Wednesday, 8 June 2011

What's in a Name?

I've probably talked about naming characters before. If I have, it would have been a long time ago so I'm doing it again. Character names are important. To me. Maybe to you. I've spent days trying to come up with the right name for a character because I've needed it to 'feel right'. I need the name to feel like him/her. And sometimes I've had a character come to me fully formed, name and all.

As a reader, I notice names. I laugh at some. I love others. I think 'what was this author thinking?' about a few, which is probably naughty of me, but hey. I can't help it. For instance, I've noticed that a lot of YA heroines seem to be called Grace. Shiver, Entangled, Fallen Grace, these are just a few. I have no less than five novels on my bookshelf right now with a Grace. 

(This is also my sister-in-law's name, so when I recently changed my YA protagonist's name and Grace suggested Grace, the first thing I said was 'ohmyGod do you have any idea how many people are already called Grace, Grace?')

So how to name a character? I don't know. I don't think there are rules and there are certainly exceptions to every 'guideline'. But there are certain things you can avoid/lean toward. Here's my take-

Silly is OK
Here's where the 'Naming Your Character' not-quite-a-rulebook differs from the 'Naming Your Baby' rulebook. You'd never want to name your child something other people will laugh at (Fifi Trixiebell? Really?). But sometimes you want your readers to giggle a little at a character's name. So silly is okay.

Avoid long, difficult names
To give you an example, I'll use my own (lest I use something else and offend someone!). Sangu is short for Sangamitra. There. I've admitted it. My personal albatross.

Now Sangamitra, alas, will just not fly. It's four syllables long. It's unfamiliar. Sure, it's memorable, assuming you can actually commit all ten-bloody-letters to memory in the first place. But try to imagine writing a scene in which another character cries desperately to your protagonist: NO, SANGAMITRA, DON'T. SANGA - DAMN YOU, WHY DON'T YOU HAVE A NAME I CAN SHOUT QUICKER? Imagine that translated to the big screen. Eeek.

I'm sure there are plenty of long, unfamiliar names out there. I'm sure they're even lovely, popular character names. But it's hit and miss. And when you want your characters to trip instantly to your readers' thoughts, you don't want a name they'll stumble over.

Avoid anything too literary
I don't mean names like Dashwood and Bennet and Lizzie and Juliet. These are popular names. Dashwood is probably pushing it, though, because it's uncommon in the real world today and it definitely suggests Jane Austen to anyone who hears it. Other names to avoid: Sherlock. Shakespeare. You don't want to choose something so instantly recognizable. If you happen to have a clever character named Sherlock, even if you claim it's meant to be homage/a parody/a modern retelling, people might think you're trying too hard. 

Another concern: your readers will certainly remember the name, but when they think of 'Sherlock', your character's not going to be the one that pops straight into their heads. Better not to wither away in Holmes's shadow.

Please, no puns
Unless you're writing an out-and-out farce/comedy/parody/who knows what, for the love of mercy steer clear of Eggen Mermalayde, Justin Case and Ben Dover. Please.

And in the end, try to remember it's not everything
Honestly. No matter what I or anyone else says, names are not everything. Your character is. Who she is. What he's like. Whether readers love or love to hate him. Those things matter more.

On the advice of my agent and editor, I recently changed my narrator and protagonist's name from Echo to Eva. At first I thought this would mean the end of the world as I knew it. Disaster. Apocalypse. How could she still be the same without the same name?

Turns out, she is the same. Sure, I miss Echo sometimes, but I love the name Eva (that's pronounced E-va, by the way, not A-va. I'm downright Nazi-ish on that point.) Maybe she's so firmly imprinted in my head that nothing could change her now. Or maybe I got lucky. But it did help me realize that names are not the beginning and end of a character.

Writers, how do you name your characters? Are names important to you? And those of you who aren't writers, what about you? As a reader, does a name matter? What are the funniest/weirdest/best names you've come across?


