Friday, June 12, 2009

What's in a Name?

I spend a lot of time choosing names for my characters. I believe the “perfect” name can give readers a sense of who your characters are, even before they learn another thing about them. Of course, different names mean different things to different people*, but I believe many distinctive names come "pre-loaded" with character qualities.

For instance, I have certain preconceived notions about people with these names. Do you?

  • Raquel
  • Bubba
  • Shaquille
  • Elvis
  • Angus McDougalbrangelina
  • Lolita
  • Charles Wellington III
  • Abraham
  • Ishmael
  • Travis
  • Homer
  • Brangelina


Some things I consider when picking names (or nicknames):

1) Physical appearance. What does the character look like? What mannerisms do they exhibit? I think it would be weird to write about a guy with black hair named Red.

2) Nationality or cultural heritage.

3) Socioeconomic background. Charles Wellington III doesn’t sound like a pauper to me.

4) Family names. If a character has a mother named Mary and a father named John, I wouldn't name him Xerxes.

Elvis5) Similarity to famous people. If I read a book with a character named Melvis Prasley, I'd be thrown right out of the story (even if he did wear a nice, understated jumpsuit). 

6) Age. This is one of the biggest factors I consider. Agnes might work for a senior citizen, but I don't know too many four-year-old kids named Agnes.** The Social Security Administration has an invaluable site that lists the most popular baby names for any year, going back to 1880.*** I always check my names against their database before making a final decision.

7) The initial letter of other characters' names. I don't want to confuse readers (okay, I don't want to confuse myself), so I track the letters I use, for both male and female first names, as well as for last names. I won't use the same initial letter for two characters, if I can possibly help it. (Have you ever read a book with a Jim, John, Joe, Jeff, and Jerry? Tough sledding.)

8) Is the name easy to type? If I’m going to be typing someone’s name a ton of times, I sure don't want something like Xanthippe or Rumpelstiltskin. (On the other hand, too many three letter names would seem a bit odd…)

Finally, after I pick a name, I conduct the smell test:

Knowing everything I know about my character, can I "picture" him/her with that name? If not, it's on to the next possibility.

What are some of your tips for naming characters?


*A lot depends on the people you've met throughout your life. If a jerk named Dirk used to steal your lunch money, then you might be predisposed to dislike anyone else named Dirk.

**For the record, I have nothing against anyone named Agnes.

***In 1880, John was the most popular male name, and Mary was the most popular female name. Xerxes didn't make the top 1000.



Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Now when I hear Elvis songs, I'm going to have Melvis pop up in my head!

I'm like you--if there are a bunch of people with names that start with the same letter, I get confused. I make sure I'm not doing that when I write.

The murder victims and killers in my books frequently bear the name of people I've known in the past. :)


Travis Erwin said...

Third from the bottom. Now that name really stirs me ;)

Alan Orloff said...

Elizabeth - I like your idea of naming victims/killers after people you've known. Unfortunately, I couldn't afford all the lawsuits!

Travis - Here's a little known fact: Melville actually had a trunk novel that begins, "Call me Travis." :)

(BTW, I think of "Travis Tritt" whenever I hear the name Travis)

Travis Erwin said...

I did an entire piece on the name Travis today. Check it out of you get the chance.