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Friday, January 11, 2008

So You Want to Name a Character

Finally sitting down to write that novel? Let’s assume you’ve chosen your genre, point of view, narrative style and all those other things that you have to decide before setting pen to paper. (Or fingers to keys). Now comes the fun part – maybe. Naming the characters. There are different methods of approach here, and excuse me if I leave some of them out. I use a variety of methods, but I know I haven’t discovered them all.
First, you can make the name tell something about the character. For example "Young Goodman Brown," by Nathaniel Hawthorne gives us a fair description of the main character before we turn the first page. However, you might not want to get that concrete in your description.
Another way to name is to pick names of people you know who sort of seem to fit. The only problem with this is, they may read the book and not like the character. You’ve just lost a fan. Probably not the best method. I’ve known people who randomly chose names from the phone book and used them. Also, not the best method.
I’ve used a lot of baby name books or web sites. These are incredibly useful. You can search for meanings of names, names from certain nationalities, starting with a particular letter, number of letters, the list of search filters is practically endless. Do a random web search for baby names and you will come up with a wide variety of sites.

When writing sci-fi, quite often I find myself needing an alien sounding name. Nothing "Earthly" works, so I’m stuck with making something up. While this might sound easy, it really isn’t. I like names that sound vaguely alien in nature, but aren’t so incredibly complicated to pronounce that my readers eyes will boil. It drives me crazy reading a book with complicated names. The worst faults are those who add a lot of unnecessary punctuation. Do you think we need "Ban’Kay-at-ah’wan"? What am I supposed to do on those dashes and apostrophes, swallow my tongue? Think too, when you are typing that all important name, how many times you will have to type it before the novel ends. I don’t think I could face it. It’s easy to fall into this pattern, but it is far better to make easily pronounceable names.

How to find the ideal alien name, preferably one that isn’t unpronounceable and jaw breaking? Fantasy name generators are great for this. Again, a random web search can be invaluable. I have also used mundane things, rearranged the letters a tad and come up with some amazingly interesting names. After wracking my brain for an important alien, a glance at a shop window solved the problem. I used part of the business name in reverse, and came up with an amazing moniker! Another name was provided by rearranging the letters in the maker of my van, "Telorvech".

I got the name of a planet from a telemarketer. English was not her primary language, and it took several minutes to determine that she wasn’t calling from some obscure third world country. She was, in fact, calling from Bank One. However, it sounded like "Ban-qwan", which later became "Bankaywan".

Once names have been decided upon, write them down and arrange them alphabetically
with a brief description of each character. This is quite helpful keeping track, especially of minor characters. How often have I gone back to a minor flunky only to say to myself, "Was his name Fred, Fritz or Frank?" And how frustrating to realize that I’ve named not one but two minor flunkies with the same name. Of course it’s entirely possible to have two men in opposite ends of the galaxy both named Frank, but why do it to yourself or your readers?

I try to keep names short, or give nicknames to character names I will be typing a lot. I just named a character Adrianna. I really wish I’d chosen something a tad shorter, but somehow the name Adrianna Hasselhoff seemed to fit. It’s her name now, and she won’t give it up, so I’m stuck with it. My main character in my sci-fi series is named Wilhelm Van Lipsig. His name immediately got shortened to Wil and there it’s stayed. I’ve noticed a trend as I write this article. Reviewing my character names, I find that the men often have shorter names than the women.
For the men: Wil, Ben, Marc, Frank, Kael, Stan, Brock, Brodie.
For the women: Matilda, Adrianna, Escascia, Ariella, Tselanna, Ysilvalov, Ssylvenia, Savannah.
I wonder why I do that. It certainly makes more work for me than if I named them things like Meg, Tina or Penny.
Avoid naming your main characters with similar sounding names. It is terribly confusing
for readers. I have a series of fantasy books I enjoy reading, but at least three main characters have names beginning with "K", three have names beginning with "S" and the hero’s wife, a queen, has a name so similar to that of her country, it gets mind boggling quickly. I know how difficult it can be to keep everyone straight, particularly when a novel begins to develop sub-plots.
The more I write, the more I find myself adhering to the "KISS" rule. (Keep It Simple, Sweetie). The more complicated I make it for myself now, the more exhausted I will be when I finish the book.

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