Thursday, March 14, 2013

Three ways to name characters

This is one question that comes up all the time in writing forums... how do you name characters, where do you find names, help me I can't get a name to stick...

Everybody does it differently, so you have to try a bunch of different ways and find what works for you. I do it differently for different characters, even, so I have a few different methods to lay out.

Deliberate choices
When my friend Marcy Hatch interviewed me, she asked about naming and I described how I picked the name "Kate" for the main character of Disciple. It was a very deliberate choice on my part, not because of affection or inspiration.

Deliberation also applies to custom-built names. If you want to convey a certain image or a certain attitude, you might build a specific name from scratch. You want your alien monster to have an unpronounceable name full of harsh noises? A long, flowery name for a girl so that everyone will be surprised when she turns out to be tough as nails?

"Kiefan" was a custom-built name, of sorts. It isn't a "real" name, but it's close to one: Kiefer. It's also close to another name that I like, but wasn't the right ethnicity for this story: Kieran. So, a little cross-pollination and I had something a little different, but easily pronounced and sounding like the right ethnicity.

Know it when I see it
This is a method I use frequently. I know it's not very helpful, but here's how I narrow it down.

I'm a world-builder, as you know. When I'm developing a story, the characters and the world are tightly linked to each other. I have baby name books, online indexes, and random name generators on hand for when I'm brainstorming about these things, and I just peruse them. I usually have a vague feel for what general pattern I want to use -- something Latin/Romantic, or Germanic, what-have-you -- so I search for relevant ethnicities. Or I use a formula-based name generator that will use a specific pattern of syllables.

I knew I would be using Saxon names for one of the two boys in the M/M romance I'm currently developing, so I tracked down some indexes of male Saxon names. Problem is, most of them are horrible. Barely pronounceable at a glance, stupid-looking... so I'm skimming through these lists with increasing dread, hoping to find anything salvageable, maybe for bit-part characters, or something, and my eye lit on: Heathric.

Heathric. Holy crap, it's pronounceable. And he instantly acquired a mop of blond curls (probably because of Heath Ledger in A Knight's Tale) but I can deal with that.

I didn't choose it
Honest, I didn't. If you've never had a character name him/herself, maybe it sounds silly. It's not. It happened to me. Here's the story -- and I bet those who know the character won't be surprised at all:

When I first started playing around with the Saints of War world and characters, this scene I was writing needed a second-string knight to be Kiefan's aide. Given the German basis I was using for names, I found the name "Andreas" and plugged it in. If you read that first scene (you won't, it's long gone) you see the name "Andreas" a few times and then it spontaneously turns into "Anders" -- and that's exactly when he began to make his move into the spotlight. He's been a handful ever since. It's not a name that fits the story well, to be honest -- it's Scandinavian, not German, and it's a Biblical name (a variant of Andrew) which was a problem when I was later deliberately removing all Bible-based names -- but he didn't give me much choice in the matter. Anders he was and Anders he shall ever be.

Sometimes characters arrive fully fledged, even if you usually build them from job descriptions and story functions, spackled together with reasonable assumptions and things that just sound cool. Sometimes you just have to trust your creative gut and run with what it gives you.

Every character's name has a story. What's your most interesting one?


Michael Offutt, S.F.A. said...

Oh you're writing a M/M romance! SQUEEE! I want to read it so bad. I love M/M romance.

*doing the happy dance because one of my favorite authors is writing something I really love :)))

Sam F. said...

For me, it's always fun to choose themes! Sometimes I'll do it for main characters, but for minor characters, I'll do something like, "Each character is going to have the last name of an obscure poet," for example :)

Anonymous said...

"If you've never had a character name him/herself, maybe it sounds silly. It's not."
I love it when that happens! Names drive me crazy, especially when the first few attempts don't stick, but once in a while a character appears with a name and all looks and characteristics intact. It's a magical moment.

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