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May 3, 2011

What’s in a Name?

Shadowy figure in a hallway

When we first get an idea for a story, the characters who will populate that story often start out shadowy and vague.  Either before the writing process (if we’re plotters) or during the writing process (if we’re pantsers), we have to develop those characters into something solid and colorful.  We have to make them real to the reader.

We all have different ways to build characters.  Listening to the whisperings of our muse, completing character sheets, layering them with personality traits (like from my Strong Characters series), or any other of a hundred different methods.

I usually need to start with something to spark my impression of a character before their characteristics come to mind.  Maybe some mannerism will expose their quirks.  Or maybe thinking about what kind of a person would choose the job they have will give me ideas.

Sometimes I search for pictures of faces, but I don’t use generic photos.  I go for the ones with emotion in their expression, maybe a sense of mystery, determination, or mischievousness.

Other times, I’ll start with a name.  Does that name make me think of someone uptight or smiling?  Insecure or confident?  Optimistic or pessimistic?  Then I decide if I’ll match those expectations or  play against type.

If I don’t come up with the name first, then I have the harder job of trying to match a name to the character.  Like many writers, I put a lot of thought into my character names.  The names I choose often have subtext-filled meanings or hidden themes.

I’ve been thinking about character names because YA author Natalie Whipple had a blog post yesterday teasing that she’s already used all the names and no one else can have them.  Don’t worry.  By the end of the post, she admitted that she could probably share.

In fact, she ended with an interesting point:

[A] name is only a very small fraction of a character. If you’ve written a truly dimensional character, they will stand out no matter what their name is. … So maybe instead of asking, “Is this the right name?” We should ask, “Would this character stand out even if I named him John Smith?”

I think she’s right.  I don’t usually pay attention to character names when I’m reading a story.  So from a reader’s point of view, that character better be good even if he registers only as “hero dude” in my memory.

From that perspective, a character’s name is like backstory we—as the author—know about a character that we use to color their dialogue and actions, but that we never explicitly spell out to the reader.

This concept doesn’t mean I’ll change my approach.  I’ll still search for the perfect name for each of my characters, but I’ll make sure their name is an add-on to their greatness and not the foundation.

How do you come up with character ideas (pictures, names, character sheets, etc.)?  How much effort do you put into finding the “perfect” name for your characters?  How much do you pay attention to character names in stories you read?

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Michele Shaw

I have a very random system, trying out names until one sounds right. I change names often at the beginning, but once a name settles and “becomes” that character, no more changes. Agreed. The characters should all be strong no matter what names you choose. In fact, crazy and hard to pronounce names can be distracting to me. Great post, Jami:)

Gene Lempp

I find character ideas through theme, “this character needs to show x”, that becomes the core of their personality and then I build the rest from there. Note, that in general, I have an idea for story, plot and theme before doing characters which helps.
Naming, is a whole other subject. I go on baby name sites, study the meaning and history of the names and hunt (sometimes for hours or days or longer) to find a selection of first names that match the concept I have for the character. Often they just start as Protag or Antag or a letter in the order they were conceived. Once I find finally choose a first name, the last name becomes finding one that both displays the character core (subtly) and reads smoothly with the first name.
In reading, I look for the same and expect the characters name to have some meaning beyond the base words, although, if the character is strong and well-written it could be named simply Bob and I’d still be enthralled!
Great post Jami 🙂

CMStewart

All my characters start as incubations in my mind. These incubations are all people I’ve met, the places I’ve seen, and the experiences I’ve had, meshed together. When my characters are ready to come out, they emerge in egg form. I usually have a name for them at this point, and I already know their histories and basic personalities, and a fair idea of what they look like. I’ll incubate them with random insights and scribbled plot ideas until they hatch. Then I vividly see their basic physical characteristics. I’ll feed and water them with character worksheets, online searches, and scene writing until they’re fully developed in personality and appearance. By then I have my story.

Raelyn Barclay

I’ve yet to come up with characters (or their names) the same way twice, LOL. My current WiP the characters arrived fully formed complete with names.

The story that’s “curing” was written with hero#1, hero#2, and heroine the entire first draft. I could see them, talk to them, but names just didn’t come. It wasn’t until my first revision pass that the heroes’ names came to me (though one has gone through about six last name changes) but the heroine, she was just plan stubborn, so I named her and the heroes corrected me, LOL

I will say I love the Emotional Toolbox for character development and Tarot cards are fun for inspiration. Great post!

M.E. Anders
M.E. Anders

I tend to pick character’s names only after completing a full character profile on him/her. After creating that mental picture in my mind, the name fills my mind.

D. F. Krieger

I try very hard to fit the name with the characters background or ethnicity. Take my WIP, “His Prey,” for example: it’s set in a Native American environment, so obviously I’m not going to name the hero “Bob”. 🙂 Names tend to come to me on their own, while I’m developing the story in my head.

