Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Newbie Question #2

2. How do you come up with character’s names?

Ah, yes…. Naming. If you ask me names have magic.

I tend to spend an inordinate amount of time considering Names. I have several “Baby Name” books at home (and did, years before actually having a baby to name.) There are several baby name websites out there, some which are even organized by “most popular baby names for 1976” or even 1796, so you can use them for your historical novels, as well.

Also, because I was writing before the Interwebs, I also use this analog thing called a PHONE BOOK. There are other books (and web sites) out there for surnames, but if you live in a big enough city the phone book can be fun for diverse and ethnic last names. I actually chose my pseudonym using the random finger point method and the phone book – my publisher was very insistent that I have a last name that started with an “Ha” to put me next to other vampire writers like Harrison, Harris, Hamilton, etc.

Once I have these resources in front of me, I make a list of names I like the sound of. I make a second column of surnames that sound nifty. Then I spend days (even weeks) mulling over the combinations. If I’m on a really tight deadline, I’ll start writing with [fill-in name], but I find that the name I end up picking really imbues the character with a lot of life. For instance a Darcy Farthingworth is likely going to behave differently from a Shin Yu. Maybe not, but… you can see what I mean, I hope.

That’s the other thing that I love to do: play with expectations. Sometimes I do crazy things like naming my Sunni Muslim computer hacker “Christian,” because it instantly requires me to consider how he ended up with a name like that… and suddenly I’m character building, as it were.

Also, I think it’s important when you have several characters on scene to make sure they’re not all sporting names that sound similar. Jane, Jack, and John, for instance, might be hard for a reader to keep straight in their heads, especially if you’re in the middle of a scene comprised mostly of intense dialogue between the three of them. If you have a Walter, Ahmed, and Helena it might be slightly easier. (You still will need to make sure they don’t all speak in the same voice, but I see that’s a later question so I’ll save talking about that for now.)

Pick names you want to spend time with. I think naming is one of the most fun things writers get to do, so enjoy it!


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Bill Henry said...

Administrative note:

From now on, I'm going to delete these apparently machine-generated comments from "Anonymous" whenever I see them.

They're short and inoffensive, and maybe a little funny, especially if you imagine, say, one of Kelly's cats having typed them, but they're still spam.


Mari Adkins said...

I've kept a Harlan County Kentucky telephone book since 2000. Names are tricky down there. You'll find names you won't find anywhere else - first and last. So that's one area in my writing I have to be anal about.