Kyle is a frat boy

Wednesday, November 14, 2018
Naming characters is difficult. For instance, after months of trying out names for a young female protagonist, I finally came up with Claire Randall, a name that flows off the tongue and sounds sophisticated enough for her to be interesting, curious and smart. Perfect, right? Yes, that's probably why Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series features 20th-century nurse Claire Randall. Oops!

Names are important, and can be used to explain part of a character's backstory, or establish a connection to a beloved relative or mysterious past. Nancy hates her name because she believes she was named for her father's former girlfriend. Stephen is happy to have a close connection to the other five Stephens in his family.

One effective strategy is to use unusual or unique names for two or three main characters, then more common names for minor characters. This method helps make the main characters memorable. But if it's too strange, and you're worried about readers pronouncing it incorrectly, then write a scene where someone mangles it, and is corrected with a phonetical pronunciation.

Names also may have a connotation of wealth, or class. Some dystopian and fantasy novels equate simple names with low status, while long names denote high status. In Victoria Aveyard's Red Queen series, Mare Barrow is a peasant, while the ruling class uses names like Elara Merandusm, Queen of Norta.

Names associated with someone's profession or hobby is called an aptronym. Marilyn Fish, the oceanographer, makes an appointment with her podiatrist Dr. Foote. Hunter has lots of deer heads on the walls of his man cave.

But this practice can go too far. When I wanted to name a geologist Dr. Rocky Rockstone, everyone in my writer's group said it reminded them of the Flintstones. OK, point taken. (But I still referred to him that way in my mind, because I ruled that universe!)

Regardless, names can spotlight characteristics like age, personality or stereotypes. For example:

Kyle is a frat boy.
Alyssa is Kyle's girlfriend.
Bob is a dad.
Rose is an older woman who goes to church.
Melba also goes to church, but comes directly from the casino.
Junior works in the family business.
Aurora is a princess.
Stanley is practical.

In the end, a name is what you want it to be. Last year, after spending too much time debating a character name, I asked my husband for advice. "I don't pay attention to them," he said. "I always skip over all the names in a book."

So, don't put too much pressure on yourself because writing the character is more important than naming one. And you may want to Google it first.

Mary Horner teaches communications at St. Louis and St. Charles Community College, and definitely needs to rename one of her characters in her unpublished novel.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Mary--Rocky Rockstone? That is too funny.

Your suggestion to give the main characters unusual names and give the minor ones names that allow them to remain in the background... that's a great idea.

Good luck with your writing. What's your goal for finishing the first draft? Or, are you already past your first draft of the manuscript?

Nila said...

Names are such an interesting concept, and I love thinking about them! I relate to what dad does with the names in a book, just skip over them- but I tend to only do that with names that seem difficult to pronounce in a fantasy novel or something. I'll just say "the one that starts with the letter 'T' here," in my head and go from there.

Great suggestions, and can't wait to hear some of your future character names! I have a big list of names I love on my phone so I don't forget unique or fascinating names I want to remember for later.

Mary Horner said...

Thanks, Sioux! My first draft is finished, but I feel like it's too disconnected, and each chapter seems to be about different characters. So I'm kinda stuck right now, but my goal is to use Christmas break to determine the actual problems, then finish it next year.
And Nila, (my lovely and talented daughter) I love that you keep a list of interesting names on your phone. I should start doing that!

Pat Wahler said...

I always struggled with names. There are some good suggestions here. Thanks, Mary!

Renee Roberson said...

Names are hard! Thanks for these tips. Google is my friend when researching names from different time periods, but I always struggle when finding names for contemporary YA, because I always end up accidentally using the names of my kids' friends!

Mary Horner said...

Pat, names are hard for me, too, that's why all my posts are about my own struggles. I use them to try to figure out what to do! And Renee, I have the same problem, but with students. Thanks for your comments!

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