Thursday, December 10, 2009

What's In A Name; or Does The Shoe Fit?

We've had a couple of good postings here about book titles. But when you're writing a novel, the book isn't the only thing for which you have to find a name.

You also have to name your characters. And sometimes that can be a painful process.

There are so many factors to consider:

1) The time and place in which your story is set. If your story takes place in the past, this requires research into the kinds of names in use at the time of your story. One of my stories, set in 1873, has a character in it by the name of Grant Tomlinson. It sounded like a good Victorian English name to me. "Tomlinson" is just fine, but only later did I find out that "Grant" wasn't commonly used as a first name until the 1860's (twenty years after the character would have been born), and then mostly in America. Oops.

That's fairly obscure, of course, and unless you happened to have the misfortune of having a large number of people among your readership who are fanatical about the origins and meanings of names, it probably wouldn't be a problem. But your characters' names should all be suitable for the story's time and place, or it will jar readers out of the world you are building in their minds (imagine a samurai warrior named Ezekiel or an Indian princess named Heather).

2) On the other hand, if your story is set in the future, or in outer space, or in some fantasy setting, you have free rein, right? Well, not necessarily. If you're setting your story in a bronze-age village on a fantasy world with unicorns and dragons, and most of your characters have names like Tar'jil and Kun'axa and Rog'min, when your readers come across the character Nixelthorpmoojman, you'll almost be able to hear them humming that song about how one of these things is not like the others. So unless you're prepared to explain how poor Nixelthorpmoojman washed up on the beach after a really bad storm, and even he can't explain where he's really from, you'll want to have some consistency in naming practices.

Also, your names should be pronounceable and preferably not too unwieldy -- Larry Niven's The Ringworld Engineers, as I recall, had a section where all of the people had nearly-unpronounceable five-syllable names, which was at least consistent, but it made that part of the book very tedious to read.

3) One problem I've run into is having names for my space pirates that are almost too familiar. I wanted them to be accessible, strange without being too strange. Instead, I've received comments that they're not alien enough. So people have asked why Shon Braca is named Shon and not just Shawn (they sound the same, don't they? ... well, not quite, but the difference is *very* subtle). But these are space pirates. Shouldn't they have more interesting names?

4) And then, once you've addressed all of those questions, you have to make sure that you don't have characters whose names sound (or even are) too much alike. We all know that in Real Life, everyone you meet doesn't have a unique name. The company I work for, for example, has had two Beccas and three Wendys all at once, and a Sean and two Shawns (one of whom was female). But in a story, you probably want to avoid having more than one character with the same name, or even two names that sound too much alike. Geoffrey and Gregory are two that will make me struggle every time, but I also have problems with names that have the same cadence and vowel sounds -- Julian and Lucien, for instance.

5) Sometimes you also want the name to have a meaning that's important to the character. Would Severus Snape have been the same kind of character if he'd been named George Smith? How about Ebenezer Scrooge? Luke Skywalker?

6) Finally -- and perhaps most importantly of all -- the name needs to fit the character. It's true that when parents name their children, they don't really have much of an inkling of what the child's personality will eventually be. So occasionally in Real Life, you'll see a Marigold whose blonde curls have darkened and who grew up to be a hard-bitten police detective, but unless you want that kind of irony to be a part of your story, your characters should have names that fit them. If they're to be evil wizards or cold-blooded killers, their names should not evoke bright sunshine. If they're to be heroes, they should have strong, bold names. And if they're to be involved in a romance, they ought to have a name their loved one can sigh, well, romantically.

I've run into just such a situation in my current work-in-progress, set in 1870's England. My main character, Celia Winterbourne, seems reasonably happy with her name. However, when I went to name her Romantic Interest, I decided upon Bartholomew Fletcher. Fletcher is a good British surname, no problems there. And I thought Bartholomew was a good choice, too ... right up until I wrote the first scene that has Celia whispering her beloved's name in his ear, along with a profession of her love.

Yeah. Mr. Fletcher did not hesitate to inform me that "Bartholomew" is not a name one can murmur lovingly in anyone's ear. Nor, he was quite certain, did "Bart" suit him. Not in the least.

In fact, he and I have been having a series of discussions as to what his name should be. Those can be found over at my LiveJournal, starting here (including the poll I ran). As of this writing, we have yet to make a final decision, but I think we're homing in on it. I'll keep y'all posted.

(And we're not even going to talk about the story I wrote in high school, where I decided it would be funny to give my Romantic Interest the most unromantic name I could come up with, so the poor fellow got stuck with the name "Glunk". Yeah.)

What challenges have other people found when naming characters? How did you solve them?

By the way, here are a couple of my favorite sites for finding names:

The Fantasy Random Name Generator
English Census Results for 1881
The Random Name Generator (uses U. S. Census data)