Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What's In a Name?

"Once upon a time, there was a little boy named ________________."

I've got names on the brain.

See, I just finished my last project (working title LAST CALL) this week (can I get a Halle-freakin'-lujah?), which means I'm onto my next project (more about that as it progresses), which means I am back in the business of naming characters.

The naming of characters is a difficult matter. A name should, like the title of a book, give us a clue about what kind of person we're meeting. Now, that's not always possible, and some names just don't have that kind of personality-revealing clout, but there are a few things to consider when naming a new character.

1. How old is the character? Wouldn't you, as a reader, get yanked kicking and screaming out of your suspension of disbelief if you encountered a character in the 55-75 age range named Bodie or Heather? It's not impossible, maybe, but it sure would make me think the author didn't know a thing about naming trends. Surprisingly, the Social Security Administration can be very helpful in this regard. Their website lets you search popular names by year and state.

2. What, if it matters, is the ethnicity of the character? If I'm writing a character who is a recent immigrant to the U.S., I sure as heck better find a name from that person's home country. Similarly, I can give characters a quick hint about my character through his or her last name. Allison Duong, for example, is probably of Vietnamese descent.

3. Where is your story set? I set all my stories in the Midwest, where a lot people are of German, Polish or Irish decent. So, I try to make my last names seem realitic for the area.

4. Do you want your character to stand out? Maybe something unusual will do the trick. I have a Clementine in my list of characters, for God's sake. I do, however, strongly discourage making up new names unless you happen to be writing fantasy. I also firmly believe that main characters should have an easily pronounceable name. Otherwise, the reader skims and thinks, Oh, that R-word again, that X person again...

5. To theme or not to theme? In A GAME OF RISK, my main character's name is Gwenyth, and she has a younger sister named Efa--both traditional Welsh names. In LAST CALL, my MC is Clementine, and her siblings (adults in this case) all share virtue names--Honor, Merit and Prudence. I think it can work, but only if you're using it within a reasonably associated group of people. Siblings are ideal, high school girls who form a clique because their names all start with A works, but an entire novel populated by people with elaborate an unusual names just makes me gag.

6. How do you feel about nicknames? In my worlds, characters get nicknames. Usually more than one. So, when I pick a name, I have to consider all the possibilities for what the other characters might start to call them. Because, frankly, my writing is like a mild form of schizophrenia, those people in my head seem to do whatever they want.

Here are some other great links for your name search:
Babycenter allows you to search by name meaning, syllables, first or last letter, or origin
Parentsconnect has an extensive list as well, with an advanced search like Babycenter. If you click More next to any name, you can get a pronunciation as well!
And, of course, you can't be Google for a specific name search, like 14th century Dutch names, or precious gem names. You never know what you're going to find!

Now I find myself with a whole, unformed world slowly taking shape in my head and I'm wondering who it is I'm going to meet there. So far, the only thing I've settled on is Sydney as my MC's first name.

What does the name Sydney bring to mind for you? Does someone named Sydney look or act a certain way? Please share your thoughts!

- Liz


2KoP said...

This is a great post. I have names on the brain lately, too, and one of the commenters on my recent blog post about names led me to you. Here's the link to my post, as well as one to a discussion I started on SheWrites Mother Writers group about the whole name thing. Thanks for sharing more resources.

Kristan said...

Dude, names are the worst! I mean, lol, I wrote my ENTIRE outline for my current WIP with a certain set of names, and have since changed ALL BUT ONE. That's at least 10 names I changed. Bah!

That said, my #1 rule of character naming is that if I would want to name my child that, I will not give it to a character. Because it would just be waaaay too weird to name my biological offspring after my fictional ones. :P

Liz Czukas said...

It's funny you say that Kristan. I have a character with the same name as my son. The character predates the child by about fifteen years, and I hadn't planned to resurrect him when I named my child. Then, when I did, I tried VERY HARD to rename the character, and I just couldn't. I honestly think of them as two different people (and conveniently, they only share a nickname for two different "real" names), but's weird.

- Liz

B.B.Wolfe said...

Well, to answer your question, I've never known a boy named Sydney, it was always a girl. However, a boy named Syndey makes me think of Austrailia (cliched yes) and as a result, makes me think of a rugged, tough, and determined.

Hope that helps.