Carradee

I often think of an interesting situation and character type, and what I’d like to result from that situation. The character develops dimensions as I figure out who the character must be for the situation to work.

Occasionally, the character comes to me with a name, but I often find myself perusing baby name meaning lists and getting more ideas to build the situation until I land on a name that both fits the character and doesn’t sound like anyone else I’ve already named for the story.

“Fitting the character” means that the name has appropriate origins and meaning for the character’s parents to have used it, in the era when the character was born. (Or for the character herself to use it, when I have a character who picked a name herself.)

My UF YA WiP, the narrator’s been through some horrific things, but she still has personality. When she legally changes her name, the new name she picks both reflects that humor that isn’t quite squished by what’s happened to her and reminds her of who she was, because she can’t afford to forget.

PW Creighton

Excellent analysis. Goes with what I was saying in my last couple of posts about sculpting story through character and defining the characters. I firmly believe that their psychology is the foundation for everything. The greatest words of wisdom I’ve ever heard regarding characters are: “If you’ve crafted them perfectly then it wouldn’t matter what they do for a living or what the story is, because they can be believable in any situation. Take the characters and make them lawyers, do they still work? Make them doctors, police, store clerks… If they can hold their own in any situation then you’ve made a believable character.” I say start with personality, psychology and find what fits from there.

Suzi McGowen

I love playing with names. I like them to mean something. (Most of my characters in my Troll Wife story, for example, have dental names. Bitewing, Diastema, Brux, etc.)

I also like to break the rules. My main character in Troll Wife has no name. (Yes, that causes me problems in pitching.) And someday, by gosh, I WILL write a romance with the hero named Jakarsnook Bobo.

Heinlein wrote a book about a martian named Michael Smith 🙂

Anassa

I tend to start with a trope character—age, race, gender, personality traits. Then I dump them into the scenario or plot sketch I’ve got going, see how they react, and dump that onto the character sheet. (Or change the plot to suit them better. Current MC excels as denial.) By that point, I’ve found them a provisional name, which’ll match their background and their personality, and which often comes from name databases. I can’t write unless I’ve a name, though I’ve renamed characters partway through.

I’ve never used pictures for character description. I have a general image in my head and go off that. Detailed character description isn’t my style. I prefer to give a sketch, not a painting.

I don’t tend to pay attention to character names past the first couple instances. Just enough to recognize the word-shape so I know who’s speaking. But with books like Harry Potter where so many names telegraph character traits or information, I pay attention a lot more because the names have bearing on the plot, then.

Irene Vernardis
Irene Vernardis

Hi Jami 🙂 I choose names to reflect a character’s personality traits and names that are related to the area or century the character was born. You can’t have an Ancient Greek named e.g. Jim or George. Additionally, it depends on the species, I wouldn’t use those names for a hard-ass vampire or a werewolf, for example. Then I choose from that lot what sounds better and it will be easy to follow when reading. I don’t like difficult, complex names, not even in science fiction or fantasy. If the reader gets a brain cramp every time he/she reads the main character’s name, he/she will get pissed off. I know I do when reading a story. I can’t follow the main character if I stop each time trying to pronounce a difficult name like Brogirendulfvisen (just made it up, no associations to it) and I will give up on that character and probably on the book. I like weird names, as long as they are easy to read and connected to the character’s personality. For example, J.R.Ward in her Black Dagger Brotherhood vampires series has an excellent word play with her MC’s names, all related to the personalities of the MCs > Wrath, Rhage, Tohrment, Zsadist, Phury, Vishous, Dhestroyer, Rehvenge, Ehlena, Payne, Tehrror, etc. She uses also simpler names for (ex-) human characters, like Elizabeth, Mary, Butch, Jane, John etc. But all are easy to read. So, I guess first rule should be the name to be easy to read…  — Read More »

Murphy

Hi Jami!

I can’t say much about character names. I’ve occasionally forgetten how to spell those suckers after a chapter of two…that’s bad, isn’t it? But hey, in my defense, I have ‘renamed’ characters after they’ve spent some time with me and developed into the people I figure they are. 😉

Murphy

Jess Witkins
Jess Witkins

Great post, Jami! I’ve just been thinking about these same topics. I really like picking out names for characters and I think names say a lot about a person. I’m such a visual person, I also pull photos and take photos that inspire me. Recently I was feeling stuck with my plot, so I took a walk in a graveyard (my book’s setting) and took photos of tombstones/crypts that inspired me and since then I’ve crafted the beginnings of a scene from those photos. I was really energized and excited about that, doing something proactive to move forward in writing. Thanks for the post, Jami!

