Friday, April 13, 2018

Writing: What's In A Name?

Ever wonder how a novelist chooses a name for characters? There are several theories (and I've probably tried them all). This is the way one author approaches it. And here are my own suggestions.

Some people try to choose a name that identifies the character. Maybe it refers to his personality (remember Scrooge?) or his physical appearance (such as "Stark" or "Linda"). That works, but I find it should be reserved for major characters. You can't spend days coming up with descriptive names for people who come and go throughout the narrative.

Speaking of that--and getting a bit off the subject--I find that having too many characters is confusing. Moreover--and back to what this blog post is about--try not to have people whose first or last name is too similar to that of others. Having a "Matty" and a "Mary" might work, but it's better if the names are "Alice" and "Mary."

I once tried using a name from my high school graduating class, but this backfired. I used the name "Frank Perrin" for a deputy sheriff in one of my novels, and when it was over you weren't sure if he wore a black or white hat. Then I got a note from a woman who wanted me to be the honored guest speaker at our class's 50th reunion. She was--you guessed it--the wife of my friend, Frank Perrin. Well, he thought it was funny, but I put that character in a follow-up novel, and you can be sure there was no doubt at the end that he was the good guy.

Some authors use a list of most popular names for any given birth year. Others choose names from the "spam" emails they get. Still others give little thought to naming their characters. It seems that plot trumps everything in writing and in the end, (as Shakespeare said), "What's in a name?"

Leave your comments for me. I'd love to hear whether you like posts like this. (If you don't, I suppose you can leave those comments as well, but I may sulk awhile after reading them).

Tweet with a single click. "Are there things an author should consider when giving a name to a character?"

12 comments:

Elise Griffith said...

That's interesting! Here are a few silly questions... have you ever picked a name spell checker didn't like? And/or in early writing stages, have you ever decided to change a name because you thought it didn't quite fit the character as he or she developed in your mind?

There was a time a few years back when it seemed to be trendy for authors to choose unusual or exotic names for their characters. Especially in women's fiction. I'd sometimes struggle with pronunciation (in my head) while reading. A few times I'd come across a name that was comical. Thankfully, the fad seems to have passed.

Richard Mabry said...

Elise, thanks for your comment. Yes, I'm currently working on a novella where the detective has a last name spell-checker doesn't like. Since I'm only partially through, I decided to leave it (the underlining MS word uses doesn't bother me) and change it later if I decide. And several times I've changed the name of a character as the story unfolded. That's gotten to be how I write, whether it's a name or a plot point that makes me change my mind.

One of my favorite authors, the late Robert B. Parker, gave his "foster son" the last name of Giacomin. I always read it as JEE-uh-kom-in, and only later read something by Parker that said he used the name of a Boston Bruins goalie, whose name was pronounced JOK-u-min. When I read someone else's fiction, I usually assign a pronunciation to a name and stay with it, no matter what the author meant. But I've learned to stay away from complex names.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your post! I can definitely see where having people's names sound quite the same could be very confusing!

God Bless,

Lon

Richard Mabry said...

Thanks, Lon. Yes, that's one of the first lessons I learned. Names are more important than most of us realize.

greg fuller said...

I found this blog to be interesting. I have been curious as to how the author chooses the names of his/her characters.

Jackie Smith said...

I can't believe it.... Greg..(Above) said exactly what I was going to say!!

Richard Mabry said...

Great minds, and all that. Thanks.

Linda Walters said...

your emails always make me smile. Please keep them up.

Richard Mabry said...

Thanks, Linda.

Patricia Bradley said...

I love these blog posts on what you do in your writing. I use the name generator in Scrivener sometimes to find the name for a non-staring character. ;-)

Priscilla said...

Character names are tough, so I try to take note of good names when I hear one in public. Recently I came across a Brantley, or Brant for short. Doesn't that sound like a good cowboy name? I'll have to come up with a character in a future book for it.

I also try to make names different, like your Alice and Mary example.

Yes, I like posts like this one. Thanks for writing it.:-)

Richard Mabry said...

Patricia and Priscilla (I'd never have two such names together in one book...see how it works?)--Thanks for your comments. I haven't used the name generator, but do sometimes name minor characters using the names of people who send me spam messages. (We'll see how that works).