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?)


Grady Houger said...

I love names, they seem so full of possibility. Whenever I hear an interesting one, I put it in my big list of cool names. When starting out stories I usually use initials or character roles as place holder names.
There is one place on earth, a spot of sidewalk I will always remember, where a character name popped into my head. I had spent years wondering what to name that character, and the perfect name just went bing! If only the rest of that story would came to life so well.

Random name generators like at seventhsanctum can be a lot of fun, though I haven't found many useful names that way. One source I like is the names of inventors, particularly obscure ones who invented something that symbolically mirrors something in the character's personality.

I google names too Brandilyn. :-)
It wouldn't be good to have a good character with a name someone already made notorious.

Richard Mabry said...

On occasion, I've created a character loosely based on someone with whom I was already familiar--either personally or through the media. Then I had the fun task of renaming them, being careful to avoid any similarity to their real name while finding something that resonated with their true character. Often this involved borrowing the first name of someone else I knew and splicing it with a last name I dug up via the Internet. So far, it's seemed to work.
Have I missed this, or have you shared with your audience how you came to be named Brandilyn?

Anonymous said...

Great idea on googling it. I've used that names search for certain time periods.

It's really helpful. You can search by surnames too. I have fun with those tools. Combining and manipulating them...**evil grin**

Great post today! Thanks!

C.J. Darlington said...

I pick names first of all that I myself like. That's my primary objective. I'm gonna live with 'em, I might as well like them. But then sometimes I get stuck, like with the bad guy of my latest book. I'm struggling a bit with him. But once I pick a name, the character usually becomes that name to me. It's very hard to change the name mid-book.

Rita Gerlach said...

For me, when a book idea springs on me, the first thing I see in my imagination are my hero and heroine. Next come the names. I've really never had to search for any.

I like your ideas, Brandilyn, especially about googling a name. I've never done it and will give it a try. I write historicals, and names must fit the time period. It isn't hard to figure it out if you read classics like Austen and Bronte. In my novel coming out in August through Abingdon, I made the name up for my heroine, Juleah.

Tracy said...

I love names and finding the right name for the personality, as best as I can tell. This goes for my characters, as well as my pets, and we researched, discussed and prayed diligently over the naming of our daughter. She ended up with Reagan Danielle. Not common with great meanings (both were requirements). Thanks for sharing!

Kara S. said...

I'm going to answer the reader question - do I notice names? Yes and no. I notice names under two circumstances.

First is when two characters share similar names. The similarities are usually on more than one level. For example, Mark and Matt. Both are male characters, start with the same letter combo, and are four letters. I find that some authors don't pay as much attention to minor character names and that's where the confusion usually is. When I come across Mark and Matt, I have to remember (or go back and look) exactly which guy it is and what he did earlier in the story.

Second, I notice names when they're similar to common names but have a twist to them. Usually about halfway through the book, I smack myself on the forehead when I realize I've been reading the name incorrectly. I can't think of any real story examples at the moment, but Rita mentioned her character Juleah, which to me is similar to the common name Julie so I would probably read it as Julie. Don't worry, I probably have a weird brain idiosyncrasy that causes name confusion. LOL

Kim Vogel Sawyer said...

Usually my characters introduce themselves to me. When Summer (from Waiting for Summer's Return) first came to life in my head, I knew her name was unique for her time (she would have been born around 1860), but when I got to know her and her history, I learned the reason for her unusual name. It worked.

Readers had a little trouble with knowing how to pronounce Maelle (in My Heart Remembers). So I had her father yawn and say her name at the same time...My-elle...which gave them a clue. I wasn't trying to confound readers--I needed an Irish name that could be mistaken for a boy's name: "Myelle"/Michael. Again, it worked. :o)

My most recently-submitted wip includes a young woman named Tressa. I met a beautiful young lady named Tressa on a book signing tour and fell in love with the name. I asked if she'd mind me using it, and she shyly agreed. So look for Tressa in 2010!

Nicole said...

I love naming my characters--or maybe they love telling me their names is more like it.
In reading: two of my absolute favorite names and characters that were simply inseparable were Rese Barret and Lance Michelli out of the contemporary Kristen Heitzmann trilogy (Secrets, Unforgotten, Echoes). Loved them.
I also loved Chelsea in your novels, BC, and that name just seemed to fit her so well.
For me, I see my characters with their names almost simultaneously.
Also, if a name is too unusual without a reason for it, it distracts me and makes it difficult to relate to the character and story, even sometimes feels contrived.

Hannah said...

Finding character names is one of my favorite parts of learning about my character. Usually their names come to me the moment I see them, though others I have to hunt down. When it comes to hunting, I go to They have a "baby name finder" that offers thousands of names, either by country origin, first letter, or the number of syllables. Some of the names are really unusual!

As a reader, I love finding a character name that sounds as if the author put plenty of thought behind it. One of my recent favorites is from The Book of Names by D. Barkley Briggs: Hadyn Barlow. The author blends the name's meaning into his character and the plot, and it fits completely.

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Kara, I agree about names of two characters being too similar. That's a no-no. I should have mentioned that in my post.

Doc--how did I get my name? It was made up. Perhaps like some of you authors out there do for your characters. :]

Blinky St. James said...

Some character names come to me, some I make up, and other times I get stuck and ask "Mom, give me a name." She's a wonderful name generator. ;D

I've googled my pen name and story title to make sure they weren't taken, but I'll have to google my characters too. :D

The website you mentioned is fun to play with...and is also fun for researching when a name was popular and stuff. ^_^

Marcie said...

Wow! Thank you Brandilyn for posting this! And also for the shout out! Also, thank you to all who have joined in with comments.

Naming my characters is what gets me stuck the most when I try to write. These are all great ideas! :-)

Anonymous said...

My characters' names are really important to me. I'm just beginning a new novel, and one main character's name continues to elude me. I always seem to know it when it's right.

southernyankee said...

Thanks for the social security name link, needed a good chuckle. I usually use whatever names pops into my head, and change it only if it sounds weird or too common during rewrites. I seem to be stuck on one or two.

Ben Bova advised that writers who invent names should use names that readers will not trip over every time they read them. Kevin Anderson invents names that create mind blocks for me, so I find I cannot read his stories.

Robert Parrish said...

Really, really helpful, Brandilyn. I'm one of those who struggles with "the right name," so this is quite instructive. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

I love this part of writing!

My five cents:
* I'm one of the it-has-to-feel-right group. When I hear one I type it up for safe keeping. I do the same for last names. Matching them to minor characters is easy. Major ones not so much.
* I've heard some authors like to peruse their junk email. And they get some doosies!
* Somewhere I heard about which is interesting. Definitely have a look.
* I purchased a good character name book organized by country and culture. It even has a section on names from the Arthurian legends.

BTW, I love your example of the Google test. When I was testing out titles for my blogs, I fortunately Googled them. One I had decided on did NOT come up with material I expected. I had to change it but I like its replacement better. This is a great rule!

Thanks for the great post!

Nick said...

I love to find names in the phone book. Usually just last names that I never thought of. Then I'll come up with an appropriate first name.

I agree that name selection is very important in developing a character.

Pam Halter said...

I've been away and am getting back to reading the blogs ... I write fantasy, so my names really are important. I found a site called Fantasy Name Generator and use that often. I also find neat fantasy names in the Old Testament of the Bible. :)