Peggy Bechko: Name Those Characters – A Writer’s Puzzle

baby_nameby Peggy Bechko

Have you toyed with, fought with, howled at with giving names to your characters when you’re writing? Have you developed a character, followed him or her, saw them through all sorts of tight spots and just knew the name wasn’t right? Ask any parent, there are many factors that go into naming a child and those characters in your novel you write are just like your children.

Names are important. An obvious fact.

Just think of a name and an instant preconception springs to mind. If the name doesn’t fit the character it’s difficult if not impossible to get/keep things moving on the written page. Names can reflect our personalities, our background or ethnicity or faith.

Think about it. Kathryn can be very professional, Katie very friendly and bouncy and Kate more neutral. Then there’s Elizabeth who can be, of course, Elizabeth, Liz, Lizzy, Beth or even Betty or Bet.

Last names are equally important. Smith or Goldblum. Varella or Capra. Singleton or Brown. Well, you get it. A name can inspire not only your reader, seeing your ‘hero’ as a dynamic, well, hero, as opposed to a mumbling, introverted nerd, it can also inspire you, the writer.

So what to do?

Well, there are a lot of resources available to us. Just ask any expectant parent. There are still all those books for baby naming. The web has a lot to offer (some resources below), phone books, friends you can bedevil for suggestions, movie credits you can read (you can even pause your DVD if you like so you can read), other books where you can pluck a first name from one and last name from another.

And don’t forget you can compile lists of your own when you run across a name that seems great out of context. You might well have the opportunity to put it IN context with your next writing project.

You can try writing about a character with a ‘place holder’ name if you can’t come up with the right one when you’re first writing, but I’ll bet that will niggle at you like an annoying paper cut until you can fill in that blank. It just seems like the character can’t get it right until he or she has the right name bestowed upon him or her. And that translates into your writing being unbalanced, not right, until you can grab that name.

Is there a secret formula? A magic way to pluck the name you need out of the vapors and spur your writing to new heights? Nope, but there are a few loose guidelines that can help. Things I keep in mind.

*Don’t use several names that begin with the same letter. In fact try not to use two names that begin with the same letter in the same novel. Fact of the matter is after the first introduction of the character most readers don’t actually read the name, but rather identify the character by the first letter and the shape of his name as they skim down the page. Best not to risk confusing your reader.

* Pick names that are realistic and don’t get carried away with naming after you’ve been searching for a long time and feel a bit desperate. Especially don’t fill your story with bizarre and complicated names the reader will need a score card to figure out.

*Think about history and geography when naming your characters. Yes, they have a bearing. Germanic names are different than Scots. English different than Spanish. Keep it in mind.

*Watch out for gender neutral names. Lee, Drew, Lynn, Francis (Frances), Tracy, Kelly, Jean, etc. If you use one, be sure to immediately let your reader know if the character is man, woman, boy, girl. Don’t let it hang out there for them to figure out.

*And don’t be afraid to change a name if you discover as you write that it just isn’t working. That’s what global replace is for. But keep in mind that a change of name may well signal a change in character and could instigate the need for rewrite in areas prior to the change.

If, when looking over the material you’ve written, a name change necessity arises, don’t fight it. A character with the wrong name can throw quite the ‘monkey wrench’ into a story no matter how well written to that point. Seriously, think about it.

Here are a few resources to help you along:

Social Security’s Popular Baby Names – what’s popular this year – and other years?

The Greatest Baby Name Book Ever by Carol McD. Wallace

The Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon -Organizes names alphabetically, by origin, and by popularity according to year.

Want the history and etymology of first names? Behind The Name allows searches by meaning and includes a generator.

Going to follow in Tolkien’s footsteps? Try The Elvish Name Generator

The Baby Name Bible

The Baby Name Wizard Unique baby names

Victorian Names Online and Victorian & Steampunk

Fantasy Name Generator—Set the specifications to your needs and generate lots of name possibles.

Now you’re all set – but don’t forget those newspapers, magazines, phone books (in any city you live or visit) and of course Google for even more possibilities.

One thought on “Peggy Bechko: Name Those Characters – A Writer’s Puzzle

  1. “NAME GENERATORS”? “…”CHARACTER NAMING SOURCE BOOKS”? “ON LINE NAMES”?! C’mon, gimme a break! NO WAY! If you haven’t got the names of your characters (main characters) by the time you type FADE IN: Give it up! The NAME of your CHARACTER is the very source of your character. The ‘HEARTBEAT’! Surely you’ve given the creature some Soul-Searcing thought before sitting down at the typwriter. “God, this SANFORD CREATURE still uses a TYPWRITER!” Okay-Okay…I’m sorry. Really. I mean it. But take my word for it: ‘YOUR CHARACTER had a name long before you had your story! Think about it. gs

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