Monday, March 28, 2011

What's in a Name

Happy Monday all.  I have been wondering what to post about today... honestly I have been sitting here thinking for far too long.  So, here comes a post that has been rumbling in the back of my mind.


Raise your hand if you think naming your characters is hard hard hard to do.  *own hand shoots into air*  Honestly, there have been times that I sit and spend my entire writing time for that day trying to settle on one single name.  Its one thing for a MC, its bad when its just for a minor character... why do I need the perfect name?  Isn't it just a name?

A problem with names is that they truly can make the person, or break it. Heck, my name is Jenni.  When I have asked people what they think of when they hear that name, it tends to be a ditzy cheerleader or blonde Woo-girl.  Both of which, I am not.  One leading reason why I chose to spell my name with an "i" other than the traditional "y" or "ie" was... to be me.  To this day I have only met I think one other Jenni who spells it the same as I do.  With Jennifer being such a common name, I needed my individuality.  And, I needed to prove that I am not the stereotype of what my name is.

So I am a writer.  And actress.  A photographer.  I grew up playing sports, am highly competitive, and nine times out of ten prefer to hang around boys over girls.  And, I am brunette... though I do like to dye my hair red.  So, if I came across a Jenni in a book... what would I assume she is?  Sadly, even I would lean to the stereotype.  Its just what we all do.

When it comes time to naming my characters, it means something.  I need to feel the name.  I can't just randomly pick a name, say "Yup, that works" and dive into writing.  In one of my WIPS I believe I have changed the MC's name at least three times. 

It may not be that big of a "thing."  Maybe I am just overly picky.  But names do mean something.  What's in a name... everything!  If I read about a Mildred, sadly, I picture an older woman who likes prunes.  If its a Bud, I see a southern hick with ripped off sleeves and a beer belly.  I know.  Sometimes that character has nothing to do with that stereotype.  But, naming your character something will shape it in a way you may not have planned.  You have to be careful.

So, what to do?  How do we choose the perfect name? 

For me, I tend to look into the meanings of the names. is awesome (along with bundles of other sites out there just like it)  Type in the meaning you are wanting.  A trait you want your character to have... or maybe not have, to add spice.  Something that means something to the plot of your story... then peruse.  It is amazing how much more perfect the name can be, once you know the meaning.

One of my beta readers recently asked me what the purpose being Millie's name is.  For those of you who don't know, her full name is Millicent.  My reasoning?  I heard the name Millie... and liked it.  It struck a chord with me and felt "right" for this MC.  Then, as I was writing, I found I needed a full name for her.  And in came Millicent.  I needed a name that no normal person really does name their child... an uncommon name with a strange rep.  Millicent... perfect.  It wasn't until after I chose it that I looked up the meaning of the name:  Mild Strength.  I sat back, thought about it... and realized that it really was the perfect name for this MC.  And so... she was born.

Meanings mean something to me.  What it behind a name holds so much of the character.  I honestly do spend too much time coining the perfect name, but in the end, I feel it is worth it.  As for last names...that is a different story. I tend to steal those from friends.  Yoink!

So, what about you?  Do you just pick a name out of the air and form the character around it?  Make the character, and reader, accept it?  Or do you create the character, then find the perfect name to suit that persona?


David Powers King said...

Great post!

To be honest, names are easy for me. Granted, I take names and shake them up a little to make them more unique in a fantasy or sci-fi setting, but the most important aspect of naming characters, to me, is making them pronounceable. It's hard to connect to someone with a gibberish name.

Afton said...

I so agree with the comment on the gibberish name. If I can't pronounce it, I can't start to picture the character and great characters are why I read in the first place. I just put down a book from my favorite author and am returning it unread to the library because of all the unpronounceable names. Then I started a book by Robyn McKinley and not only are all the names bizarre, but the places names are as well. I have no idea what is going on because I can't pronounce or remember the names and can't associate them with anything.

That said, I've found GREAT names for my secondary characters and minor characters in the church hymn book. I look in the back section under the names of the composers and just pick from there. There are some great last names that I never would have thought of. I named my funeral director Mr. Bliss for one WIP, although he got cut in an edit. Sorry Mr. Bliss. But I thought it was a great name.

Sylvia said...

I also use baby name books. I have been known to name characters from a list of possible names for my own children. I know I like those names, but they just weren;t right for my biological children, so they become the names of my literary offspring. I have also been known to name my characters based on a dominant trait or that dominant traits opposite. Ex. Angela for a demon. Phone books are another great place to find name ideas. Just open to a random section, point your finger and voila!

Trisha said...

Some of my characters have foreign names, so I've been known to look up Dutch names online and stuff for them ;)

One of my heroes was named James, but it got too weird 'cause my brother's name is James so I had to change it. hehe

Brad Jaeger said...

It's hard to say. The three main characters of my manuscript all have unconventional names (Rei, Naomi, and Nyoka).

That being said, I loved the Sword of Truth series and the main dude's name is Richard.

At times the name seems to make the person for me, at other times I find it to be nothing more than an identifier of who is speaking.

Jenni Merritt said...

Awesome comments everyone! I have even more ideas now for naming future characters. Thanks for all the feedback (I think I need to get a phone book and see what I "discover")

Brad - The Sword of Truth series is my all time favorite series! I own it all in hardcover and reread it almost yearly. Richard... he is awesome!

Dawn Kurtagich said...

Agreed—names make or break that first impression. For me it's more instinctual. Some of the time, though, the name is planned out in advance.

Great post!

Jess said...

Loved this post! Picking out names for characters is one of the hardest things for me, but I have a great time with it. For me, it's much easier to see if a name is wrong than if it's right. Once in awhile I'll stumble on a cool name--middle grade names are more tolerant of goofiness, which I like :)


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