Friday, September 16, 2011

Finding just the right name

by Meredith

Character names are tricky things. They can say so much about a character and be absolutely perfect--or they can be completely wrong and very distracting. Ever read a historical novel where the main character was named Tiffany? Or Brent? It just doesn't fit. If feels too modern.

Also bad are character names that are so pat that they're cutsey. The blonde bombshell named Bunny. The crazy killer named Lucifer. The sweet ingenue named Angel. Puh-lease.

So what's a writer to do?

I have a strange way of figuring out names, but it works for me. Sometimes characters appears fully formed with a name, but sometimes I have to search for one. But I never start out just calling them "detective" or anything like that. I'm afraid it would make the character too wooden and stereotypical. Unless they're a beat cop, or some other character with just a walk-on role in my book, they get a name. And a name with some thought.

So before I start writing about a character, I give them a name right away that seems to work okay. (Erin, Jane, Pam, Cindy, Michelle... Hmm. Michelle. That sounds okay). But I keep the name for the character only as long as I feel it works. If it's too similar to another name (Whoops! I have a Mark, Melissa and Michelle... Something has to give) or just doesn't feel right, I go off to look for another name.

Something to be avoided at all costs: everyone in the book has a name that rhymes or starts with the same letter--this becomes extremely confusing for the reader very, very fast. Also to be considered: giving someone a name that's not appropriate for a character's age. Of course, all those Brittanys will someday hit social security age, but try perusing Social Security most popular names site if you're wondering how many little Brittanys were born five years ago or even this year.  You may be shocked to learn (especially if you don't have small kids) that there were far more little Isabelles, Emmas, Olivias and Avas than the names you remember as a kid. Names go in waves, and while there may be tons of Susans who are aged 60 and over, there are very few nowadays that are ten years old.

I have a baby book (which can sometimes be helpful), and the Internet to help me out if I get stuck for a good name. There are all kinds of ethnic baby naming sites on the web that I find useful (especially if you want to give characters names that are appropriate, but not stereotypical). I have had to find good Puerto Rican, Hasidic, Polish, and Russian names before, since Brooklyn is a real melting pot. And I've turned to the New York phone book when I need a good last name for someone.

In the end, after all the research, it all comes down to a gut feeling. And then there's no turning back. The character owns the name and it become a part of them. And the writing just flows...

8 comments:

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Meredith, your naming procedures are almost identical to mine, right down to the baby name book. I often find I lean towards using names starting with the name letter and have to go back and fix it. Or I have favorite names that would show up in every book, if I let them.

Meredith Cole said...

I'm with you there, too, Sue Ann! I tend to overuse names starting with "M" and will try to use the same names in every book. I guess we all have our favs!

Mollie Bryan said...

When I first started writing my first book, one of my main characters was named Bella. Then the whole Twilight thing happened and I really felt like I needed to change it. But I wanted to keep that two-syllable, ending-with-an-a thing, so she became Vera.

Meredith Cole said...

You were probably right to change the name, Mollie. Some names can be too reminiscent of famous characters, and then the name becomes confusing (and distracting).

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Nice explanation of your process, Meredith! I love the Social Security names database too and have spent far too much time reading it!

Reece said...

It's nice to know that we all seem to have settled on a pretty similar process. I find that matching a first name and a last name can be tricky, too. And I also confess to having a baby names book.

Meredith Cole said...

Reece-there's nothing like a book! And last names can be hard, too.

Rebecca-the social security database rules! I've even recommended it to pregnant friends (it's better to know before rather than after how popular your kids name is going to be).

forensics4fiction said...

This is so timely! I keep a list of character names on an Excel spreadsheet so i don;t wind up with five guys named "Matt" sprinkled throughout! Great Post!