Thursday, August 20, 2015

Hello, My Name is…

by Alan

How do you find the perfect name?

hello nametag I open up a phone book (remember those?) and stab my finger blindly onto the page. That’s the name of my protagonist. Flip more pages and repeat for all the other characters.

Oh, if only it were that easy.

Character names are important to me, so I spend a lot of time thinking about them. Once in a long while, a name pops into my head that’s perfect. In THE TASTE, one of the secondary characters is named Bogart, and it took me about three seconds to come up with that one.

Usually, though, it’s a much more protracted process. With a character in mind, I’ll generate/brainstorm a list of names. As my list grows, somehow the character becomes more defined in my mind, and the disparity between the names I’m generating and the “perfect” name narrows.

After I’ve got a list of between ten and fifty names, I’ll go through and start eliminating. (And adding others, as I think of them). When I’ve narrowed it down to two or three, then I sleep on it.

And often, four days later, I’ll change the character’s name to something brand new. Naming characters is more of an art form than a science.

I agree with Meredith on many counts when it comes to naming characters (see her post on Monday). Like her, I’ll test drive a name for a while (even half a book!). If it doesn’t feel right, I have no resistance to changing it.

Like Meredith, it’s important to me that my characters have age-appropriate names, so I also use the SSA website to authenticate my names. And she’s right about getting sidetracked!

Also like Meredith, I try to avoid using character names that begin with the same letter. To keep track of things, I use a chart, with the letters of the alphabet down the left hand side and three other columns: male first names, female first names, and last names. I try to fill out each block in the grid before using the same initial letter in a name.

I also try to avoid names that rhyme: Jill, Bill, Will, Phil, McGill. And I try to vary the length of the names, too—can’t have everyone with a one-syllable name!

Last rule? No characters named Alan.


Paul D. Marks said...

I always find it weird when there's a character in a movie named John for example. And that's the actor's real name too. It throws me out of suspension of disbelief. So maybe you should name a character Alan, just for the hell of it. ;)

Dana King said...

For my series set in Western Pennsylvania, I keep my old high school yearbooks handy, and read the local paper online. It's a heavily ethnic area, and those practices keep me familiar with last names like Neuschwander, Napierkowski, and Dougherty. (I also provide a pronunciation key at the front of the book. Tolstoy never cared that much about HIS readers.)

For other stories, the names have to have a certain rings to them; it's hard to describe. What I stay away from (in addition to Dana) are precious preppie names like Chase or Chance. (Unless I want the character to be unlikable.)

Meredith Cole said...

Ha! id you just say three times that you agreed with me?! Wow. Feeling quite smart at the moment, Alan...

Alan Orloff said...

Paul - Hmm. Maybe I should name all my protagonists Paul.

Dana - Yes! That's a great way to capture some regional verisimilitude (I love that word!)

Meredith - I always agree with you!