Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Hello, my name is ...

And I thought I had trouble with character names.

Charles Dickens called the sickly character in A Christmas Carol “Small Sam” and “Puny Pete” before settling on “Tiny Tim.” And until her editors at MacMillan intervened, Margaret Mitchell had been calling the woman we all know as Scarlet by the name of Pansy.


I try to tell myself that I shouldn't worry about the names of a character when the book is in progress. After all, the important thing is the plot and the story and the character. Right?

Uh, no. The wrong name will worry me like a toothache until I get it right. It will stop me dead in my tracks. You'd think, after four pubbed books and untold numbers of "trunk" novels, I'd have a system worked out.

I sort of do, but it's not a fail-proof one.

I'm a stickler for accuracy. One reason I can't watch soaps is because of all the weird names. Back in the 90s there were just way too many Hunters and Chases for guys, and I can't even remember all the strange names for the ladies. Now, of course, Hunter and Chase are perfectly commonplace names for little boys.

So I start first with the age of the character. A 28 year-old woman? My handy-dandy calculator tells me that the woman was born in 1982 (a mere child. An infant almost, but still.)

Then I let my fingers walk right on past all those baby-naming books. My clicking takes me to the absolute best naming website: The Social Security Administration.

Yup. The SSA has on record the most popular baby names, girl and boy, for any year or decade after 1879, and most popular names by state. It appeals to the geeky nerd in me. I just type in the year and pick the name that appeals to me from the top 25 names.

Now sometimes the name will come first, or I'll have a special reason for naming a character a particular name. For instance, I have a women's fiction MS where the woman's name is Glory. I love that name. It's just perfect for the character, and even more perfect for the wacky parents who named her that. And in my first pubbed book, THE BABY WAIT, I named my heroine Sara, after the barren Sarah in the Old Testament.

Or sometimes I'm just so desperate that I take the ultimate shortcut, like I did with WHERE LOVE GROWS. I was beginning the first chapter on my laptop, as I waited for The Kiddo to get out of ballet. Another mom was flipping through a magazine. The name I'd picked (by my aforementioned method) just wasn't working. I couldn't write.

So I turned to the unsuspecting mom. "What's your favorite name for a girl?" I asked her.

She narrowed her eyes suspiciously, gazing at my very flat (well, it was back then) belly. "Rebecca," she told me.

"Hmmm, Rebecca. Becca." I rolled it around on my tongue to see how it fit. And voila, it worked.

So, the storel of the mory is, if your careful and systematic approach fails you, just ask the mom in the ballet studio's waiting room.


Piedmont Writer said...

That's so funny. The heroine to my first book was Penny, Penelope after the Greek.

Her friends, in subsequent series were all named after flowers. It was quite "cutesy". well at least I thought it was. We'll never know until we get them written if they'll fly.

Lola Sharp said...

Naming my characters is fun and easy for me.

Naming my books? Torture. I'd rather stick a rusty fork in my eye. So much pressure!

Great blog. I'm here from Stephanie's blog.


Jamie Burch said...

Thanks for the tip on the name search! I will have to try that out.

I seem to have more trouble naming my male characters.

Off to explore your blog!

Mia said...

Great post :) I'm fairly good at picking character names, but I agree with what Lola said. Titling books? Ugh. I'm horrible at it. Sometimes it's not until I finish the entire book that I find the right title.

Karla Nellenbach said...

great post! most of my characters are fairly easy to name...they demand a certain moniker and whether I like it or not, that's who they are.

Debra L. Schubert said...

Love this post! I usually have my book title and character names before I have any idea what the story's about. Weird, I know. Found you via Tawna on Twitter, btw. (Love her!)

Tawna Fenske said...

Thanks for the tip on the Social Security website. I'll have to try that!

My husband is a teacher (a detail I try to keep off my own blog, so no comments over there pretty please if you follow me!) When I'm struggling for a character name, I'll often ask him to just start reciting student names for me until one clicks.

Love the blog!

~Sheri Larsen~ said...

Yowza is right. Love this post. I found you on Twitter & retweeted this. ":-)

Linda G. said...

Great post! :)

Oddly, I saw my mc's name on a license plate one day. It was like she sprang, full-form, into my my head right then, and the plot followed very shortly.

Kind of like the old chicken or egg question--which comes first, the character or the name? For me, it's usually the name.

J. Andersen said...

I use babynamesworld.com. You can search according to year or meaning or country. I like to think about who my character is at heart and choose a name that matches that.

Theresa Milstein said...

We all have our own ways of coming up with characters' names. J.K. Rowling had a notebook where she just played around until she came up with the right name. I like to use a baby name on-line website to find a name that has some element of my character or some hint of a character's power. It's a lot of fun.

Cynthia Reese said...

Oooh, such cool ideas! I may never have to bother the ballet mom ever again!

Mia, I STINK at titles! I think my editors asked me for my suggested list of titles for each of my books just out of pure politeness. :-)

Toby Speed said...

I'll have to try the SS site next time.

This random name generator is cool: http://www.kleimo.com/random/name.cfm
You can set your obscurity factor from 1 to 99, from most common to most unusual names. It's very entertaining. I named a bunch of my characters this way.