Thursday, February 12, 2009
What's in a Name?
(A shout out to Marcell Bridges, who suggested this topic.)
Novelists--how do you choose the names of your characters? Readers--do you notice names much?
My admission--I don't spend much time on character names. I've heard many authors say they spend a lot of time on names, that each one has to be "just right." My name choosing tends to come fairly quickly. Here are some guidelines I follow:
1. Of course I want to be sure the name is appropriate with the character's age. I wouldn't name a 50-year-old man Brandon. My own son, Brandon, just turned twenty-six. We named him as a derivative of my name. I really hadn't heard the name Brandon before that. Today it's a popular name for boys. I've only met a few Brandons older than my son, and not by too many years. Here's a site from the Social Security Administration that can help you find popular names by state and by year/decade.
There are exceptions to this guideline. You may have good reason to use an old-fashioned name for a younger character. However, you may want to mention the unusual nature of the name in your book. A quick bit of dialogue or narrative worked into the story will signal to the reader that, yes, this name is atypical for the character's age, but that's just the way it is. Or perhaps a certain setting or the personality of the family will make it obvious why the name was chosen.
2. After I select a name I google it. It's hard to find a name that turns up no hits at all. But I often try to find something fairly unusual. The protagonist in my next adult suspense, Exposure, (May release) is named Kaycee Raye. Google that name and you'll turn up a gal with Kaycee Raye as first and middle name, but with a different last name. Mostly what you'll turn up is my own Kaycee Raye in Exposure. The protagonist in Always Watching, book #1 of The Rayne Tour series (young adult suspense, releasing in April) is named Shaley O'Connor. Google that and you'll turn up ... hits on Always Watching.
3. To me, female names ending with an ee or ey or something similar sound friendly. Kaycee, Shaley, Annie, Chelsea--these are all names of protagonists I've used. Harder-sounding consonants put a bit of an edge on the character. The name Carla fit the protagonist in Crimson Eve well, because she had an edge to her--for good reason, as you learn in the book.
4. Bad guy names--you can have fun with them. In naming antagonists I work harder to "pass the Google search." Won't give you any examples from my books here, for those of you who haven't yet read every suspense I've written. (I believe there may be one or two such people on each continent.) But you've got to believe Thomas Harris had a few laughs over naming his bad guy Hannibal Lecter. Hannibal the Cannibal is a bit over the top, wouldn't you say? But what a great character. And what a memorable name for him.
5. Sometimes I'll run across the names of real people and think, "Oh, wow, what a great character name!" They just hit me right. Unusual. Have a sense of rhythm to the syllables. No, I'm not giving any of these away, because someday I might ask the person if I can use his/her name in a book. Authors, if you run across one of these, jot it down, along with the link to where you can find the real person.
Any other insightful name-finding techniques out there? What are some of the best names you've seen for characters? (And--did the name really make the character, or did the wonderful character make the name?)