Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Rose By Any Other Name?

I am currently working on my next book, which means that I'm outlining and making notes about plot, character, setting, theme and all the rest. One thing I tend to have problems with is the naming of characters. I have a tendency to give my characters symbolic names, names that give the reader a clue to the character's personality or thematic purpose (although, in the interests of full disclosure, two very minor characters--both children who got no lines and almost no screen time--in my last book were named after people I know).

The book I'm moving towards writing has a big cast, or at least big for me. One nice thing about my last book is that I learned a thing or two about handling multiple characters, so I don't mind having a dozen or more folks to track. But I have to come up with names for them all. There is a temptation in this book, which will be very, very dark, to balance that darkness with some Dickensian silliness, to give my characters absurd and not-quite-realistic names. I attempt to resist that temptation. Which still leaves me in need of twenty names for characters.

Truman Capote claimed to have gotten all his character names from the phone book. One doubts that "Holly Golightly" was in the Manhattan directory, though. I have some standard methods of finding names, none of which include using real people. I often will decide on a single word (like "star") that is a good symbol for the character, and find names that have that meaning ("Estelle" or "Stella" or "Astrid" all mean "star," for example). I also lean heavily on Butler's Lives of the Saints and the Bible for names, and I've also mined Greek myths and fairy tales.

Does it, do you think, really matter much what we name a character? Certainly it matters to us, as writers, but do you think that if Romeo and Juliet had been named Dominic and Luisa their story would have a different meaning to the readers?

So, then, two questions for you:

1. Do character names really matter much to readers, aside from the obvious need for names to be dissimilar enough among the characters for readers to keep them all straight while reading, and

2. How on earth do you find names for your characters?


  1. Scott - look at baby name books or websites. Sometimes you can google popular names for a particular country/time period. Hope that helps.

  2. First, I'm kinda freaked by your post, since it along the same lines of one I just did. In my post, I asked this question: do you name your characters before/after you create them?

    My answer: sometimes before and sometimes after.

    For the most part, I just name the characters without researching baby books, etc. The names normally just come to me. Sometimes, halfway through I might change a name. Now, in a specific instance where I might need Celtic or Greek names, I go to appropriate baby names by nationality websites and dig through the gazillion names. Like you, I sometimes look for the meanings behind the names and try and have that match up to the characters.

    As for your first question: no. I really don't think characters names matter. I think that the character matters. I'm investing my time and energy in a character, not a name. So if Bilbo Baggins was named Aquabibe Diverticulosis, I might raise an eyebrow or two, but probably keep reading. : )

    Great post.


  3. I'm guessing Capote got Holly's name as a combination of names in the phone book. I do this with movie credits. There's a lot of names flying out at you. I usually pick a first name from somewhere and last name from another spot. Or I do what Traci does and look up names in the babyname books.

    I'm all about sounds more than meanings when it comes to names. I usually do look up the meanings of names, though, to see if they match the character's personality. Strangely enough, they often do.

    I usually hate it when a book has names of characters that all begin with the same letter. That gets confusing. Or if they sound the same. Or if they're just plain hard to pronounce, even in my head. Honestly, I think that's why I have issues with fantasy and sci-fi. Just a pick a normal name! (Sorry, my prejudice).

    For my current novel, I picked names by discussing ideas with several friends in chat, at the same time. I'm still using the names my friends helped me come up with. And they've grown on me. Kind of like Hermione from Harry Potter. I hated that name, and now I kind of like it - because I like the character.

  4. I browse baby name websites....I just search for a name that fits the personality of the character. It usually will just pop out at me. I also have used my un-used baby names. I so loved the name Mia...but I had a boy..and he's my last. My next writing project, I named my MC Mia. I also loved the name Preston, but hubby vetoed it....so it got put into my novel.

  5. I wrote a post on this topic on my blog, also. In it I said "[a character's name is] one way to create a picture of the character in the reader's mind without writing one descriptive phrase." I think the name can make a difference to the reader.

    One source I like to use for selecting names comes from the U.S. Social Security Administration. It provides a search interface that allows the user to look at the top names by year, or enter a name to see how common it is.

