Thursday, March 20, 2008


I have nothing else to blog about, and really I should be working on finishing the story revisions I started on my lunch break, but I will now talk about names. A lot.

I love naming characters, but have to pick names in advance of the writing or I'll jam to a halt and stare at the screen while I try and come up with the right name. I use Laura Wattenberg's The Baby Name Wizard and Leslie Dunkling's Guinness Book of Names religiously--both sit by the computer, balanced on top of the dictionary and thesaurus, DWJones's The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, and my small collection of books about handspinning. They don't fit on the regular bookshelves, that's why.

If I don't pick out names in advance, I'll sometimes put a placeholder symbol (usually an underscore, thus: _) and sometimes I'll just pick a name at random. Either can be easily search-and-replaced. It's dangerous to use a random name, though, because it tends to stick. That's why the story I'm revising now has a main character named Ellen. I hate the name Ellen. But there's no point in changing it now.

There's a delicate art to balancing the roster of character names in a particular work. Names that don't look alike can sound alike--Amy and Emma, for instance. Names that don't seem similar are, really, such as the two I've got in the horror story I'm chipping my way through: Brian is the main character and his friend is Chris. I'm going to have to change Chris's name, because it's too similar in feel to Brian. He'll probably become Kit instead. I had a Kit in the story I'm revising, but I realized yesterday that I use "kit" as a noun in the story too, so I've changed the name Kit to Kip.

The more names in a story, the more careful the writer has to be. In The Weredeer, for instance, I changed one character's name two or three times before I found one that didn't echo another character's name. Initially he was Dell, I believe, but three other characters had L sounds in their names; I changed him to Davis, but that looked similar to Clark, another character. I finally settled on Dascoli, which gave him a very different flavor anyway.

I kept the initial D for a reason. A reader who doesn't remember names very well may remember supporting characters by their initials. I try not to repeat initial letters or sounds for that reason. In White Rose, where I have tons of characters, I use the initials R, B, T, A, F, and M for Rose and her companions in the first section of the book (with the addition of an L and H for two minor characters from the first two chapters only). Later, when she meets up with another group, I use these additional letters: Th, K, S, G, B, D, E, N, and another M. The two M names are Makena and Maxwell, not likely to be confused, I hope.

I can talk about this all day, and almost have. I haven't even mentioned name lengths! Or how to hint at different cultures by using certain naming patterns! Or the importance of giving main characters easily-remembered names even if every other character ends up with a name like Fassilitillini im Comfalla Blint. That's an actual name in a book I don't think I'll ever finish, set 60 million years in the future; instead of humans there are two species of intelligent warm-blooded reptiles, so none of the names are familiar--except for the main character, of course, whose name is Drake.

But it's late, and I have things to do before bed. So I'll now smack my hands away from the keyboard and post this mess without rereading it. Sorry!


J M McDermott said...

e-mail me yer address before noon today and i'll send you a prize for being the first person to post an amazon review!

K.C. Shaw said...

Cool! I just emailed you. Not only do I get an unexpected day off work today (I didn't realize the office was closed), I get a prize too!

TheRightBabyName said...

One other naming tool may be of interest: It provides some analytically based tools that may be helpful in coming up with appropriate character names.