Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Say my name, b*tch


How do you name your characters?

I used to worry about the naming of characters a lot. Hmm, do I really want my character to be called something that is Old German for Wolf’s Helm? What is a helm, anyway, and why would a wolf wear one? Does a helm have buckles? Wouldn’t they be difficult to manage without opposable thumbs? Then it occurred to me that I shouldn’t be naming my characters according to what I, their writer, or their god, if you will (and please do), thought would match their personality, or aspirations, or character arc. It only matters what my fictional character’s fictional parents would fictionally think.

Still with me?



If Hagert Dragonsbane, the hairy troll-slayer of Hwilfrstöll, had a firstborn son then of course he would call that son something that means Wolf’s Helm, or Victorious in Battle, or Bloodthirsty Scourge of the Saxons. But here’s the thing: so might Gerald Smith, manger of a grocery wholesale business in suburban Brisbane, just because he kind of likes the sound of the name, it goes well with Smith, and it was his grandfather’s. It doesn’t mean he expects the kid to grow up to become a rampaging Viking.

Names don't define us. 

I am wary of naming characters after their personality traits, because when you look down at a red wrinkly screamy weirdy baby, you don’t think, Oh, look, I’ll call her Serena. Or, he can’t lift his head yet, but I’m sure he’ll destroy all his enemies. Casimir it is! Babies don’t have personality traits. Anything you call them is wishful thinking at best, and hopelessly misguided at worst.

My middle name means industrious. My mother is still laughing about that.

People don’t match their names, not in real life. In real life, your neurosurgeon might be called Candii and your stripper might be called Audrey. The guy who mows your lawn (not your husband, that other guy) might be called Fabian. And the guy you trust to do your taxes? Billy Bob. Why the hell not? 

There are no rules about names in the real world. It should be the same in fiction. 

*** 
How do you name your characters? 
A random name generator? A baby names site? The phone book? 
Share your tips here. 

21 comments:

  1. of course, it depends on where it's set. But mostly, I just pluck a name out of thin air. As in literally sit at the keyboard and think to myself "I want a name starting with [insert letter here]" next comes the sound I want with the first vowel, and rest sort of just flows out. Got over 200 named characters now and most got their names this way.
    My other methods have been trolling baby name sites (done for anything historical or modern day) and gardening books (for partial Latin-based plant names).

    Oh, and my middle name means “sun ray/shining light”.

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    1. I love the idea of Latin-based plant names!

      I once went through a stage of having to name every character in a WIP something that was ocean-related. It was great fun!

      We established that my middle name doesn't suit me, but yours is lovely!

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  2. Funny - I got curious and looked up "Old German for Wolf's Helm" and got a link for "Best German Dog Names for Dachshunds."

    But I like your insight in where names should come from - not the author playing prophet, but the hopes and wishes of the parents.

    Now I just gotta figure out why my narrator was named Genghis Apocalypse Smith.

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    1. "Genghis Apocalypse Smith - boy hero!" Or bounty hunter...

      The name is, unsurprisingly, Wulfhelm. I got it out of an old baby name's book - it was probably all the rage back in 1047, but I'm sure it would constitute abuse if you called a kid that today.

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  3. I think character names are important, but I don't think they have to sound good. They just have to sound right for the character in question.

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    1. Totally agreed! The name definitely has to sound right, or you'll never get a handle on the character.

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  4. I sort of go by intuition when it comes to names. If it sounds good, I go with it, though I do try to stay within cultural boundaries. I'm not naming my Welsh character Juan.

    And how did you know my middle name means bloodthirsty scourge of the Saxons? Freaky.

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    1. I go by intuition a lot as well, and definitely pay attention to socio-economic/ethnic backgrounds when it comes to naming conventions. Having said that, I'll bet Juan Dafydd Crowther either has a very interesting history, or very interesting parents!

      Perhaps our ancestors met over the remains of a burning Saxon village! Do you ever get nostalgic for the smell of burning ashes and the sounds of women and children screaming?

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  5. I don't have any good tips for picking names. I do look in baby books sometimes, but mostly I wait until I think of something that feels right when I type it.

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    1. Baby books are a great resource, and a great way to intrigue friends and relatives when they see them on your shelf!

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  6. For my historicals I like using the regency name generator and other sites which list common names of the period.

    My own name means feminine apparently.

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    1. I love name generators. There is one is Scrivener which is great fun!

      And Charlotte is a lovely name. Mind you, the only other person I've met called Charlotte was an absolute tomboy and went by Charlie. So there's always an alternative to being feminine!

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  7. So who was it who said, "Truth is stranger than fiction, because fiction has to make sense" (or something like that?

    Real world names may not define us, but I feel it's important for names of fictional characters to feel right at some level.

    That's not to say they should reflect the character's personality (and not to say that they shouldn't), but I think the sound of a name is an important part of the story and should be chosen with care. Maybe you want the name to reflect the character, or maybe be deliberately at odds, or deliberately exotic, or innocuous. Whatever it is, I think it should be a deliberate choice by the author.

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    1. I wish I could remember that quote, Botanist, because it's a good one.

      And I agree absolutely that the choice of name has to be deliberate and feel right. I do love it when my expectations of a character based on their name are turned on their head. It makes me realise how deep some biases run.

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  8. Textbooks oddly enough are a great place to find some pretty awesome names. I mix and match first and last names from all those wonderful 3-6 authors/editors/publishers from some of my scientific or history related text books. That or census records.

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    1. I've never used census records. What a great idea!

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  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  10. I like to use imagination primarily, but if you are writing about a setting based in reality, then you are almost duty-bound to follow certain naming protocols, plus taking into account generational trends - as my name, Mark, when at high school there were no end of us.

    But if the setting is purely fictional, then naming should be free flowing, again, within reason. In fantasy, I get a bit bogged down by the stereo typical 'races': your Nordic types, Arabian, Asian and European Anglo Saxon bods. Then the whole naming aspect starts to fall into the historical aspect, which all of a sudden undermines the fantasy setting, because now your main character called Wolfric is conjuring up images of Scandinavian history, vikings and fjords. Bit of a pain in the proverbial if you are desperately trying to build a world from scratch.

    As a closing comment, and somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I find some of the words thrown up by blog sites' "Type the words below to prove you are not a Robot" widget are quite imaginative and would make some excellent character names. Try it out and see for yourself ;)

    PS - previous entry deleted because I made a stupid cock up and didn't see it until I had posted. I do apologise.

    ReplyDelete
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    1. When I was at school it seems like every boy was called Mark. And every second boy was called Jason.

      Great points about names in fantasy. Fantasy should be free of "real" naming conventions, but of course we picture Wolfric as a Viking, and nothing else. It's easier to use an entirely fabricated name, I suppose, than fly in the face of every reader's expectations.

      And so true about the widgety-things. I find them very suggestible!

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  11. Thank you for this--I have the worst time naming my characters and then I get so frustrated trying to figure out some "deep meaning." Heck, I was named after my father's secretary. My mom thought she had a nice name. THAT isn't weird. No, not at all...

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    1. I love it, TL! It means your mother is practical, with a dash of very cool!

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