Thursday, February 3, 2011

What's In a Name?

Plotting a new novel recently I have come across a familiar phenomenon. I'm working away on the plot, then move on to fleshing out a particular character, or describing that particular character's backstory or role in the plot.

Slam. Dead stop.

I need the name.

If I cannot get a name that works for me for that character I am completely stumped. It is part stubbornness, part determination, part - well I don't know what. But I have an instinct for what name is right. It's like the core of the character starts as a seed of emotion, and I know that thing intimately. I know that I need to find the right name to unlock it, as though that unique combination of letters and sounds is itself a key.

Once I have the name, everything starts flowing. I can describe the character, I can move on with the plot. Suddenly I know what happened when they were seven, how they feel about their mother and what colour their hair is.

So what is it about names? Do other people find it the same when they are fleshing out a new book?

The idea of changing character names after the book has been written makes me shiver like a ghost just walked on my grave.

In fact, come to think about it. I can't even start plotting a book until I get the title of the book.

So what is it? What's in a name?

17 comments:

Jim McCoy said...

Names drive me up a wall. I just can't seem to get them. I used to GM a Mechwarrior pen and paper RPG group and I would look up names in the phone book and use those. Seriously.

The hard part is that I write fantasy now, and I can't just throw in some guy named Joe. It has to be a "fantasy name."

As for titles, I plainly suck at those. I've two WIPs at the moment. One is named Dwarf Story and the other is Action/Adventure. Pretty catchy huh?

Rita de Heer said...

For me the beginning of the story comes with a character, and then, yes, I have to find them a good name. When I change a name it is usually derivative of the first thing i thought of. Sometimes they refuse to accept a new name.

Titles I do like you, Jim, give the work in process a generic phrase. Only when it looks like it will have legs will I sweat on a title.

I'm having to think up a different title for one of my WIP, nearly finished, my first readers don't like the title. It's tricky, do I trust them, or do I not?

Bruce H. Johnson said...

The 4 novels I wrote were based mainly on Irish characters. The Internet found me several name generators (modern and classic) and a couple of entemologies. Might name a "bad guy" with a name derived from "treachery" or something.

There's WASP names, Europeon, Asian and the entire world. The Internet is your friend.

Often these resources led to an interesting name or enabled be to come up with something decent that had a rhythm or some other attraction. Given a base, your creativity can do the rest.

At least be consistent. If a character has a name like Bill, ensure you call him by Bill rather than Billy, William, Billy-Bob or whatever.

Having distinct character names really helps both you, the author, and the reader know right away who is "talking."

Go create a character who sticks in the mind.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Jim. One trick I have used in a pinch is to take a common name and replace the first letter.

Jake becomes Dake etc. Kind of lame, but surprising how much mileage I got out of that for short stories.

Other than that, try writing out a phrase that defines the character and rearranging syllables.


I know how frustrating it is to not get the names.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Rita. I like how your characters sometimes refuse to accept the new name:)

Whether to accept the advice on the title or not is tricky. It's in the same realm as any critique advice. It kind of depends if you trust the fact those giving the advice 'get' your work, and also how experienced/market savvy they are.

I would probably at least consider the change.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Bruce. Using the name generators and different languages is a good tip.

You are right about distinct names. Sometimes even having two names with the same first letter or similar syllable in the middle can be confusing for readers. It really helps to have the names look really different.

Good luck with the novels!

C Kelsey said...

I'm researching/plotting a novel myself right now. As usual for me it started with a working title and a main characters name. Given that this novel is set in the extremely near future and will be a globe trotting adventure, names for other characters are going to be especially challenging.

Amanda Green said...

Chris, I understand completely and commiserate with you. But there is something worse, at least in my opinion. There's the story or novel that is dictated to you by your pov character -- no, I'm not insane. At least no more than most writers -- and that pov character refuses to give you his name. It's frustrating because I can't sit here and write a paragraph putting in hash tags or "Whatever his name is just walked into the room....". It just doesn't work. Worse, it's what is happening to me right now. Maybe I ought to just give up and go play in the snow. ;-)

MataPam said...

Amanda, the short I recently sent to NR, the POV character and the character who is the focus of the story are both nameless. Fortunately it is very short.

I've had Characters whose names came easily, and refused to change, I've got another who's on her third name and she's still complaining.

And let's not even get into the weird society with the almost random four letter names. They were supposed to be a brief foil, easily ID by the weird names. They have no business being the setting for two entire novels . . .

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Chris. If it is set in the very near future, you could use common names, but give them a little twist? Are you concerned about making names too bizarre, yet want to make them different?

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Amanda. I have to confess that is one thing I have not experienced. Having heard that, I guess I am now glad my characters stay silent until I have a picture for them!

Maybe you can get your character to sit down on a padded couch and tell you about their early life or something? Perhaps a name will slip out:)

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Matapam. I can see you are having a lot of fun with your names there.

I like how your character keep complaining about her name. Maybe you can threaten her with one of those funky four letter names if she does not play ball:)

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Bob the Builder.

Vlad the Impaler.

Kevin the Vampire. Ooops.

I used to dip into the dictionary and look at the root of words. eg.

Reothe - in the T'en trilogy came from Betrothed, when people used to plight their Treothe.

Now I take lists of baby names from different ethnic background and give them a slight twist so that the names have a feel about them and are linguistically consistent.

I sent WAY too much time on this.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Rowena. At least you have a system that works:)

Kate Paulk said...

As someone who has used tags like "wifey" and such while writing something (usually secondary characters), I'm probably not qualified to comment here!

MataPam said...

There are all sorts of random name generators online. That doesn't mean _the_ right name will be on them, but it helps to have a print out handy, to grab names for secondary characters. And some times the right name will be there.

Stephen Simmons said...

Unless the Character shows up from Central Casting wearing a big neon name-tag, males start out named Bill or Fred, and females start out named Karen, Shirley, or Carol. If I let myself get bogged down in dithering over thinking up a name, I'll lose the story-thread. And if I don't take the time to dither over it, the made-up names will all end up being made of the same handful of letters over and over.

Once they do something remarkable enough to suggest a name of their own, the stock-names get replaced. If I've done even a half-decent job, the Character will start to rankle at the stock-name in fairly short order and pretty much demand a better one.

Titles? I'm with Jim. I've got the whole 5-book series of my current fantasy work plotted out, and the first volume more than half-written, and it's still "the fantasy series".