  1. Sangamitra is a pretty name! I just brainstorm short, simple, alien names for about an hour. Yeah, doesn't take much more than that I'm afraid. But the main characters (all three of them) already had names from way back when, so those names were all for secondary characters.

  2. I agree with Alex, Sangamitra is a gorgeous name.
    In desparation after having run out of reading material once on a trip I read a book where the lead character's name was (I kid you not), Ed Case. It was dreadful but I'm sure you'd have guessed that already. xxx

  3. Sangamitra is a beautiful name!

    I try to find names which I think suit my characters, but not everyone perceives names the same way, do they? And you're right - it's not the be all and end all.

  4. I agree with Talli. Sangamitra is beautiful, but I can see your point. Try to keep it simple.

    Most of my characters seem to be born with their names already attached to them. Then when I do research on the name I discover all sorts of interesting things about it. Like its origin, its meaning or mythology behind it. More often than not the info adds dimension to the character's personality.

    One thing I don't care for is difficult to read made-up names, like Gleziomarricha.

  5. I like to use words with meaning... I find a word that encapsulates my character then I go through languages until I find one that has a word that I can deform into a name.
    Obscure historical figures are a favorite of mine too.
    Or clues as to what the character is or is going to be...
    Or.. or... Actually I don't think I have a system. There so many ways of coming up with a name.

    They are important surely, but not as important as how the character shapes itself. Certainly people have instant reactions to certain names... And perhaps those reactions can be patterned for a majority. And then you can play with it. And pull the readers into thinking one way and slowly, step by step, learning that their assumption was wrong. : j

  6. I write high fantasy, so there's a slightly different set of 'rules' for me - but most of these still apply. In high fantasy, it can be fun for a character to have a familiar name, but unpronounceable names are the curse of the genre. They're everywhere, and they're awful!

  7. I don't stress names at all during the first draft and since I haven't yet revised my two novels. . . Yeah, it's not a huge problem for me. I have a list of contemporary names that I like with a few fantasy-ish ones thrown in, just because.
    - Sophia.

  8. I don’t obsess over names. An affectation has been to give the protagonists in my novels first names beginning with J: Jonathan, Jim, John and Jennifer. That said, apart from mentioning that their Christian names are both John, Milligan and Murphy are always referred to by their surnames, even by their mother; they’re stepbrothers, hence the different surname. Jonathan’s surname is Payne which is meant to evoke ‘pain’ because he’s a man in pain and Jim’s surname is Valentine because he’s in love with himself (I’m being sarcastic). Probably the most interesting name I ever came up with was Aghamore Ahern, a peripatetic artist and philosopher; I needed a name that would go with a dandy and this fitted the bill. Almost impossible to say the name without pausing in the middle. In my short stories often my characters are never named.

  9. I like your full name! I think it's pretty.

    I usually name my characters by whatever first pops into my head when I'm acting out a scene in the car on my way to work, at least for the minor ones. I take a little more time with major protag/antagonists. But generally it's just what sounds best. I do have some themes along the way, but they're generally surnames related to inside jokes shared with friends, not anything serious.

  10. I think your name is lovely. Long names are too much for everyday life though - I never get called Alexandra except in very formal situations.

    One of the things that I dislike most is when two characters in the same book have very similar sounding names or if they start with the same letter. Perhaps I read too fast and don't pay enough attention but it can be quite confusing. Plus it just seems lazy - there's a world of names out there so why call the two leading men James and John?

    Also stupid names and/or names that just don't match the character. This seems to be more common in American novels so perhaps it's a cultural thing, but I can't read about a character called Humphrey and imagine him as attractive, or about a character called Elec and imagine him in a contemporary setting (seems far more of a fantasy name to me!)

  11. I've found that it depends on what I'm working on. In some of my stories a name will come to me right away and I can't imagine finding a more perfect name for that character. It just wouldn't seem right. While I've gone through several name changes in other stories.