Monday, September 2, 2013

Give your character a meaningful name.

I don’t know about you, but I think choosing a name for my character is one of the most exciting steps of writing!  It’s like naming a child.  I’ll admit, I’ve chosen badly a time or two and just had to change it.  If you name your character Bob . . . and he behaves like a Heraldo . . . you must change it.  Bottom line – a name must ‘fit the character.’

A few things to keep in mind when picking names;
1.   nationality
2.   Personality
3.   Name meanings
4.   Time-frame of story
5.   Genre
6.   Research – research - research
7.   Don’t name characters starting with the same initials (Lisa, Lora, Lana…)

If I’m writing a Native American 1800s story I know my names must fit the nationality and the time-frame I’m writing.  Names mean something, and in the Blackfeet world, a man can perform a great coup and change his name each time.  Tribe members can also give someone a new name.  Puts a whole new perspective on naming conventions, doesn’t it?  You have to know the history of the person you’re naming.  If you don’t, be prepared for a savvy reader to point out your mistake.

Popular mystery writer Elizabeth Sims (the Rita Farmer Mysteries) shared seven great rules for choosing character names.  I read this checklist to remind myself of the importance of naming my characters.  Consider each of these rules before you start naming your characters.
1. Check root meanings.  It’s better to call a character Caleb, which means “faithful” or “faithful dog,” than to overkill it by naming him Loyal or Goodman—unless you want that for comic/ironic purposes. Some readers will know the name’s root meaning, but those who don’t might sense it.

2. Get your era right. If you need a name for an 18-year-old shopgirl in a corset store in 1930s Atlanta, you know enough not to choose Sierra or Courtney, unless such an unusual name is part of your story. Browse for names in the era you’re writing. A Depression-era shopgirl who needs a quick name could go by Myrtle or Jane; it will feel right to the reader. Small public libraries will often have decades’ worth of local high school yearbooks on the shelves. Those things are gold for finding name combinations from the proper era.

3. Speak them out loud. Your novel might become an audiobook or an e-book with text-to-speech enabled. A perfectly good name on paper, such as Adam Messina, may sound unclear aloud: Adam Essina? Adah Messina?

4. Manage your crew appropriately. Distinguish your large cast of characters by using different first initials, of course, and vary your number of syllables and places of emphasis. Grace Metalious (a great name right there) demonstrates this in her blockbuster Peyton Place, as do any of the successful epic writers like James Michener and Larry McMurtry.

5. Use alliterative initials. Employ this strategy to call special attention to a character: Daniel Deronda, Bilbo Baggins, Ratso Rizzo, Severus Snape.

6. Think it through. You might notice that in most crime fiction the murderer rarely has a middle name or initial. Why? Because the more you explicate the name, the more likely there’s a real person out there with it. And reading your story they might become upset and try to sue you or come after you some night with a bayonet.

7. Check ’em again. When writing my novel The Actress, I needed a name for a Japanese-American criminal defense attorney, and the name Gary Kwan burst upon me. I loved the name and used it in the book. Only thing was, as soon as the thousands of copies of hardcovers were printed and shipped to stores, I heard from a reader who pointed out the simple fact that Kwan is a Chinese surname. I cursed loudly and decided: a) that I would ALWAYS check name origins, and b) that Gary Kwan had a Chinese grandfather who adopted a Japanese orphan who became Gary’s father. Or something like that.

Naming characters just right is a challenge, but give it some time and thought, and you’ll start to find the fun in it. Study the names great authors have come up with, let your mind loose to play, do your research, and above all, trust your ear.
And if worst comes to worst, here’s hoping you’re like Oates and lucky enough to just bump into your character in a dream—where you can ask him yourself.


J.C. Martin said...

Great advice. Thanks for pointing out the alliterative name--good one.

I tried to follow these tips when naming the characters in ORACLE. I also notice in crime and thriller fiction, the protagonist has a strong, catchy surname, one that reflects his/her personality or status as hero/protector, e.g. Shepherd, Reacher, Cross, Fox, Hunter, etc. With this in mind, I created Detective Kurt Lancer: Kurt meaning "courageous" or "wolf", and Lancer I hope is a strong, memorable enough surname for series longevity.

Rita Karnopp said...

J.C. Sounds like you have a real sense for naming characters. I love the name Hunter, which is my heroine's name in my WIP... and in my book, Thunder, which I just finished is the last name of my Native men. Mingan is the hero, meaning Gray Wolf in Blackfeet. Love the name Kurt Lancer ... it has a strong, manly sound. Series are hot right now ... good luck! :) Rita

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