Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Roadtrip Wednesday: How I name characters

I’ll start with things I never do: I never name characters after family, friends, relatives, ex-boyfriends, etc. It’s just awkward, and I also think I’d find it hard to make their personality their own. My subconscious would accidentally give them the personality of whoever I knew with that name. I also never use names that are impossible to pronounce, have a lack of vowels, or have apostrophes in the middle of them. There could be a place for names like this, maybe, in other people’s writing, but not in mine. I also learned the hard way about not giving characters placeholder names. A character I intended to be minor in my WIP Ignited, who I randomly assigned the name Harry (for the sole fact that it seemed like something someone could be named who had been alive for eighty years, even if they weren’t human), grew to become one of the most important characters, but by then his name had kind of stuck. So even though I don’t like it (and, of course, who do you think of first when you hear the name Harry?) it became his name, and I can’t make myself change it. So, from then on, no naming characters without a little bit of forethought.

As for how I actually pick them, it can either be really simple or really complicated. I always want their names to feel right to me, but not too right. I don't want the name to fit my character's personality (or looks) so well that it feels like I'm using it as a plot device. Some just sort of decide their names on their own—the name Olivia for my newest MC just sort of popped into my head. I liked it because it’s popular enough not to be weird, but unpopular enough that it’s a little different (although I’ve noticed more Olivias lately, so maybe this name is coming back in?) In Unthawed, Dusty was just Dusty, there wasn’t a question. And Charlotte was Charlotte. But Emma and Grant took some time. I opted against giving them unique, futuristic names, because when I try to pull that off, I always feel like I’m being weird rather than futuristic. Some people can pick those names well, but I can’t. You'd probably end up reading a book with a main character whose name was Pufferfish Smith. So I looked at simpler, more common names, figuring it could also be believable that some of the old classics stayed popular throughout time. Emma’s name just needed time (and some baby name websites) to come to me, and Grant’s took searching through lists of characters on soap operas (there are so many! And of such varied ages. This was one of my better ideas). In my latest WIP, I still have some important characters who I haven’t been able to settle on a name for. They will come to me, and I will wait (well, wait, but also look at soap opera websites and baby name databases!)

Now, wander over to YA Highway to see how the rest of the ladies (and blog commenters) name their characters!


Amanda Hannah said...

Pufferfish Smith ROFL.

Soap operas. Forgot about those. They can be a great place for names.

Kristin Miller said...

LOL - poor Harry! I love that you began with saying how you don't name your characters. That's how my brain was working with this topic, too. Like, it was easier to know how I don't do it then how I do (and, ohmygosh, apostrophe-ridden names make me bonkers). <3

Michelle Schusterman said...

I second your "no family/friends" rule. In fact, after I finally settled on Max, Liam, and Gabe, my BF had her third son and named him....Liam. *sigh* And I couldn't change it, of's his NAME.

Leila Austin said...

I'd never thought of soap opera character lists. I totally have to try that :-)

I like your character names. I think there's a lot to be said for strong names which don't try to do anything pretentious. It's like the characters really own their names that way.

I love the name Olivia. It's definitely coming back in, I've had lots of customers buying books for little girls called Olivia recently. Even so, it still doesn't feel like a common name to me like names like Mary and Jane do. Even with a few more people choosing it for their kids, it's still got a unique glow.

John Rea-Hedrick said...

I posted a bit about my thoughts on naming characters on the YA highway blog.

I wanted to share that I had a similar experience with a character name change. In my case I went through with the change and now am having second thoughts. I came up with a great name during very early drafting 'Elias Beliefoe', but the more I wrote the more the name seemed contrived. I changed it to 'Elias Tuttle', but as I said, it doesn't feel right. He came to me with the name Beliefoe and I still think of him with that name.

What do you think? Does 'Beliefoe' sound contrived or should I ditch 'Tuttle' and restore him to his original name?


Kaitlin Ward said...

I don't think it sounds contrived--sometimes people have strange last names!

John Rea-Hedrick said...

Would your opinion change if you knew he was someone not to be trusted? :)