Tuesday, August 06, 2013

The Writer's Toolbox: Character Names

Welcome (again) to the Writer's Toolbox! In this blog series, I'm talking about nitty-gritty writing craft stuff. Today's subject is character names.

Juliet famously stood on her balcony and proclaimed that names are meaningless and a rose would smell as sweet if it were called "skunk cabbage" or "baboon." And then she died because she was totally wrong. Also, unable to use the postal service in an effective way, but that's beside the point.  Point is that names are an important tool in the Writer's Toolbox.

Name a character Ebenezer Scrooge or Darth Maul or Elizabeth Bennett or Her Majesty Queen Silverhoof of the Lakeside Unicorn Clan, and you set up certain reader expectations for their personality and their fate.  It's then your choice whether to fulfill or subvert those expectations.

So... how to name a character.

I decided when I was ten years old that I wanted to be a writer, and one of the first things I did was read the phone book.  (I'll pause for you to tilt your head in befuddlement and contemplate what an odd child I must have been.  I'll wait.  Done?  Good.  Let's move on.)  I did it to find character names, and I wrote each name down on its own index card and then assigned them magical powers and talking animal friends. And really, that's not a terrible way to find names. In fact I'm going to go with that as resource #1: the phone book.

Resource #2 didn't exist when I was ten years old, and it's the one I use most often when writing stories set in our world (or a variant of): the Social Security Administration website.  It has a database of all the first names in the United States, ranked by popularity and searchable by year of birth.  It allows you to find common names from a particular era. Very useful if you want to hint at a character's age without investing a lot of words describing them -- you can choose a name that was popular in a particular time period and not in others.

Resource #3 is baby name books.  There are tons of them out there, and they boast names ranging from common to obscure.  Often they list their origin and meaning.  Only downside of these is if you have them in the house, your relatives and friends will start wondering about what's coming in nine months.

If you wish to avoid questions about that, a better resource is #4: baby name websites.  There are TONS of them out there, nicely searchable, often including name origin and meaning. These let you find names whose meaning matches themes in your story or personality quirks you want your character to have (or not have). (For example, in Drink, Slay, Love, I named my vampire girl Pearl because she's the opposite of that name.)

And last but not least is resource #5: children.  If you're looking for exotic names for characters in a fantasy world, ask a little kid to invent some names.  They excel at stringing together nonsense syllables that sometimes end up sounding pretty darn good, and they aren't burdened by years of experience in what a name should be.

Next: when to name a character.

Really, whenever you want. Sometimes I choose the name first and then shape the personality to fit. Other times, I have a firm sense of the character's voice and need a name to match it. Usually, it's somewhere in the middle: I have a vague sense of the character but he/she doesn't gel until I have the "right" name. And then there was the one time when I wrote an entire novel and then changed the main character's name several drafts later.  (This was Lily in Enchanted Ivy.  She was Ivy until nearly the final draft, when I decided that Ivy wasn't exactly subtle for a girl who wants to go to an Ivy League school.)

How do you know when a name is the "right" name?

Um... I really don't know the answer to that.  When the name is right it just kind of clicks in your brain, like when a puzzle piece fits neatly into a puzzle.  Once you have the name, the rest of the picture should get a little clearer.  The name should, hopefully, lead to a clearer vision of the character's voice and/or lead to more revelations about the character. And by the end of writing about a character, it should feel like he or she never had any other name. 

Especially not Skunk Cabbage or Baboon.

Know of any other good resources for naming characters?  Where do you find your names?  Please share!

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At 11:41 PM, Blogger Q said...

"There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it."

One of my favorite examples of how names can be important!

At 11:45 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Q: That has to be the best sum-up-a-character-in-a-single-sentence ever written.

At 11:47 PM, Blogger Q said...

It's one of those sentences that makes me want to never write again because there's no way I could top it.

And then I write anyway.

At 8:32 AM, Blogger Peni R. Griffin said...

A weakness of the SSA database is that it contains only the name and not surrounding relevant cultural data. Most of which would be too intrusive for them to collect in the context.

This is hardly a resource everyone can use, but I have a friend who makes wire jewelry for a living, whose bread-and-butter is custom name jewelry, and I can call him up and say: "Black girl. Popular. Middle school." And he'll deliver. With variant spellings.

At 11:08 AM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Q: On the plus side, the world does need more than one sentence.

Peni: Sounds like a unique superpower. The Namer. His secret identity is a jeweler.

At 9:12 AM, Anonymous Ruby said...

Q, Peni, Sarah, your comments made me smile. I sometimes get interesting names out of the newspaper. Then I have to try and forget what they were associated with. One that's been in my mind for a long time is Saxon Bird. Such an awesome name. Unfortunately, he was a teenager who drowned whilst competing in a surfing competition. I feel a wee bit guilty wanting to use the name - not to mention morbid.

At 11:44 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I think Skunk Cabbage would be a hilarious name for a fairy or gnome, or even a human given the right context. But that's just me; Rapunzel after all means "lettuce"

At 12:41 AM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Ruby: That is an awesome name. I can see why you're tempted to use it!

Priya: You're right -- Skunk Cabbage could be an adorable name for the right personality.


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