Monday, August 10, 2009

Naming Characters

Nothing puts me off reading a book more than poorly named characters. You know what I’m talking about – the book cover looks promising, you flip it over, read the back blurb and it’s a young adult contemporary novel featuring the gripping, fantastical adventures of…Bobby and Mary-Sue.

Unless this is a spoof, or dark comedy featuring greaser zombies who time travel from the 1950s to the year 2009 via a set of haunted dashboard dice – I’m not likely to give the book a shot. A contemporary story needs characters with contemporary names. A fantasy demands names with a bit of flare, drama and magic. Naming characters for a historical tale requires research into surnames, etc.

As writers, we choose names that are ironic (the vampire named Bill, the giant named Tiny), political statements (V is for Vendetta), names that inherently tell the reader our character’s social standing, wealth, age or personality traits. We'll spend hours skimming baby name books, geneology sites, online phone books, classical literature, history resources, asks our co-workers if they know of any unusual names. And we haven’t even gotten into the nicknames our characters give other characters…..oy!

The naming process takes time, thought and creativity. When writing a first draft, I’ll often give characters draft names… common, top-of-my-head names that act as placeholders until I learn more about the character or have time to research/create a suitable handle. I’ll also rename a character fifty million times if I have to, until I find just the right one….how do I know it’s the right name? I’ll read over a scene with said character and when the name is right, that annoying buzz of discontent will just stop, and I’ll simply read on, no longer stumbling when I see the name typed out.

A writer friend informed me she researches name meanings before assigning them to characters and uses those meanings to develop personality traits, history or the character’s purpose in the story. That really stepped up the naming game for me. Now I have to give it a whirl and see what I can come up with for future projects.

So, what’s your process? How do you name your characters? Am I alone in being turned off a book because the character names didn’t match the story?


Brooke Reviews said...

I write for myself really at this point in my life, so when I name characters. I name them what I like and what rolls off my tongue nicely.

Also, will you please write the greaser zombies who time travel via a set of haunted dashboard dice, because that sounds hysterical! :D

Tami Klockau said...

Names are huge for me, as you know Tracy. I just read Gone by Michael Grant and loved the book, but he had a female character named Astrid. I almost put the book down because of it. I'm so glad I didn't. In the end, it was a weird name that took me half of the book to get beyond it, but it actually fit the character. She's smart, a little nerdy and a good friend.

I'm another one that pays attention to the meaning of a name and try to work that into someone's personality.

Tracy Belsher said...

Hey Brooke - lol...yeah, I have to admit, the greaser zombie story earned an entry in my random-but-cool-ideas-for-future-plots coil notebook. ;)

Tami - no wonder you and Kitty make such great crit've got the same great writer instincts. Let's hope some of if it rubs off on me.

Leona said...

Bummer, I was gonna ask if I could use the greaser zombie idea for my short film story LOL. That was great :)

If you change your mind and take it out of your future story idea handy dandy notebook, let the rest of us know, okay?

But, one thing you need to know in place holding. Maybe you've gotten lucky and haven't had it happen to you, but I've had issues. I can't remember what the name was (maybe dan or tim) and when i said replace all with, you know what happened?

I can almost hear some of you nodding your heads. Any word with that letter combination had a new spelling in the middle of it. It was a nightmare to fix. just a FYI.