Let’s talk about this: how do you go about naming characters?


I’m still a bit under the weather, unfortunately, and given the ups and downs of my heath over the last couple of years, I’m more than usually inclined to heed my doctor’s advice and, as she inimitably puts it, “take it easy before your lungs go on strike again.” As those of you who have been frequenting this site for a while are already aware, I seldom take many consecutive days off from blogging, but since the weather folks are warning that Seattle may be encased in snow again this weekend (just when the World’s Worst Landscaper was do back, naturally), sitting in my sunny-but-cold studio probably isn’t the best plan.

So more tea-sipping and less computer time for me over the weekend. If you picture me coughing with a cat on my lap, revisiting the Mario Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter — one of my all-time favorite novels — you won’t be far off.

I hate to let the conversation flag we’re in the thick of our nice, meaty series on character naming, however, just because I’m coughing up a storm. As promised, then, I’m going to turn it over to you. Let’s talk about the ins and outs of naming.

I like chatting about this with other writers, because frankly, I don’t think the general non-writing population truly understands how important the fit between character and name is from the writer’s perspective. It’s not just a matter of picking out a name you like and Scotch-taping it to the character, after all; the choice says something about both the character and the author.

So tell me, novelists: how do you go about selecting character names? What difficulties have you encountered, and how have you resolved them? Do the characters and their personalities come to you at the same time, or do you select names to match an already-conceived set of characteristics? How do you know if you’ve found the right name — or are you ever completely sure?

Memoirists and other nonfiction writers, do you always use real names, or do you create pseudonyms to protect the innocent (or the guilty)? If you’re creating composite characters, how do you decide what to call them? Have you found that certain real names just don’t work on the page?

And I’m curious to hear from all of you readers, as a continuation of Askhari’s interesting guest post that kicked off this series: what are your favorite fictional names? What makes a character name work for you?

On the flip side, what characters have struck you as badly misnamed? How does a poorly-selected or inappropriate name affect your experience as a reader?

To get the conversational ball rolling, I shall begin: I believe that there’s considerably more at stake in naming characters than just whether a moniker looks good on the printed page or feels good in the mouth. I would argue that name choice is an integral part of character development.

Case in point: about six months ago, I had the interesting experience of changing the protagonist’s name between drafts of a novel, something I’d never done before. I was positively stunned at how much the rechristening altered my conception of her: even though she was ostensibly the same person going through the same series of events and life changes, Mimi seems to have a different internal rhythm than her literary twin, Angela. Eventually, Mimi’s personality asserted itself strongly enough that I had to excise certain Angela-infused scenes from the book.

Which, of course, would make positively no sense to the average non-writer. “You’re in control of the story, aren’t you?” my non-writing friends ask whenever I complain about how much work it has been to Mimi-ize the storyline. “If you liked the first version, why didn’t you just do a search-and-replace on the names and call it good?”

Because a novel is an organic organism, that’s why. If the writer alters one part of its internal workings, the other parts will inevitably be affected — or should be.

What such well-intentioned questions made me realize is that what had happened to the novel was not just a name change — my mental conception of the character must have been changing long before it occurred to me to rechristen her; altering her name merely codified character development arc already in progress.

Does that mean that I was just wrong when I named her Angela in the first draft? I don’t think so; the name made perfect sense then, and I have no doubt that she would have made a strong protagonist had I decided to stick with my original conception. But I do think it would have been harmful to the book for me to cling stubbornly to a name I happen to like when the character began growing in a different direction.

Have any of you had a similar experience — or are in the throes of one now? I’d love to hear about how you handled it.

So please, share your thoughts. For those of you new to contributing to conversations on blogs, go to the very bottom of this post, past the list of categories into which this topic fits, and click on the word COMMENTS. That will take you magically to both what other readers have posted and to box marked LEAVE A COMMENT. Enter your information and go to town!

(That’s a dandy way to ask questions, too, in case anyone has been wondering.)

The usual caveats: keep it G-rated, please, for the sake of readers under voting age, and try to keep libel to a minimum.

Fair warning, though: since I am limiting my online time right now, it may take a day or so for a first-time commenter’s post to appear. In order to reduce the truly epic amount of spam comments that might disturb my readers, my blogging program is set up so I actually have to hand-approve new commenters. So please don’t feel that any delay has editorial implications.

All right, have at it — and keep up the good work!

PS: The gentleman depicted in 1893′s Record of a Sneeze, above, the first film footage ever copyrighted, was named Fred Ott, an apparently allergy-ridden employee of Edison’s Kinetoscope Company. Doesn’t that just SOUND like someone who would spend the day wiping his nose?

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