Monday, December 27, 2010

It's All In the Name



I feel really horrible for my future children. They’re probably all going to hate me because there is no chance of them having a normal name. Absolutely zero. You won’t see any Sarah’s or Elizabeth’s or Katie’s here. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had this fascination with unique and unusual names. Samantha’s pretty popular and commonplace, so I’ve always wanted my kids (and pets… and electronic devices…) to stand out. I figure they can thank me when they’re adults and can better appreciate the individuality I helped cultivate.
That’s what I keep telling myself, anyway.
Writing a novel is kind of like having a baby. One of the first things expecting parents do is pick out names, and you can’t really begin writing without one. As soon as you know whether your MC is male or female, it’s time to start thinking about what you want to call them. If you’re anything like me, you spend hours (and I’m not joking. I mean HOURS.) searching for the perfect name. I’ve got loads of baby name books and websites for just such an occasion. I’ll pull them all out, along with a sheet of paper, and jot down any that catch my eye. Here’s a list of my most used resources:
Baby Names of Ireland (With pronunciations)
COOL NAMES by Pamela Redmond Satran and Linda Rosenkrantz
BEYOND JENNIFER & JASON, MADISON & MONTANA by Pamela Redmond Satran and Linda Rosenkrantz
100,000 PLUS BABY NAMES by Bruce Lansky
However, I recently ran into a snag using this method. My current WIP revolves around a girl whose name I ended up making up myself. When I got the idea for the story, I felt as though I already knew her. I understood her personality and motivations, and knew how she’d react in just about any situation. Knowing those key aspects of my character made it easy to come up with an appropriate name. The problem, however, came with her love interest.
Let me explain.
Originally I’d chosen a name for this boy based on the fact that I liked it. That was all. I’d wanted to use it for a while, and this project seemed like as good an excuse as any to whip it out and slap it on someone. So I wrote half the book using it. I loved it, and knew my MC did, too.
And that was fine and dandy until I really started to get to know the character. When I first started writing, I had pictured him one way, but the more I grew to understand him, I realized the name I’d chosen was all wrong. He’s a soft-spoken guy who learns to become more outspoken and challenge authority, and the name I’d given him was a horrible fit. The more I used it, the more cringe-worthy it became. I knew it was time to hit the drawing board.
Two weeks later and I still haven’t found a replacement, but I’m working on it. So, in the meantime, I thought I’d give you a list of things to consider when it comes time for you to name your characters, so you don’t get stuck in the same boat as me!
1. Personality: When I was a kid, I used to hate the name Samantha. I spent years begging my mom to let me switch my first and middle names so everyone would have to call me Nicole instead. Then I grew up and realized my personality didn’t match the name Nicole at all. Think about your best friend – if they wanted to change their name, you’d probably tell them it was a stupid idea. Not necessarily because the name they preferred was lame or weird, but because it didn’t match their personality. When you have a baby, you obviously have no idea what they’re going to be like when they grow up, but with characters it’s entirely different. You’ve already got an idea of how this person is going to behave. That makes your job at least a little bit easier!
2. Sound: Does it sound okay when you say it out loud? How about when you say it in conjunction with your character’s love interest (or companions, if the story isn’t a romance)? For example, Sammy and Benedict doesn’t sound nearly as good as Samantha and Ben. The first sounds kind of clunky, while the second has a pretty good flow. Keep in mind the syllable count and vowel sounds. You probably don’t want to name your main characters Dan and Jan, nor do you want to go with Cleopatra and Elijah. It’s one of those weird balancing acts. Look at some of your favorite fictional characters (books or movies will do) and see how their names have been combined. Most of the time, they’re a pretty good example.
3. Pronunciation vs. Perception: I’ve always had a thing for Irish names. The spellings are a bit strange in comparison to the way they are pronounced (for example, Niamh is pronounced “neev”). When picking an unusual name, you don’t want to pick something a reader is going to stumble over. Science fiction is full of oddball names, but something like Klasdpjklasdj isn’t a good choice. Similarly, the way you pronounce a name may not be the same way your readers are going to. If I didn’t know better, I’d assume Niamh is pronounced “nee-am,” and I’d say that in my head every time I came across it. Case in point: Hermione. When the Harry Potter books first came out, I think every single one of my friends pronounced it differently. Luckily, we had the movies to set us straight. But basically, unless you want your readers spending a lot of time fumbling over your name choices, it’s best to stick to those that are unique, but easy to figure out.
Obviously there will probably be other things to consider, depending on your story and its characters, but those are some pretty basic guidelines that I hope will get you on your way! Godspeed, expecting writers!
Sidenote: I think maybe I'll grace my children with one of these.


  1. Love this post! I love naming characters...I usually let them marinate for awhile until the right name floats by and sticks. Then I'll test them for awhile in the MS...and if it's not working after all, I can always search and replace! Too bad it's not so easy with baby names.

  2. I'm obsessed with names. OBSESSED. Which is why it sometimes takes me so freaking long to come up with them :-p Right now I don't even have a name for the villain of my story, and the first draft is done :-p