Monday, February 19, 2018

The Reek of Wrong Titles and Character Names

Q: How do you come up with titles and character names? Do they change during the writing process?

- from Susan

CAPTAIN AHAB’S GREAT ADVENTURE

THE WHALE AND THE SEA CAPTAIN

ISHMAEL’S STORY

ONCE UPON A WHITE WHALE



A: Titles are tough for me. When forced to submit one I think is lame and that surely my publisher can improve, I’m rattled when they say, “Oh, I like that.” I admire authors who come up with good ones, time and time again. But nobody does it for me, alas, so I struggle. If anyone out there wants to chime in when the next book is close to submission, I will be absurdly grateful.

Names are another thing. They matter so much to me as a writer, to the book’s credibility, to the reader’s satisfaction as being believable. Because my lazy brain tends to sample and re-sample typical Anglo-Saxon options, I have taken to looking at online resources: names from a specific year – unpopular as well as popular – , surnames from other countries that may help readers see my characters as coming from a particular culture, and the occasional need for a name that starts with a letter not already used by one of my characters.

Emma
Mrs. Poliver
Jane
Precious
Gwendolyn
Bianca


Right now, I’m struggling because the protagonist’s name I settled on after two other choices starts with the same letter as her surname, which I love and don’t want to alter, and her fiancé’s, which I will change. I wasn’t crazy about it anyway. He is Anglo-Saxon and from a prominent New York family, and of another time, so there’s more research ahead of me. From Charles to…? (No, not Percival or Peregrine. I’m not trying for humor.)

I recently read a book I liked quite a lot, except that the protagonist’s name grated on me every time the author used it. To me, it seemed absolutely wrong for who she was, her age and her background, and my bias kept me at a distance from the story as a result. That’s an entirely subjective reaction. I don’t for a minute blame the author, whose own history, nostalgic recollections, or family names might have given her a completely different reaction to the name when she tried it out. No names will please everyone all the time. Late at night, scrolling down lists on Google, I remind myself of that. And I thank the Word programmers for the search-and-replace function, which makes the change of name after a ‘eureka’ moment so easy.

So, names matter. Title matter. And if I knew exactly how any why they matter to readers and editors, I’d share it with you. But I bet you know perfectly well when an author hits the mark: The Reek of Red Herrings, anyone?



3 comments:

Paul D. Marks said...

As you say, Susan, names matter. Titles matter. Really, everything matters. And it all has to come together without being over or undercooked. Not as easy as it looks from the outside :-) .

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Titles and character names don't come instantly for me either, Susan, but the right ones always seem to come along as the story grows.

RM Greenaway said...

Character names are manageable and even fun to play with - but book titles are tough for me too. Your comment about the protagonist with the wrong name was interesting. So it's not just me!