Donna Newton

Hi Jami,

Years ago, when I was but a naive lass and knew no better, I was a pantser. Now I’m wiser and, dare I say it, Older, I’m a plotter. In fact I probably obsess about plotting a little too much (thank you Kristen Lamb :p). I robotically follow the same process, whether I’m writing a script or novel:

Story Idea
Character Names
Character Backgrounds
Story Plot
Write Novel/Script

I couldn’t ever think of writing without my character’s names firmly planted in my head. I like names that are strong and depict capability as well as a smidgen on vulnerability. I just wish I’d thought of James Bond 😀

Excellent Post!

Kerry Meacham
Kerry Meacham

Hello Jami – Intriguing post. The story I’m building now started with the antag being named Garlock. This comes from a company name I know, and I thought it made for a good antag sound. Then strangely, his backstory was so compelling that all of my writing group buds said they we pulling for him. So I changed the story and made him the protag. The question then became, “Do I change his name?” Initially I thought I would, but his name didn’t distract from people liking him. So I then decided to make the antag, a prince/king, have a protag sounding name. His name is Osgood, but he’s anything but good. Sometimes going against the grain is fun. Thanks again for a great post.

Maryanne Fantalis

My fantasy characters tend to come to life complete with names which I don’t alter much, and of course the historical characters are ready-made.

The one interesting story (or frustrating, depending on your POV) concerns my first fantasy novel which took some time going through the editing process, during which the MC’s name, Kayley, became very popular in pop culture. So I changed it to Kira. Hmmmm. Suddenly Kira’s popular. What the heck? The book never did get published, and when I went into another rewrite for another round of submissions, I changed her name once again, to Rumer, which I hoped drew subtle associations with her status as an illegitimate child who is used to people whispering behind her back. Yeah, still unpublished. But part of my 10,000 hours, right? 🙂

As always, a great post, Jami!

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

Great post!
I usually look up baby names online, and go with the ones that not only sound nice, don’t sound like other characters in my stroy, and also have a meaningful…meaning.
To tell you the truth, I gave my son a romance hero’s name. The book was an oldy, I read it in the 80’s. Can’t remember the name of the novel, but the character, the hero, stuck with me over the years. In 93 when I had my son I gave him that character’s name. Well, part of it…my family, and husband didn’t like the idea of a little baby being named Blade (although how cool would that be right now at 17!) anyhoo, I had to settle with the character’s surname as my son’s middle name. So my first born has the very cool name (in my opinion)
of: Case McKenna DeStefano…he’s not too keen on McKenna and usually doesn’t offer that info to his friends.
But I love it! And it’s all because of a character that stuck with me over time.
Another interesting post Jami!
Have a great day!
Tamara

Lisa Gail Green

Jami – LOL I did a naming post a ways back and used the same title! More proof that great minds think alike. 😀 But some of our points are different (in a good way) I think understanding that the character has to stand w’o the name is so important. Also that sometimes the name comes at different points in the process. GREAT POST! As always.

Patrick Thunstrom

Full admittance, I hate the naming portion and my planning and drafts now use titles. Names are the very last thing I give my characters. Of course, that means all I have to work with is personality, history, and action. Which is kind of freeing.

Angela Ackerman

I think it depends on the book for me. In some the right name is just there, boom. In others, I really want something meaningful and symbolic, so I research.

One thing I always do is keep a list of interesting names from RL that catch my ear, and I write them down in a notebook. 🙂

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Tiffany A White

I’m currently writing my first novel, and it’s inspired on actual events that took place during my high school career. Therefore, a few of my characters are based on my friends, and I’ve used names that each of them will recognize & relate to. Other than that, I just randomly selected names that sounded like good ‘ol West Texas/football names.

TJ Hollingsworth
TJ Hollingsworth

My MC’s name was actually inspired by an episode of CSI.
Police find a naked, bald female body in the desert that has been branded with a number. They later realize it’s a serial killer who brands his victims in order of abduction. How could I resist?
My MC has a number for a name -“Seven”.
I got that idea first and built the story around her. It started out as a kinda horror/supernatural thing but as I got to know her it veered waaay off track into sci-fi.
Which is fine, the story is more the thing I like to read but can’t find a lot of on the shelf.
I spend a lot of time thinking of just the right name for each character, hoping to find one that reflects some aspect of their personality. Baby name websites and books help a lot since they give the historical meaning for each name as well as which culture would have used them.
I know readers will *get* Seven’s name eventually but I wonder if anyone will *get* the male leads name–Stryker Fen.

Just goes to show you can get ideas for names and stories from the unlikeliest of places,lol.

Jamie Wesley

Reading these comments is cracking me up. Everyone has these elaborate processes. Me? I have one simple rule for naming my hero. He has to have a name that I find sexy. So far I have Sean, Jeremiah, and Zach.

I’m REALLY picky about names. I’ve been called a name hater, which I don’t disagree with. I usually head to a baby name website. I also keep my eyes and ears open while watching TV or reading articles for names I might like, since I tend to reject most names. The heroine has to have a name I like, which, again, can be a process.

Secondary characters – I don’t really care about much…unless they’re sequel bait. 🙂

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