Monday, September 13, 2010

Name that Tune (er, character)

So how could I possibly avoid eating the candy? It was a long-driving road trip. We were listening to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (it’s Roald Dahl month!), and the song on the radio was “Sugar, Sugar, oh honey honey, you are my candy girl, and you got me wanting you.” I’d been subconsciously prepped, so why not buy a Bit o’ Honey, a Snickers, a Spree, and a pack of Doublemint—and eat them all myself?

Good stuff. I love that honey taffy.

I have a dear friend named Taffy, actually. When I first met her I had to do an audio doubletake. Taffy? Excuse me?

But the better I got to know her the better her name fit her. If anyone ever was appropriately called Taffy it’s she.

I have another friend. She’s completely down to earth. She’s strong. She’s bright. She’s no frills, no pink, no ribbons or bows. She told me that when she was born, her mom (under the influence of post childbirth swirling emotions) wanted to name her Buffy.

Thank heavens her father stepped in and put a stop to that. She has a much more personality-appropriate name.
So, when we name book people, how do we come up with just the right name? I have read books where the whole way through the name of the main character has caused a little “ding” in my mind every time I see it. The name doesn’t fit the character’s age or personality or the time period setting of the book—something.

I find that choosing characters’ names is one of the great tasks. Sometimes the name hits me first, and then the story follows. I suspect The Great Gilly Hopkins. Perhaps Willy Wonka, too (while we’re on the candy subject.)

Other times I know the story, but I don’t know the character’s name for a long time. When I was pregnant with our oldest we bought these great name books—not just long lists of names listed alphabetically, but the listing included the connotation of the name, the way he might be perceived by his peers, whether it was stodgy or cool, solid or fluffy, plus lots of other naming theories. Loved them. The latest update of this series I bought was called The Baby Name Bible.

Between baby birthings (I don’t know nuthin’ about birthin’ no babies!), I found these books to be really helpful in naming the imaginary people in my life. It was great to use them, and an added bonus was if I had a name I adored (Maren, Stan, Bridget) and my husband decidedly did NOT adore that name, it could be slapped on a story person and come to life, even if only on paper.

It’s a tricky business naming a character. It has to fit just right. The character doesn’t have the opportunity to grow up and head over to Social Security and make the change if you don’t get it right the first time. Only the author has the power and responsibility for the perfect fit. That is a hefty burden sometimes.

Sometimes an honest mistake can be made. This is why critique groups are so important. I was proofreading a story by an acquaintance once and the main character’s name was … let’s just say it was offensive. A baddie. Because it was the main character, it was on every page. When I mentioned she might like to rename him, she got a little defensive (we love our story-children), and so I got my husband to explain the meaning to her. She decided to let it go. Whew.

In one of my novels I made the mistake of making two characters’ names sound too closely alike: Jed and Ted. And no, they weren’t twins. It wasn’t until the book had been out almost a year that my neighbor said, “I kept getting them mixed up.” Clutch at my heart! How could I have not noticed such a thing? Ugh!

It’s important, I think, to have names that are memorable. They don’t have to be wacky-out-of-the-realm-of-normality names, but they need to be slightly odd. John Grisham is good at this. I decided a while back I think he skims the phone book and finds some of the weirder names and picks some. I liked the fact that Charlie in the chocolate factory’s last name is Bucket. It’s believable but quite memorable. In farce (like that) the people can be names that describe them (Angina—fat mother of spoiled rich girl, means heart attack; Gloop for the greedy kid; etc.) I have made the mistake of having names be too pedestrian. It helps the reader, (at least when I’m the reader), to have the names be just enough different to be memorable. Think Holden Caulfield, Katniss Everdeen, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, etc.

Growing up "Jennifer"....I mean, in the '70s almost every girl seemed to be named Jennifer. Or Lisa. It had its pros and its cons.

So, I guess a couple of the things I now watch out for as I’m naming book people is to try not to have any rhyming names, to not have any two names begin with the same letter, and make it memorable.

There’s a poem by Robert Frost about a girl whose parents name her Maple. Not Mabel. It is forever giving her trouble, and then one day it becomes the springboard of a conversation with a man who ends up falling in love with her. The final line of the poem goes something like “Name children some names and see what you do.” Or what happens.

I like that.


  1. Oh I like this post. Not that I don't love all of your posts. I do find names fascinating & the idea of naming characters to use up names you love? Makes me wish I was an author. :)

  2. You make writing sound so fun! Good post. I just finished the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (which, by the way, is a hard title to say, type, or even think. It frustrates me to no end.) But the name from that book that sticks with me is Dawsey. There were a lot of people in... that book, and I found the correspondence format made it difficult for me to keep track of who was who, but I always remembered Dawsey. I really feel like the name worked with the character, and stood out from everyone else.

  3. Oprah was supposed to be named after the Biblical character Orpha (she was Naomi's other daughter-in-law) but somebody's spelling got a little off. I find old college year books a great place for names (first name from page 10 last name page 105). I suppose high school yearbooks would work too, but there were barely a hundred people in my high school, somewhat limiting.

    Don't some characters just appear in your head already perfectly named? Then there are the characters or pets who never seem to have a name that fits. We had a cat for years we called the Black Cat. We tried dozens of names but they just never took.

    Before the days of auto correction I had a character named Brian which I constantly typed Brain. Kept volunteer proof readers busy.

  4. @Candice--I think you SHOULD write a book!
    @Sherral--I liked Dawsey's name, too. But Juliet was great. It's got distinction. And Sydney.
    @Louise--the bad thing about Brian/Brain, is even in tech-days, the spell check won't catch that one. My friend Brian once had his military photo in the newspaper with the caption Brain Hatch. And yes, I have a character who arrived with a nametag. I imagine your Cal did.

  5. I'm horrible at names. I read in an Orson Scott Card book once that he generally tries to have all his main characters in a story start with different letters of the alphabet. He also suggested mixing up the number of syllables too (like Harry, Ron, and Hermione-- though JK Rowling broke the different letters rule).
    We just drove to California and I wrote down the names of the exits along the way. Got some good ones...

  6. Melinda--I like the syllable hint. I just had to change one of my supporting characters because everyone had just one syllable before. Now Reggie instead of Mike. Is Reggie memorable enough?

    Also, I did that SAME thing on a trip to LA a few years ago. It's how I ended up with a character named Blythe. Such an enchanting place!


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