Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Naming Characters

I finally got my Once Upon a Time episode and got back on my forums, but I still managed to hit my writing quota of the day -- and while at my desk, connected to the Internet. I haven't written much at my desk in years. I usually disconnect and take the laptop elsewhere.

Now, for a writing post. This week, I have another reader question, about naming characters. I've seen some writers giving what they seem to believe are absolute rules about this, but I hesitate to be an absolute authority. Instead, I'll mention some things that work for me both as a writer and as a reader.

I do like names to have some meaning. I don't want to go overboard and have every single name be literally significant, but I do like the sense behind the name to fit the character. I have one of those "what to name your baby" books and will flip through it when I'm naming characters. The meaning and history of the names does play a role in my final decision. I often make a list of potential names for a character and try them out to see which one seems to fit best.

One thing that is important is that a name shouldn't be a stumbling block for a reader. If a major character's name is impossible to pronounce, even mentally, then it may be hard for readers to get into the book. It's difficult to develop any emotional connection to a character you have to think of as "that guy." And if readers are unsure how to say a character's name, they may be less likely to talk about the book, which means you get less word of mouth. If you really need to use a difficult name, you can help by providing a kind of pronunciation guide within the text, like another character mispronouncing it and getting corrected on the right way to say it. Be judicious about the use of alternate spellings or inserting things like apostrophes as a way to turn a common name into something more exotic.

You also don't want to get confusing. I've heard writers say that you shouldn't have two characters in the same book whose names begin with the same letter. I wouldn't take it that far, as long as there's some other variety. I know of too many families who go with naming schemes, naming every child something that begins with the same letter. Doing that is a good way to show who belongs to the same family. In my current series, I deliberately gave a set of sisters names starting with the same letter, but they're not the main characters and they usually function as a unit. I think most readers are smart enough not to get confused because there's one character named Jared and another named John, so there's no reason to avoid all names beginning with the same letter. You just probably don't want all your main characters to be named Jared, John, Julia, and James.

On a related note, you should probably limit the number of names a character is known by unless you have an actual plot reason for multiple identities and want to throw off the reader. Fantasy can be particularly bad about that, with some characters having titles that they're called by, while they're also known in some places by their last names and in other places by their first names, and then in still other places known by nicknames, and then their enemies call them derogatory names. You shouldn't need a chart to keep track of one character.

Names can be an important part of worldbuilding. People from the same race or culture may have particular naming conventions or types of names, while you might find more diversity of names in a melting pot kind of society. I like to look for names from a similar ethnic family in the real world when I'm naming people in a culture even in a made-up world. Names also go in and out of fashion in time. When I was writing my upcoming steampunk book set in an alternate version of the Victorian era, I looked up names that would have been in common use at that time. For instance, botanical names were very popular in that era, so you saw a lot of girls whose names came from flowers and other plants. As a result, I've got an Olive and a Flora. When writing something set in the past, it's worth checking to make sure that name even existed then, whether or not it was common. It's okay to use an odd or uncommon name, but probably best not to use one that hadn't even been recorded at that time.

I also like to Google potential first/last name combinations. I'm not too worried about there being one or two random people out there who might have the same name, as long as they're well outside my circle. I do worry about historical figures, minor celebrities and characters in other books/movies/TV shows. Sometimes there's a reason that name combination popped into your head, and it may be that you've heard it somewhere before.

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