  6. I agree with Michelle and Jim. I do think a name can make a difference. In your example of Romeo and Juliet, it doesn't seem to matter to me. But, there are plenty of names that just sound right: Gimpei, Raskolnikov, Mahlke, Bilbo Baggins.

    I've started keeping a list of names that have personality to me.

  7. I have a baby names book I use. I also look through the phone book for last names. I think the name has to suit the character to a certain extent. A nerdy name for a jock wouldn't work for me. Although, an angelic name for a bitch would be great.

    Another thing I watch out for is having too many names that start with the same letter or sound/look the same. Reading a story about Jane, Jill, Jack, Jock, John, and Judy would drive me nuts!

    You also have to be careful about using names that are popular in kids now, but never used when your character was born.

    Good luck!

    Lynnette Labelle

  8. I think that the symbolism I put into names is more for my own benefit than my reader's; it helps me remember who these characters are, and why they're that way.

    In my last book, I did name two minor characters by using google to look up common German and Swiss names in the 16th century. Happily, I was handed most of my characters' names at the beginning of that project. I only had to come up with five names for minor characters.

    I blame Nabokov for my desire to have private jokes built into character names. For my next project, the main character is named (today, at least) Nathaniel Kyd. Kyd was a playwright in Elizabethan England. I am tempted to name all my characters after poets and playwright for this next book. I may do that.

    Scott: I saw your post after I wrote mine, and I also was struck by the coincidence. Great minds and all that.

  9. I get my names from so many places. A woman calling out a child's name in the grocery store. From acquaintances I know. Other books--when I read a particular name (just a first name) I know that will be perfect for a character I am thinking of. I've gotten a lot of names from movies as well. I'll watch the credits and then find myself scribbling down all these names I'd never have thought of on my own--maybe never even heard of.

    Mostly I just pick a name that suits my character, although sometimes it's a choice between more modern or traditional. Often times I have to write that character for several chapters to decide. But I've been known to change a name that far in because my heroine isn't a "Catherine", she's more of a "Shelly."

  10. Character names matter; if you name someone Horsedung, don't even try to make him intimidating. And, if you name a terribly depressed character "Joy" instead of "Nina," it will make a difference in reader perceptions.

    A long while back (in youngin' time), I wanted to name every character, river, and world after a person or character, or combination of persons and characters, who had influenced me in some regard. That caused a lot of trouble, so I'm reducing the amount of time I spend tipping my hat. Or perhaps I'm merely becoming more adept at it.

  11. Henry Horsedung smoothed his mustaches with a gloved finger.

    "Now, my pretty little Nina," he sneered, "You'll tell me what I want to know."

    "I'm not Nina," the girl spat. "I'm Nana. Nina Nadayovna was the blonde in Chapter Two. I'm her cousin from Chapter Four, Nana Nikolayevna."


    "Oh, no. Darius Drat is the herdsman from the prologue. Do you mean Darren Dart, the innkeeper from Chapter Seventeen? We haven't got there yet."

  12. Obviously alliteration works well.

    Sammy Sloan, slowly salivating, silently searched some stripper's sexy silhouette. "Say, sexy."

    "Sexy," said simple Sally, smiling serenely.

    "Stupid shadowy stripper!" shouted Sammy, still salivating stupidly, sipping Sam Adams (doh!).

  13. I read all of these comments [and this post] with great interest. Then I got to Justus and Scott and... well, I couldn't have said it better myself. LOL!

    Some silly souls simply stimulate smiles.

  14. Shorty: It is my goal to meet these two men in the same room one day. Seriously, I think it would be an experience of a lifetime... filled with endless bouts of sarcasm and witty banter. :)

  15. Maybe one day when I become famous. Before that, I wouldn't be able to look Scott in the eye. Boohoo!

    Oh, uh, names are important. I'm relevant, or something. One time I saw a D&D picture of a samurai slicing through a leaf, so I named my character "Laef." Genius.

  16. I use the name generators on seventh sanctum to get names for minor characters. For major characters I decide on first names (something symbolic) and if they are going to be irish or whatever, then use the baby names website.

    I have yet to think that naming a romantic duo fred and ethel would be enticing.

