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Saturday, December 15, 2007

What’s in a name?

I name my characters very carefully for reasons I have developed as both a writer and a reader.

As a reader, I’m annoyed when more than one character name in a book starts with the same letter. When the book gets really good and I read faster, my eyes use that initial capital letter as shorthand and skip over the rest of the name. If there are two or three R-characters, I get confused. So when I write a book, I jot down the alphabet and make sure I don’t use more than one main character name for each letter. This is a habit I developed on my own, but I’ve since heard that some editors ask writers to change names when several start with the same letter. Affirmation makes me feel 50% less neurotic.

As a reader, I’m also taken aback by strange character names. Some names don’t sound like names, and lately writers love to give heroines boy-names. If I have to think too hard about a name, I’m pulled out of the story.

As a writer, when I begin a new manuscript, I’m embarking on a lonely journey of several months. I do everything possible to keep myself on the edge of my seat. So my characters have names with special meaning to me or the story, even if that meaning will never be apparent to my readers.

In the manuscript I just finished, the heroine is named Zoey because at first I pictured her looking like Zooey Deschanel, but I think Zooey has one too many O’s, and I could not be bothered with repeatedly looking up the key to type an umlaut (Zoë). By the time I finished writing, I’d changed the character until she looked nothing like Zooey Deschanel--but I have to start somewhere, and I still like the name Zoey.

The hero of that story is an Olympic-caliber swimmer who works on his dad’s charter fishing boat and is very unhappy about it. I named him Doug, which means “black water,” according to the baby naming website. I spend a LOT of time on the baby naming website.

One of my favorite characters I’ve written is the heroine of BOY IN BLUE, which is coming out in March 2009. I named her Meg. I have a cousin my age named Meg, and I grew up thinking Meg was the coolest name in the world, MUCH cooler than Jennifer.

Here is how I came up with the name of the hero. I live in Alabama and my critique partner Vicki lives in Utah, but somehow over months of e-mailing and calling each other, we had become best friends without ever meeting in person. We finally met at a writers’ conference in Reno. Between playing blackjack and listening to the (excellent!) Johnny Cash impersonator in the bar, we had the sort of strange conversation you have with someone when you are best friends but are meeting in person for the first time and are trying desperately to make sure you will still like each other afterward. Somehow we got on the subject of the names of our characters and strange names of people we’d known in real life.

Vicki: I went to school with a guy named John Actor. It flowed off the tongue so well that no one ever called him John. Everyone called him Johnactor, one word.

Jenn: That would be a great name for a character. Johnafter.

Vicki: I said Johnactor.

Jenn: What? [The casino was loud.]

Vicki: I SAID I DIDN’T SAY JOHNAFTER, I SAID JOHNACTOR.

Jenn: Oh. *pause* Johnafter is a better name for a character.

I came home and wrote a book about John After, a.k.a. Johnafter, a 19-year-old rookie cop with a Dark Past.

If you’re a writer, how do you come up with character names? Do you give it a lot of thought, or is it just me? We would love to hear the story behind characters' names in your books.

If you’re a reader, what do you love about character names, and what annoys you? I’ll try to keep that in mind for the next manuscript. ;)

9 comments:

Barbara Caridad Ferrer said...

Okay, yeah—we've definitely been separated at birth or something.

Baby name sites? Check.

Careful about how you name characters? Check.

Drawing inspiration from the oddest places? Check.

I'm not quite such a stickler about the names beginning with the same letter, however, I am very careful about multiple alliterations—if there are too many similarities in how the names sound.

I'll admit that I seem to have a particular weakness for boy names that begin with J. Don't ask me why-- but so far, I've had main characters named: Josh, Jaime, Javy (Javier), & Jonathan, with a minor character in the one book I didn't have a main character named with a J, named James. :-) I'm sure there's something terribly Freudian in there.

One of my favorite sites for name searches is Name Voyager: http://babynamewizard.com/namevoyager/lnv0105.html

You can find the popularity of names by year, which I think is particularly cool, because I'm a geek like that.

jennifer echols said...

Okay, yeah—we've definitely been separated at birth or something.

*snort* No, you have much better fashion sense than I do.

