Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Character Names: How to Find the Ones That Feel Just Right

A blog reader recently wrote me: "As I write a middle-grade mystery book on pet detectives, I have changed some character names three or four times. I can't see to get that 'feels right' fit for a particular name."

Names are tough for me. Some I just know, even before I start writing. I knew Kate and Mel from a short-story written before my novel, Qualities of Light, that expanded their story, was published. Kate was always a Kate, just because I felt that name was no nonsense, like a pilot has to be. Mel is a dreamy artist and I didn't care for Melvin, which it's short for, but try as I might, I couldn't change him to Jim or Joe or George.

Like my blog reader, though, some characters feel elusive in early drafts. I give them a "draft" name and try to keep it until they tell me otherwise. That might sound woo-woo to some, but fiction writers all know how the characters live inside our heads, often more real than the living folk around us at times.

So I asked a couple of writing friends about their experiences choosing names for their recently published novels. Here's what they said:

Ginger Eager, author of The Nature of Remains: "When I'm having a tough time naming a character, I go first to my husband's high school and college directories. He went to small, private schools, and the phone books are surprisingly intimate. Each entry includes the given name and nickname for the student, the student's parents, the student's siblings, and sometimes even the student's grandparents. That's enough information to develop a sense of the family-they loved one another well; there was a lot of rigidity.

"The same thing happens in graveyards, especially older ones with large family plots. At some point, the sense I have of the character I'm creating matches the sense I get from one of the names. I've tried using yearbooks, baby name books, name lists online, and directories from schools I've attended, but none of these work. There's something generative about being handed a whole family's worth of strangers' names with just a hint of history attached, be it nicknames or death dates or tombstone inscriptions."

Kathleen West, author of Are We There Yet?:"In order to name my characters, I ask myself or a critique partner to tap into their intuition: 'What's the name of a shaggy-haired white guy who considers himself a feminist and quit his job to become the stay-at-home dad?' That dude is not Derek or Brock or Thad, right? No, my enlightened male is Charlie.

"Similarly, 'Tell me the name of a type-A mom who sneaks protein powder into her child's oatmeal and dreams of being an Ivy League parent.' That woman's name is Meredith, yes? Or Charlotte? That suits her better than Angie or Maureen. Of course, there's no reason that's true -- it's just a feeling.

"Perhaps because of my haphazard approach, I've had to rename characters multiple times. In my first book, Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes, the leads were named Isobel and Elizabeth. Too similar. My editor asked me to change one, and Elizabeth became Julia. Same with Eileen and Evelyn. Eileen is now Nadia."

Rachel Eve Moulton, author of Tinfoil Butterfly: "I've always loved to name things. There is a joy in finding the right name that, for me, helps every other aspect of the story fall into place.

"I once lived in a house in a mostly abandoned metro park where people would dump their cats. I gathered them like loose change and named every single one--Vlad the Inhaler, Monkey, Doctor Squirrel Nuts. When it came time to name my characters in Tinfoil Butterfly--Emma, Earl, and George--I wanted more subtle names, ones that would be reframed by the story rather than announce their personality upfront. 

"The origins of the novel began in the 90s, and, at the time, Jane's Addiction's "Jane Says" was among my favorites. Jane inspired Emma. Farrell's song about a woman procrastinating recovery combined with the suggestion of a kind of Austenian Emma who trips through a life of romantic misunderstandings provided me with a name I felt was both descriptive of the woman I pictured and sardonic.

"George was similar for me in that his name presented an irony that would not immediately read as evil--I could build it. Finally, for Earl, I wanted a name that would invoke a stereotype of a country kid, a hick, and then I wanted him to both play into it that stereotype and defy it.
"There is a kind of megalomania in naming things. The practice of it deludes you into ownership over a person, place or thing, and it is a necessary step when tricking yourself into the act of creation. And, if you are especially good at what you do, whether it be cats or children or characters, each named thing will defy your egoism and become their own intentionally powerful being, one entirely separate from you."

And for even more, check out these ideas:

From blogger Sandra Gerth

From NY Book Editors

From The Write Life

If links don't work, google the name above and search for "character names."

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