Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Name Game

I'm getting a late start on the day, thanks to yet another fun mix-up with the car dealership. Apparently, all the paperwork was done with the wrong VIN, so I had to go back this morning and sign everything again (I did make them check the VIN against my car). And then soon after I got home, they called again and said there was one more form, but this time he drove to my house to bring it for me. I think they got the feeling I might have lost it if they'd asked me to drive there again. It seems that one reason for the issue with them not having the car when they said they would was that they couldn't get the exact car they sold me, so I got an identical car, but that meant the paperwork was all wrong. Ah, well.

You know how I said when posting my rant on Monday that there were times when the universe seemed to move in themes? Well, the same day I ranted, Breakup Girl posted this cartoon on a similar topic, and even mentioned the lovely no-win situation where women are made to feel like freaks if they don't want to get married and have kids, but they're setting women back if they do.

And now, apparently, there's a whole new demographic term coined for the women who aren't pining about being single but who are living their own lives: freemales (not sure I like it, but I like the concept). There's an article about it at Salon. I guess that proves the other author wrong that anyone who said she wasn't desperately longing to get married and have kids was in denial or lying. By the way, that was the part I was complaining about. I'm fine with whatever choices women make in how to live their lives. I just don't like someone trying to justify her own feelings by claiming that everyone shares them and that anyone who says she doesn't is in denial or lying.

On another topic, I was asked last week how to go about naming characters. It's not a very scientific process for me. I have one of those "what to name your baby" books, and I flip through it until a name jumps out at me as right for that character. The book I have seems to have a British bias, so there are a lot of Scottish and Welsh names that aren't used in the US, which is good when you write fantasy, and there are a lot of surnames that can be used for first names, which is good for coming up with surnames. I make a little list of names that strike me, then put them together with possible last names and see how they sound. I also like looking at the meaning and origin of names. This book has lists in the back for the most popular names by decade, which is good if you want a character to have a common, ordinary name that fits his/her age. Lately, I've started Googling the names I want to use (first and last together) to see what comes up. If it's a common-enough sounding name, I don't worry about getting a few matches if none of them are really famous, but there are times that the reason a name seems to click is that you've heard it before, and someone reasonably well-known has the same name. Then I come up with something else, especially if it is a unique or unusual name.

Some naming tips:
Avoid having too many characters with names starting with the same letter or that are similar in another way. You don't want readers to have to keep a score sheet to keep track of which character is which. The exception would be if that's part of your story or world-building -- say if it's a family thing that everyone in the family has a name starting with the same letter, if the characters are from a culture where certain letters are used often (like with the Vulcans on Star Trek, where it was a thing to give "S" names), or if it's something like a religious order where people take a new name upon joining, and those names all have something similar about them.

Look out for names you'll be using often that end in "s." No matter what you do, making it a possessive looks awkward.

Avoid names that are really hard to pronounce or where the pronunciation isn't clear from the spelling. Yes, people will likely be reading silently, but they still mentally pronounce words, and if they stumble over the main character's name, they'll have trouble getting into the book and connecting with the character. Plus, if readers aren't sure how to say the main character's name, that makes it very hard to talk about the book, and word of mouth is the way most people hear about books. You need for people to be able to talk about your characters, starting with an agent, going through the whole publishing company, and then on to readers. If they feel stupid because they aren't sure how to say a name, they're going to be less enthusiastic about talking about it. If you do use an odd name, try to work in a pronunciation guide, such as the character correcting someone else who mispronounces it. I know this sounds like a silly, trivial thing, but I've heard way too many people talk about giving up on a book because they couldn't say the names of the main characters. Fantasy and science fiction writers are particularly bad about giving weird names to make their characters seem exotic, but remember, "weird" or "different" doesn't have to mean "impossible to sound out in your head." If your main character is named Gryxxli'wc, don't expect people to talk about your book in great depth with anyone else. I'm just saying.

Beyond that, I really can't say much. I use Welsh-related names for a lot of the magical characters in my series because Merlin started the company, and depending on which bit of folklore you're looking at, he was supposedly at least part Welsh and I figured that would have permeated the magical culture. But I tried to give Katie and her family more folksy, common, even slightly old-fashioned names. Some characters are born with names already in place, like Sam the gargoyle. There was no naming him. He just was. Strangely, the main female character of every book I've had published has had a name ending in -y or -ie. I keep trying to break that pattern, but every book I try to write with a main female character without that kind of name doesn't seem to get off the ground. Maybe I ought to just go with it.

Generally, it all comes down to sound and feel. Can I picture the character when I say the name? Does a character come into full view suddenly when I assign a particular name (sometimes there's a near-audible click)? How does the name look in print?

No comments: