Monday, January 7, 2013

By Any Other Name

One of the things I like best about writing fiction is creating characters. I get to make people up. They will be and do exactly what I want them to. At least, that's the theory. In reality, characters have a way of asserting themselves and telling a writer what they will and will not do. It's kind of like having children. You start out with a tiny infant - a new life to guide and nurture. Immediately your head is filled with dreams for his or her future. Of course, your child will be beautiful, talented, smart, and will have a wonderful, interesting life. You make plans for them: the clothes they will wear, what sports they will play, maybe even what college they will attend. Again, a nice theory. However, if you have a child, you know how far off the mark this is. It doesn't take long for tiny infants to develop a mind of their own and to assert their distinct likes and dislikes. In order words, they make choices and these choices tell the rest of the world who they are.

That's pretty much the way it is with fictional characters too. As writers, we reveal who our characters are by the choices they make, the clothes they wear, what they eat, the kind of car they drive, etc. But what about a character's name? None of us, real or fictional, get to choose our own name. You could say that a character’s name tells us more about his parents than about the character himself. It tells something about their background, the parents' hopes and aspirations for their child. But since parents, their background, hopes and aspirations, make up a large part of who all of us (both real and fictional) are, a character’s name should reflect that. Some names reflect ethnicity, tradition.

For example, what do these names tell you about a character's background?

A girl named Tiffany

A boy named Edward Randall Remington, III

If a character’s name is Joe Bob, where do you think he’s from?

Pat Murphy suggests a different image than Theo Poppadoppalus.

Do your characters' names reflect diversity? Do you want them to? Or do you want to portray a specific segment of the population?

Sometimes you can show a little more about your character by letting the reader know how he feels about his name. Did he change the name his parents gave him? Does he use his full name? Or go by a nickname? Maybe one he picked when he was in high school. So, even here, you have a chance to develop your character a little more fully.

Do they use their formal name? Or a nickname? How can you use this to help define your character? A good example of a nickname that defines a character is John Updike’s Harry Angstrom. He’s called Rabbit – and he’s always running from something.

Think about these things when you name your characters and, as a purely practical matter, don’t make their names too much alike. If your characters are Bob and Bill and Bert, the reader is going to have a hard time keeping them straight.


Elisabeth Rose said...

You're so right Sandy! The names are the first thing I choose and from that the characters grow. Surnames sometimes change but I rarely alter a first name once I've started writing because that's who that person is.

I tried to switch a Rachel to a Laura once but she didn't like it at all!

Sheila Claydon said...

You are so right about this Sandy and you have just prompted me to have another look at my WIP because it has a character called Jodie and another one called Joel. Although they are different sexes they are both in the story together a lot of the time, so do I need to change one before the final edits? I think I do, now you have reminded me. The only problem is I can't change Jodie. Why? Well because that's just who she it's going to have to be Joel. Now what shall I call him...?

Loretta C. Rogers said...

Great article. In critiquig ms for newbies, the first thing I notice is how archiac the names are for the time period of the story, or how the name doesn't match the setting of the story, or how wimpy the heroes name is.

There so much to know about every element of writing.

The Hostess with the Mostest said... is always a big help.

Sandy Cody said...

Thanks for putting in your two cents, Lis, Sheila and Loretta. I've tried giving a character the wrong name once or twice ... and the illusion that I was in control went right out the window.

Beate Boeker said...

It's even worse if you're not a native speaker. I once named my hero Lester - until an American friend told me that name was a complete no-go - something to do with sexual innuendo? I changed it to Marc. Can't go wrong with that. ;-) He was not asked!

Sandy Cody said...

I'm not sure why your friend advised against Lester. Have to admit, though, I don't particularly care for it. Marc is definitely better.

Gina Ardito said...

My character's names tell me not only who they are, but what they look like. One of my favorite reference books is called The Secret Universe of Names, and it breaks down personalities based on key letters in any given name. For each set of letters, I can find out how my character will act as a child, in love, in what kind of career he or she will flourish, how (s)he'll be as a spouse, etc. It's a goldmine of characterization!