Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, June 10, 2015 10 comments
While your real-life name is something you inherit and have to live into, up to, or out of, a fictional character's name is a tool for its creator to communicate something about the person. Juliet's contention that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet" has not been borne out by the research. Names shape our perception. They form mental pictures for readers.

Naming characters is one of my great joys as a writer. Finding the right name can happen almost instinctively, though I enjoy deliberating about it as part of the character development process.
I write realistic fiction, so the issues I consider below will be most applicable for stories set in contemporary or historic real-life settings. Still, SciFi and fantasy writers might want to consider at least some of the issues I ponder when deciding upon a character's name.

Generational fit

How old is the character? Does his name fit in as contemporary within his peer group or stand out as either old-timey or fashion-forward?

Reader perception is influenced by their own experiences, so they will naturally imagine your character's age based on generational fit. Name three female characters Jeanie, Susan, and Hannah, readers won't picture three teens, they'll picture three generations: a grandmother, mother, and teen.

One of the first steps I take when picking character names is determining their ages and birth years. There's a bit of number crunching involved. Using the protagonist as my reference point, I also calculate the ages of parents, siblings, and other extended family who will appear in the story.

Next, I hit my go-to resource for name trends: the Social Security Administration's name database. They track each year's 1,000 most popular names, and their data goes back all the way back to 1880. This provides me with a pretty good starter list. Any name I choose off the top of the list will communicate trendiness or "typical specimen of this generation." Names in the 75th to 150th position both fit in and stand out. They seem like individuals, but not of the extreme oddball variety. Names down in the 600s or 700s will seem like weirdos, oddballs, or even outcasts.

Sometimes you want a name to stand out for thematic reasons. I named my protagonist's Gen-X mother Grace, which would be perceived as a "grandma" sort of name in her generation. It sticks out more than if I'd named her, say, Deborah, popular for her generation and a better pairing with sibling David (alliterative and also Hebrew in origin). The oddness is a clue to readers that there's a story behind the name, especially when Grace repeatedly behaves ungraciously.

Ethnicity

Another consideration is the characters' ethnicity and their relationship to it. There's no such thing as a nonethnic name, unless you call your characters X or H or V like values in an algebraic formula. Every human has some kind of ethnic background, even John and Jane Doe, who certainly couldn't just melt into the background were they walking the streets of Tashkent or Yaoundé.

In American contexts, the names of your characters can communicate a sense of place as much as describing a setting in detail. A mill town peopled with characters named Tony diFrancesco and Lucia Vincenzo will be a palpably different place than one with characters named Gordon MacElroy and Bonnie Fergus. Urban settings reflect their diversity most convincingly when peopled with folks from a variety of backgrounds. Of course, your urban character may very well live in an ethnically insular "ghetto." The character names should reflect that reality. Likewise, you say a lot about a character when his closest allies have names reflecting an ethnic diversity that isn't the norm for his community.

In contexts where a character goes to a different environment, names of the people she meets there will help ground the setting. Much of my novel Never Gone occurs in England, so it was important that the British characters be distinguishable from the Americans. I chose names more fashionable across the pond, including Graham, Oliver, Reggie, Gemma, Elliott, Hugh, Cecily, Eliza, and Jane. Online regional magazines and phone directories can be helpful for finding appropriate surnames for an area.

Characters that attempt to suppress their ethnicity communicate an ambivalent relationship with their heritage, or even an outright rejection of it. Consider how the title character in The Great Gatsby hides his Jewish heritage by changing his name from James Gatz to Jay Gatsby.

Associations

To whom or to what is this character linked? Who is he most like (or unlike) in my fictional universe? What myths, stories, literature resonate with her story arc?

Creating a legacy name that is shared by a long line of characters, for instance George Sr., George Jr. George III, will link the men for good or ill. So will the Jewish practice of using the same initial letter to honor a dead relative: Chelsea to honor grandpa Chaim, for example. Namesakes always have a bit of unspoken expectation laid on them--to follow an example or redeem a tragedy.

Names can also be allusive, bringing outside stories to bear on your work, resonating within it. Name a girl Pandora, and readers will expect her to set some terrible chain of events into motion, like the woman in Greek mythology. For this reason, it pays to read up on literary uses of a name before you settle on it.

Family dynamics

What do I want to communicate about the name-giver (parent, family of origin)?

