Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Picking Character Names

Hercule Poirot

Elizabeth Bennet

Percy Blakeney


I'm in the midst of a rewrite on a first draft of  new manuscript and decided that the protagonist's name isn't fitting the character that I ended up writing. Because I don't use outlines, but just sit down and write, a character arc will sometimes head in a direction that I didn't expect when I started the novel. For this latest manuscript I began with a contemporary name, because the protagonist is a contemporary musician and it fit. But as the story continued, it  became clear that my musician was steeped in classical music and the contemporary name felt out of place. I spent quite a bit of time trying names before I found a substitute that I believe might work. 

A little bit about the process of picking a name; for me the last name is far more important than the first, because my convention is to refer to characters by their last names throughout the book. Only when they have internal dialogue do I sometimes default back to the first name. This doesn't always follow for my lead protagonist, but it will for others. For example, for the first time I introduce my protagonist I'll write:

Emma Caldridge gazed out the open SUV window at the beauty of the savannah, unaware that in the tall grasses a man lurked. 
But once I've introduced those around Emma, I'll use their last names and they refer to her as "Caldridge." So for the bulk of the book everyone is called by their last names. Only Emma remains and in my next book in that series I'm using Caldridge as well. It's tough, because this particular character feels like an old friend, but I'll finish the draft and see how it works.

Another thing I'm switching up is my use of traditional "male" or "female" names. It probably surprises no one that as a woman with a gender neutral name, I lean toward those for my female characters as well. Well, with one exception. My all time favorite name is Elizabeth, after my Great, Grand Aunt Elizabeth who was the original feminist in our long line of strong women. Each time I write a new female character I find myself defaulting to Elizabeth.

So, if you're writing a character, think long and hard about the last name and the impression that you want to convey with that name. A Taylor or Brittany will often have a different, more modern connotation than Ruth or Adele or Claudia, but if you're using last names throughout the book it's the last name that you'll be living with for the next year or so.

And the last name that I picked for my musician? It's Marcus. We'll see how that works for the revision.

And I'd love to hear your thoughts on names. Any that fit perfectly? Any fails? Let me know in the comments below.

Best, Jamie

12 comments:

  1. Jamie, you are so right about the importance of a character's name...especially considering the time frame of the story. I recall attending various writing workshops where we were told to always use character names beginning with different letters (so one should not have key people named Ransom, Reynolds, Kathy and Kristen in the same story). On a humorous note, I remember in one of my earlier thriller, I named a very difficult company manager Stanley O. Bollinger -- so everyone could naturally refer to him by his initials. Great post - thanks.

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  2. Great topic. I do enjoy picking names, but it's particularly hard to pick names when they're not English names. The novel I'm currently polishing is full of Russian names - and you need a first name, a surname, and the middle name, the patronymic, which reflects the character's father's first name. Oh, and then there's the nickname. My main character's full name is Nikolai Ivanovich Petrov - indicating his father was named Ivan. However, if he had a sister named, say, Anna, she'd be Anna Ivanovna Petrov - because the female version of the father's name ends with ovna and not ovich. My protagonist's nickname - Kolya - which an American might not realize was the diminutive for Nikolai. So, writing characters from another culture means researching not just names but naming customs. It also helps to run the names by someone from that country or culture to be sure you're not naming your character something that might have a meaning that you didn't intend.

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    1. I admire your ability to keep it all straight. And the unintended name meaning can be a real trap, can't it? I usually run names through experts as well. But mistakes can happen even with experts. Like the episode of "Homeland" where the local person hired to write graffiti in Arabic on a wall designed for the set wrote "Homeland is racist" and no one caught it until it aired.

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  3. For some reason I am all or nothing with names—the character ‘s name either pops into my head immediately and I can’t imagine calling them anything else, or I have no idea what to call them. In the latter case I usually figure out their general age and go othe Social Security website with the top baby names for the year in which they would have been born.
    And, as I’m sure most writers do, I run the risk of overusing certain go-tos: Josh, Brandon, Jenna and most names beginning with D or J.

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  5. So glad you're closing in on finishing your new book, Jamie. One of my biggest challenges is the "feel" of the name. I remember naming a heroine Ann for about half the book, but she wasn't coming off with the toughness and complexity I needed. Once I called her Eva, I had the character. She was alive for me. This often happens with male names for me, too. I'm endlessly tinkering with them. I remember in Masquerade I needed to change the director of the CIA - DCIA - from male to female. I'd already written several chapters with the character. Out of desperation, I ran an experiment -- I kept the last name, changed the first to a female name, and did a search for all "him" and "he" pronouns, changing them to "her" and "she." It was astounding that kept most of the physical description, including the stoutness, and no one ever questioned that "she" started as a "she." Fun, and illuminating for me as an author.

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  6. Names! Don't get me started! Too late... I own multiple baby books that I refer to often when starting a story, also the internet. My characters are like royal babies, sometimes going nameless for days, until I think of the right one. In the beginning, the lack of a name stopped me in my tracks, and I couldn't go any further with writing until I had a name. Now, my nameless characters end up being called XXX, and I go back and name him/her later so I can continue the story while my brain is still engaged. Of course, sometimes a name has to be changed. If a minor character, not so troubling, since they're usually a walk on role. But if it's a major character, good or bad guy, the name is everything! When I finish a book, I write all the characters names down, trying to find out if we have too many one syllables or same first letters, or even repeats. (Apparently I use Tom a lot for minor walk on roles.) Curious what techniques or problems that other writers have with naming their characters?

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    1. Yes! Isn't it weird how once you name a character you find yourself using the same first letters? Word echo is everywhere, it seems. The other day I heard an outstanding gender neutral name for a woman, was in the car and tried to remind myself to write it down, and now it's gone. Was a word that I never associated with a name, so perhaps this is why I didn't retain it. Ah well, one day it will pop back up!

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  7. Thank heavens for Search and Replace!!!

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  8. As a reader, I "bond" with characters starting with their names. I expect "Names" that reflect the character's personality, and really his/her whole persona. I just HATE names that are too stereotypical or pop culture. I once absolutely quite reading a novel by a successful well known writer because all the female characters' names where all so "valley girl" that I wanted to puke. (And no, they weren't valley girls.) One would have been believable, but every single name was just too much to take.

    I know some literary fund-raising events feature an auction of "be a character in the book" but other than that "charity" character naming, do any of you name characters after people you know? If so, do they know ahead of time? How do they react?

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    1. Hi Katie! The "valley girl" names would make me wince as well. Doesn't it seem as though the older generation names for women have more heft? I think vintage and classic always work for a strong female protagonist. I rarely use names of those I know--with the exception of "common" names like John, James, etc. (And the names "Ruth, Adele and Claudia" mentioned in the post are people I know-but have yet to use their names in a book).

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  9. My only advice--beware of search and replace ALL. It can come with disastrous consequences. I know. I've done it.

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