Friday, October 12, 2012

How do you find the perfect name?

by Meredith Cole

Some characters come named--just like that. There's no stress or worry. You know their name just as you know everything else about them (their favorite foods, the color of their hair, and the car they drive) right away. Other characters take a bit more thought and it takes a while to find the perfect name for them.

I don't remember naming Lydia McKenzie in POSED FOR MURDER and DEAD IN THE WATER. She just came along with a name one day. As I got to know her, I learned about her penchant for vintage clothes and her desire to take murder recreation photos. But the secondary characters were more challenging for me to name.  I had Italian American private eyes, a Puerto Rican detective, a French gallerist, and various artists. And yes, you can't name several people with the same first initial. It's way too confusing.

My first strategy was to use the Brooklyn phone book. Brooklyn has every single ethnic group imaginable so I just went shopping there for the perfect Italian name. D'Angelo. Angels. Lydia's bosses certainly don't seem like angels, but they grow on you. They have more heart than she thinks, and they introduce her to an exciting new profession--becoming a detective herself.

Romero popped quickly into my head as the name for the homicide detective/love interest. I didn't realize until later how close it was to "Romeo"... It's taking Lydia a little longer to figure out that he's the man for her.

If a name doesn't occur to me, I sometimes try one out for awhile. One character I called "Andy" until I realized he was a bad guy. My step-father is also an Andy, and I didn't want to use his name for someone awful. Think of the awkward Thanksgiving conversations! So I changed it.

One of my pet peeves when I read a book is names that don't fit a character at all--the name is too old or too young for them, or totally in the wrong time period. You wouldn't name a Medieval maiden "Tiffany" even if there was an occasional Medieval maiden with that name. It just sounds too 80's pop star. And there may be one or two thirteen-year-old girls running around named Susan in America, but believe me it's not very common. Susan was a name that was wildly popular in the 50's, so it would be great for a 60-year-old woman.

A great way to find just the right name for someone--one that really fits--is to check out the social security website. There you can find out the top 100 names for any year--and you can even look up states! That's not to say you should feel limited by those, but it's a great way to find out what the kids will all be named in kindergarten in five years. And you can get a better sense of what sounds are particularly popular (Jayden, Brayden, Hayden--or--Hannah, Anna, Savannah)--especially if you don't have a young kid at home and don't spend all you time on the playground. It's also interesting to see how names in the south differ from those in the north east... (Did I mention this is dangerous if you're on a deadline--?)

I like to give main characters stand out names that not everyone has--but secondary characters that I want to stay in the background need to blend a little more. And I always keep the first initials different so they don't all blend one into the other...

8 comments:

Chris said...

Well said. I'm all about fitting name to period, ethnicity, and region, when possible. Thanks to the internet, there are loads of resources that track, say, popular Latvian baby names in 1975, or the fifty most common surnames of Irish origin in the United States. Very handy for the working writer. It's a thankless task, because if you get it right, no one ever notices... but if you get it WRONG, it'll bug folks and they won't know why.

Meredith Cole said...

That's a great point, Chris. The name feels totally natural if it's spot on, but if it's wrong--watch out!

Catriona McPherson said...

Mediaeval Tiffanys - hah! Exactly why I can't run character-naming competitions in 21c California for 1920s Scottish books. "The new chauffeur is called Keanu Diaz, darling." Not.

Alan Orloff said...

Nice post, Meredith! I also have spent way too much time on that Social Security Administration website (but it is fun!).

Meredith Cole said...

That would be very wrong, but totally hilarious Catriona! Might work in a modern Scottish book, though.

The site can really make you lose track of time, Alan, but it's totally worth poking around on (especially if you're about to name a baby!)

Hilary Davidson said...

Great post, Meredith! The Social Security site is fascinating. I have a feeling I'll be spending a lot of time there...

I should have mention this on Tuesday, but one site I use is Behind the Name (http://www.behindthename.com), which includes the etymology and history of each name, plus records showing how popular it is in certain countries. It can be quite helpful!

Lizzy Miles said...

I am still hoping that someday one version of my name will make it into one of your books ;)

Meredith Cole said...

I didn't know you wanted to be included, Liz! I'll have to fit you in somewhere...

And thanks for the tip on the naming site, Hilary!