Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Anne with an "e" knew what she was talking about: What to Consider as You Name your Characters

I renamed a character this week.

I have a thing about names. Some authors are pretty relaxed about them. I think that's great - it's just not me. When I create a character, the name is one of the first things I have to nail down. Otherwise, it's like making a friend whose name you don't know - who does that?

(Actually, I do sometimes. I'm not always great with remembering names. But when it happens, it's VERY uncomfortable and certainly not ideal. Not in real life, and not with made-up people).

With the book I'm working on now, it really became necessary to change several names of central characters. For a couple people, that was fine and downright easy.

But the others? Not so much. You see, these people are half French and half Italian. They're practically a super-species, if by "super" you mean "super stubborn, super strong-willed, super opinionated." And you know what?  They did not appreciate the name change. Not. One Bit. One character even flat-out refused.

The trickiest, though, was the main character, the heroine - I couldn't get her name to stick.

I tried "Ava." Pretty, right? Elegant, right? The name had all of the right things going for it (aside from being in the top 5 girl's names for 2010).  But Ava didn't stick - it was like putting shirt onto a toddler who had no intention of staying dressed.  She just kept shrugging out of it every time my back was turned.

When I name characters, I rely on two websites - Nameberry and Behind the Name. The former has names plus a certain amount of commentary, and lots and lots of lists per name type. Behind the Name is more etymological - it has names, meanings, and origins, so if you need a French name or an Irish name or a Serbian name, they're all in easy, definable lists. I'll flip between the two sites as I come up with names and variations on names that I want to try out on a character.

When you try out names, plug the name into an existing chapter (preferably one where the name comes up a few times). Ask yourself -

  • How does the name look on the page, within the text?

  • Does the name match the character's dialogue and gestures?

  • How does the name fit with the other character's names? If it's too similar, which name do you want to change?

  • Is it easy to for the reader to discern the pronunciation? This is particularly important if the name is in the title.

I strongly recommend, when you can, naming character groups at the same time. Whether it's friends, family, or coworkers, that way you remember the names and can see how they interact with each other.

A few things to keep in mind when naming groups -

  • Friends - if you're naming a friend group, the friends should sound as though they were named by different sets of parents. Depending on the group of friends, the names may have a similar feel - if they're all prep-school girls, their names are going to be more WASP-y than if it's three girls who met at a summer camp on the California coast. In Simply Sara, the young women Sara finds herself befriended by are named Sonnet (possibly favorite character name EVER), Britta, and Meg.  In Plain Jayne, Jayne's friends are Kim, Gemma, and Joely.

  • Sibling sets - should sound as if the names came from the same parents, obviously. In both Jayne and Sara, the kids in the Burkholder family have biblical names but not always traditional biblical spellings. I wanted Sara to be a Sara, no "h" so it would be a little more modern. Because of that, her oldest sister became Rebecca rather than Rebekah. In my current book, all of the siblings have either French or Italian names, and ideally names that sound or look the same in both languages.

Now, in a lot of real sibling sets, the names might look or sound rather alike - starting with the same first letter, or have spellings with a certain letter. In fiction, though, it might be difficult to discern on the page and a pain for you to remember which one's which.

For your own sanity -

  • Keep a list of character names in a separate document. Anytime you use a name, write it down. This will be VERY helpful later on, especially when you're doing edits and sequels.

So those are my tips - what are your methods for character naming? As a reader, what kind of names do you prefer? Have any character names tripped you up?

1 comment:

  1. I LOVE Behind the Name. :) I use it for both first and surnames. And I've had characters change their names on me before. I also use The Baby Name Survey Book. Colleen Coble recommended it, and it tells you what people think of when they see the name. :)


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