I love to look up popularity of names by year, too, because I'm trying to find the names that are common for the age group I'm writing about--and those aren't the same as the names common for my own age group. Susan! Mike! Jennifer!

Jenny said...

OK, speaking of names...In RICH BOYS the main character's name was Linday. She also appears in LOCAL GIRLS as one of the character's sisters. But then I read that Cara and Tara have books coming out with characters named Lindsay. So I freaked. Do I change it? Blah, blah. My editor didn't care, my agent and I decided to change it. So now her name is Winnie, which I think is the cutest name in the world, and also happens to be the name of my daughter's friend.

Names are funny because there's such baggage with it. Usually I associate names with people I've met, so Seans are hot guys, Ashleys are dumb girls, Isabels are bitches, Jamies are asexual boys, etc. Can't get away from it. I was reading a Sarah Dessen book and the main character was named Colie (really Nicole). I couldn't get over the name, it's a freaking dog! I actually didn't even finish the book. Colie did not work for me. At all.
Jenny

jennifer echols said...

Yeah, I had a friend name her hero Cale. I told her this is cabbage yo. She got all hot & bothered & told me it's only cabbage with a K. Sometimes you just have to let go and let your friends name their heroes cabbage.

taltebrando said...

Oh, man. I'm a nut job about character names. I guess I always want it to be something that's a little bit cool but not too weird? Though the Betsy of Pursuit was named after Betsy Ross, so that's different. I've got a Chloe and Lindsay and a Zoe in What Happens Here, and I guess they all sound sort of same-y now that I think about it. Ooops.

I had a nearly impossible time naming my baby--a million times harder than characters!--but ended up naming her Elena June. Elena/Ellen are family names and June is just for fun, but sort of inspired by June Carter Cash. Of course we've been calling her Ellie. Lots of options for her, though, when she gets older, which I think is fun.

Having named a baby I do think I"ll think about character names a bit differently now. It was important for me and my husband that the name had meaning for us, so I think I'd consider that more in future books...Why would my characters' parents name them whatever they've named them???

Victoria Dahl said...

Oooo, Johnafter! My favorite hero! About the (original) John. He was actually someone I knew at a job when I was in school, so I only knew him in work life, and we all called him Johnactor. But the really weird thing was when he brought his girlfriend to the Christmas party and SHE called him Johnactor too! Ha! "Johnactor, I'm ready to go."

As for naming characters, I rely heavily on a book called The Baby Name Survey Book. Especially for secondary characters. The authors surveyed hundreds of thousands of people to determine the first impression given by a name. So if I need a coworker name that screams TRASHY! I look up "Dumb" or "Sleazy". If I need a sister who's obnoxiously attractive, I look up "Beautiful" and "Pretty" and "Elegant". Then I have a good starting point.

Each name is also broken down to give meaning, origin, and all the impressions of the name. Here is my unfortunate entry: People picture Vicki as a small, plain tomboy who is caring and who smokes heavily.

myjackforever said...

I used to have a baby name book but it went missing.
Now I just really on myself on getting new names. I hate naming them after somebody in real life because then they take on those characteristics, even if they were good. I just can't name someone after somebody real.
I will, however, base a character off of a real person and change the name and then change the character a little. More like how I wish the real person was.
I also don't repeat names and I really hate using common names like John or Mary or something. The names are odd, but still familiar, like one named Buckley and yet another named Alexis but another named Kyle. It all depends on the character. They just mostly tell me what they want to be named and I work with that.
Want more examples, check out my myspace.

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

I'm all about the baby name books. I usually like the meaning of the name to match up with my character's personality in some way. But I often also use names that have some sort of personal meaning to me. Like you I chose a name I always liked better than mine for my heroine in I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE. Emily was my next door neighbor's name growing up. I used to babysit her and she is nothing like my character, but I've always loved the name. My other characters names come from people I admire. I had friends--not super close friends but friend I looked up to--named Molly and Louisa in high school and used their names for IWBYJR, though Louisa, the mom character is also a little tribute to my mom whose middle name is Louise. Though Louisa and my mom are nothing alike! Anyway, sorry for the loooong response, but this is a fave topic of mine!

Kelly Parra said...

I first picture the characters in my head and take into account age, where the live, and give them a name that would all fit together. I'm into easy names to pronounce and type out, too. :) :)