  17. Robin, I think P.G. Wodehouse could've done wonderful things with a couple named Fred and Ethel.


    "Yes, Ethel, my love?"

    "I do so adore you."

    "And I you, my pet. Say, isn't that your cousin Bertie there, running after a dog in the fountain?"

    "I say, Freddie, I think you're right."

  18. If a name doesn't come to me, which it does often, I'll visit a website that lists names by nationality and gender and the names' meaning. It's very helpful.

    To keep track of characters before I really know them, sometimes I cast them in my mind with actors that would be perfect. I have to be careful not to let the actors' traits and mannerisms influence my characters.

  19. I troll baby-name sites, and make lists. I've got four or five pages of names off of baby-name sites, where I went through each letter and picked five names that I liked for girls and five names that I liked for boys. Another method is I write the alphabet down the side of my paper, and then throw a bunch of letters in.

    Something like...

    It's a good way to create unique names.

    Other times I name characters after my friends/other favourite characters.

    Victoria Crawford is named after my best IRL friend, and her last name of Crawford came from a favourite character in a show that I watch.

    I do think that character names matter. People ... become their names. Jennifer Aniston... looks like a 'Jennifer.' It just suits her. It's the same with characters. The name makes the character, because it's often the first thing you know about them. Before the author gets to whether they're short, fat, tall, thin, horse-like, fair-haired, dark-skinned, what have you, you know what their name is. Names can tell you a little bit about the person, too.

    In the words of the late George Carlin, "Guess the white guy: Odell, Tyrone, Tremaine, and Sparky. Guess the black girl: Cathy, Joan, Peggy, and Vondella."

    If your character is Hitsugaya Toushirou*, you know automatically that you're dealing with a Japanese man. Ditto Juan Rodriguez. You know without reading anything else that he's Spanish.

    (*Hitsugaya Toushirou is a character from the popular anime Bleach.)

  20. Charlie, I do the same thing with the casting of famous actors. It's more just for kicks, but I think it's helpful too.

    Omi, I think you're absolutely right that a name can make a person. Growing up, people always had a hard time figuring out how to pronounce my name, and it shaped my personality a great deal. My brother's name is even harder to pronounce than mine is, and as a result he got used to having a bunch of nicknames. His full name is Ruemruk, and he gets things like Rum, Rummy, Rock, and R. It's sort of fun.

  21. Davin, I'm still working on getting your name right in my head. Every time I mention you to my husband, I have to correct myself. "Davin (with no stress on the a), wait, no I mean Davin (with the stress on the a), wait, I mean, oh, never mind. You know who I'm talking about." He always nods and says it correctly. :)

  22. You are right, Scott. I didn't think about that. To be honest, I have yet to read anything by Wodehouse, but from what I've heard, he probably could have.

  23. I write sf & f, and one reason is my unreasonable adoration of bizarre, inhuman nomenclature. I've been guilty of writing stories about aliens where I've given the aliens -- deliberately, mind you -- names designed to be unpronounceable by the human vocal system. Because they're aliens, you know.

    I've given up that up, but I still have long lists of names garnered from various places. Phone books, baby name books, history books, and computer-generated names. For my fantasy series, I started a convention, idly borrowed from Italian, of -o endings for males and -a endings (or -i) for females, and now I'm stuck with it.

    For my new novel, an historical set in the real world, I have to use names which reflect the nationalities and time periods. I don't know these off the top of my head, so I have to research them. The minor characters are the biggest problem. I'm happy to spend a day or two researching and contemplating the names of major characters, but when a minor character comes up in a scene, I don't want to pause and figure out a name. I think it's best to compile a list ahead of time of several dozen male and female names to choose from.

    One of the cultures has only five first names and three last names, which does make it difficult.

  24. No lie -- babynames.com

    It's funny, I read this right after getting a note from a critter "All your characters have Indian names. Any reason?" And the answer really was that I'd named my three main characters based on the name meaning and found they all had Indian names, so I gave the others in their town Indian names,too.

    My friends have gotten so used to me grabbing names based on meaning that they just ask, "What does this mean? I know you looked it up."

    There are doubtless other ways, but this one works for me.


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