names. I've actually put down books that had what I considered ill-fitting names for characters. So here's a few of my faves:
Angel Dare the porn star in Christa Faust's "Money Shot".
Joe Pickett, the forest ranger in CJ Box's series.
Harry Bronson, doesn't that sound like a cop? It is, in L.C. Hayden's series set in Dallas.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Like the chart w/ columns idea. Thanks for the tip!

Beth Groundwater said...

It sounds like your brain is full of useful stuff, not useless!

We must have similar reading tastes--Joe Pickett and Harry Bronson are two of my favorite male mystery protagonists. I really like their authors, too. :)

Patricia Winton said...

Since much of my work is set in Italy, I have to deal with names here. I came across a book of Italian surnames at a used book stall last year; it give surnames, origins, and regional variations. One section gives regional origins, an important factor since Italians can tell you where a person's family is from by hearing the surname! I also found a book of Italian first names which links names to saints and the zodiac, useful in selecting birthdays and personality traits.

NC Weil said...

I use place names local to the story when I can - for example, I give characters who live in Estes Park lake names: Odessa, Fern, Mills, Finch, Copeland etc. (first names). I try to play with the cadence too - if Odessa is a no-nonsense woman, her last name will be one syllable.
The best writer for names is Salman Rushdie - read "The Ground Beneath her Feet" - every name is brilliant!

Beth Groundwater said...

What a great idea--to use place names in the setting for character names!

Also, Patricia, your book sounds like quite a find. A lot of us would like to have such a book for our own unique settings.

cttiger said...

I jot down names from TV show credits that sound interesting, then mix and match, being careful about age and era.

Co9 in Paradise said...

When reading a story I want my favorite character, and all the characters, to have names that I don't have to struggle with mentally. If the name is difficult to pronounce, or just doesn't seem to fit the time period, or the personality of the character,etc. I am pulled away from the movement of the story. I find myself struggling mentally with a more appropriate name. Every time I am pulled out of the story to seek a more appropriate name, the story loses something magical.