My husband attended grad school with a classmate named Lovechild. You can picture the parents from that one fact, can't you? Hippies in fringe and beads and daisy-chain crowns who are all about peace, love and power to the people. And how about the guy who named his daughters Portia, Marina, and Cordelia? Probably a Shakespeare aficionado.

My protagonist in Never Gone, Danielle Renee, has a name that reflects French ancestry on her mother's side of the family. Here, the ethnic name speaks of Dani's mother desire to connect with her French relatives.

Families that give all the children alliterative names value cohesion. Trend-followers worry most about fitting in with their community. Those who choose classic names value tradition. Lovers of offbeat names value individual expression. Odd spellings can signal parents who are subliterate.

Likability

Psychology researchers have found that people tend to perceive people as more trustworthy who have an easily pronounceable name.

Other research has found that the texture of a name, especially the number of syllables, leads to certain impressions. The more syllables in a female name, the more she will be perceived as ultra-feminine, sensitive, delicate. The name book Beyond Jennifer and Jason categorizes names along a spectrum: no-frills, feminine, feminissa for girls, with the names Alexa, Alexis, Alexandra  and Alice, Alicia, Alyssa given as examples.

For guys, short names connote strength but also a lack of ethics; longer names are less fun but more successful. Brock is more likely to lead a hostile takeover, while Sebastian might build a new venture from the ground up. Nicknames say fun-loving, but not necessarily a rock on whom you can depend in a crisis.

Do enjoy naming characters or find it difficult? Why?

10 comments:

  1. Thank you for these tips. I have chosen instinctively my character names for my very new WIP, however will be now measuring against your tips!

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    1. Generational fit is one that can make or break a character for readers. A bad fit can have them picturing someone far too old or far too young, and then the story sort of unravels.

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  2. I do enjoy naming characters! Often a character goes through the entire process with one name until the right one comes to me. Sometimes it's like they name themselves!

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    1. I find the Social Security site helpful in narrowing down to a pool of good candidates. When there are infinite possibilities, it can be really overwhelming (and waste a lot of time).

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  3. I've been thinking about naming a lot lately. Until recently, I've really enjoyed naming characters, but two of them are really bugging me. I think, personally, it's because I'm overthinking it, which really can kill anything-- good or bad. This is a super helpful post, though, so thank you!

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    1. Or it could be that your intuition is telling you to ponder longer. Take a hiatus and come back and see if the doubts remain, then you'll know if it's overthinking or just bad fit.

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  4. I use the SSA database for names as well. It's a great resource.

    But I have a strong tendency to reuse names. In my current WIP, a beta said to me, "You realize your MC has the same name as one of your MCs in a previous novel, right?" I had no idea. Gulp.

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    1. That's funny. I think every writer is naturally drawn to particular names. I have a problem with picking too many alliterative names (same initial letter). I had to make changes at the 11th hour in my first novel when my editor pointed it out to me. Thank goodness for find/replace!

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  5. In writing Regency romance, I wanted to go with the more staid names, and most men from that time were named after kings -- George, William, Richard. So I stuck with those. Thomas, Robert, John, Daniel, Edward. Although, for some reason, most of my women had names that ended in a vowel -- Ophelia, Olivia, Rowena, Amanda,.

    In my contemporaries, I generally use the names of my high school friends (1980's). That gives me a perspective on the times I'm writing about. And the Soc. Sec. database is fantastic. I've used that a couple of times.

    And yes, ethnicity plays a major role as well. Most of my family is Italian, (most of my contemporaries are based around that) so I have a plethora of names to choose from. Antonio, Armando, Lucia, Francesca.

    And when I'm stuck for something out of the ordinary, I usually go to the Greek list of gods and goddesses. Those are always fun. (But mostly I use those if I have to name an animal. All my horses in the Regencies have Greek names.)

    Great post.

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    1. I wonder if the British Museum has a database that might help with historic names. I had to take a peek at my family genealogy for some fun name options for you (ancestors born in the 1770s): Ozias, Truman, Stephen, Rosswell, Orange (lol, a dude!); Sarah, Anna, Honor, Rachel, Diana, Dianthe, Clara, Olive, Rebecca. Here are some ancestors born in the 18-teens: Phineas, George, Harvey, Kilborne, Daniel; Hannah, Rosa, Ellen, Osea.

      I bet going through old birth/marriage records would give you a good idea what trends were in a particular area at the time. Some parishes in the UK have those as searchable databases.

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