Friday, September 16, 2016

Writing: What's In A Name?

Chances are that you never paid much attention to character names as you enjoy a book, but most authors usually give them a fair amount of thought. I must admit that when I wrote my first novel--not the first one published, just my initial try at writing one--I chose names pretty haphazardly. It was only later in my writing journey that I discovered that, to expand on a well-known saying, "Names make the man...and woman." Shakespeare may have said "That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet." But names if we called it a snuffle-hacker we probably wouldn't be as anxious to smell it. Names are important.

First, when you choose names for characters you have to keep in mind the time when they were named--i.e., when were they born? I've learned to use my favorite reference tool, Google, and look for the most popular first names given to babies born during that year. For instance, if my character is in his or her mid-30's, I check for names given in 1980. There are books devoted to this, and there are even apps that help. But whatever the author chooses, some research has to go into it.

Then I try to choose a name that goes with the character. If it's a hero, I probably won't use Murgatroyd. (My apologies to those with that name--it's not your fault). If the person is likely to be a sidekick I'm looking for a different name than the one I give a person who's an out-and-out villain from the start. Authors obviously gave some thought before assigning names like Reacher, Dirk Pitt, Harry Bosch to their heroes. You get the idea.

One thing that novelists do to avoid making big boo-boos in their books is to create character sketch lists. This keeps the hero from climbing into his Subaru in one scene and exiting from his Chevrolet in the next. This also helps the writer keep names straight. For example, by reading through the character sketches (and mine are usually only a paragraph), he can see that he has two people with the same or similar names. No two people named Alex, no Jack and James in the same novel. That's obviously to be avoided.

Despite multiple edits by the author, plus numerous other eyes on the manuscript during the editing process, the error I'm most prone to make is using the wrong character name in a place or two. I call the heroine by the name of the lead in a previous book, I forget what I've called the police officer. And believe me, there are people who find these errors, and let the author know about them. By the way, telling the author won't help, nor will communicating to the publisher unless the book goes into a second printing. Sorry about that.

So that's it. There are other tips that writers pick up as they go along, but what I wanted to do was point out that a significant amount of thought has gone into choosing the names of the characters in the book you are reading.

Do you ever pay attention to names? What do you do when you find a misuse in books by your favorite author? Any other comments you want to make? I'd like to hear them.

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4 comments:

Patricia Bradley said...

I can't start my book until I know the names of the characters...not that the always remain what I name them. lol. One time I changed my heroine name two times, once because there was an actress by the same name. That's when I learned to Google my names to make sure some famous person didn't already have it. Good post, Richard!

Richard Mabry said...

Patricia, I, too, have been known to change names of a character in mid-stream. Just recently my wife, Kay, who is my first reader, said "She just doesn't act like a (name withheld, to protect the innocent)." So we settled on a different one, which satisfied us both.
I have on an occasion or two slipped in the name of a lesser-known sports figure, but haven't had any repercussions yet.
Thanks for your comment.

Lauri Harris said...

Thanks, this was fun reading about how authors choose names. I do think about it every time I read a book, and I wonder how they decided on that particular name. Thanks for the insight!

Richard Mabry said...

Lauri, this is something that is rarely written about, and I thought it might be fun to blog on it. Thanks for the comment.