Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Naming of Characters

Sandra Parshall

T.S. Eliot wrote, “The naming of cats is a difficult matter,” and as a lifelong cat-owner, I agree -- but choosing a name for a fictional character takes difficulty to a whole new level. It’s a lot like naming a child. The recipient will live with your decision forever, and if you make a mistake the consequences won’t be pretty.

A baby, of course, is named before the parents have any idea how the kid will turn out. Will little Angelina develop into a tattooed hellion? Will Grace be a hopeless klutz? Or will their names in some way help to shape the people they become? I’m sure that somebody, somewhere, has spent a breathtaking amount of money studying such questions, but fortunately writers don’t have to wonder. We can form the characters, then give them names that suit. We can try out as many names as we like before deciding.

A character’s name has to do a lot of heavy lifting:

It should evoke personality. If a guy is always called Robert, never Bobby or even Bob, what does that say about him?

If ethnicity is important to the story, the name should convey that too. But you don’t have to call every Hispanic character Jose Gonzales. A little effort will turn up less common names that still tell the reader how to see the person.

A name can be a quick way to signal social status. I am not brave or foolish enough to reel off a list of low-class names and risk the fallout, but you know what I mean.

A name can tell us a character’s approximate age. How many toddlers do you know who are named Hortense or Archibald? How many 80-year-old women have you met who are named Britney or Morgan? The internet allows writers to search databases such as (compiled from Social Security records) and to find out what a character born in a certain year might have been named. Because I prefer classic names rather than the trendy concoctions that are going to seem laughable when their owners hit middle age and beyond, I’m happy to note that Emma has been the most popular name for baby girls in the U.S. for several years. We may have Ross and Rachel on Friends to thank for this. (I have a five-year-old named Emma, but although she believes herself to be an unusually hirsute little girl, she’s actually of the feline persuasion.) All those tiny Emmas, though, are growing up with a nearly equal number of girls named Madison. Aiden was the top male name in 2006, followed by Jacob, Ethan, Ryan, and Matthew. What will Madison and Aiden call their children twenty-five years from now?

The classics fit people of any age, but if the first name is a common one, the last might have to do double duty to give the character distinction. Kate is one of the most common names for female protagonists in mysteries, followed closely by all the variations of Katherine/Catherine/Kathleen -- Kat/Cat/Kathy/Katie/Kay. But Kate Shugak is singular, and so is Kay Scarpetta. In my new book, Disturbing the Dead, I named a lead character Tom Bridger, pairing a first name that conveys a solid, down-to-earth personality with a last name that is common among Melungeons in the Appalachians. The name Bridger is also a metaphor for the position that Tom, a half-Melungeon deputy sheriff, occupies between two segments of his mountain community. The reader may never think about this, but I have.

Sometimes a perfect name comes to a writer through sheer serendipity. When Tess Gerritsen was writing a book titled The Surgeon, she contributed to a charity auction by allowing a reader to purchase naming rights for a minor character, a female medical examiner. The reader named Dr. Maura Isles after a real person. The character grew in importance in subsequent books, and she grew into her name, which perfectly conveys the image of an elegant woman who is isolated within herself.

While searching for the perfect monikers for our characters, writers have to keep some no-no’s in mind: nothing that is impossible for the reader to pronounce; no two names starting with the same letter, lest the poor reader become confused; as few nicknames as possible, again to avoid confusion. Short, one-word names always have the edge, at least in English-language crime fiction. Look at a few U.S., Canadian, and British mystery novels. How many names of more than two or three syllables do you see? How many truly unusual names do you see? You could say this is laziness on the part of writers who don’t want to type long or difficult names again and again, and you might be half-right, but it’s also true that a mystery seems to move faster if everyone has a short, easy name.

A name is the most personal thing about a character, and the choice is not one the writer makes lightly. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could exercise the same discretion over our own names? As innocent babies, we have to take whatever label is slapped on us, whether it fits or not. But most names, amazingly enough, turn out to be good fits. How about yours? Do you love it, hate it, wish you could change it? What name would you have given yourself, and why?


Lorraine Bartlett said...

When I was in Junior High (that term alone dates me), "Lorraine" was considered a corny, STOOOPID name. So I became Lori. I was one of about 6 Loris. I kept using it for another 8 years and then one day I woke up and thought--there's nothing very unique about Lori. How many Lorraines did I know? (None.)

I went to Champion Products and had a shirt make that had my name, Lorraine, in a semicircle and wore it for the next couple of years. That's how long it took to get friends and acquaintances to call me Lorraine. (And a few people have NEVER dropped "Lori" even though it makes me cringe.)

And now I'm writing under a pseudonym. (Lorna Barrett)

I still hope to see my real name (not initials) on a book cover some day.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

One mystery protagonist naming trend I think has been overdone is the male nickname on the female character: Sam for Samantha, Max for Maxine, Alex for Alexandra. My own mystery, Death Will Get You Sober (2008), commits the initial crime, since two of my three sleuths are Bruce and Barbara. But I had good reasons for both. Bruce is a nice strong one-syllable name without being the too common Tom, Bob, or Bill or the currently overused Jake. For my nice Jewish girl, it had to be either Barbara or Harriet, since I didn't want to use Amy or Lisa. And I wasn't about to compete with Harriet Vane, so I had no choice. Liz

pattinase (abbott) said...

I go back and forth on this issue: as a white woman of european descent can I give my characters ethnic/black names? Am I treading on ground I have no right being on or am I honoring the diversity around me. I don't see the world as all white and would like to reflect this but am I trying to own what isn't mine.

Sandra Parshall said...

Patti, I don't think we can be accused of trying to "own" what isn't ours if we write characters whose lives and ethnicity are different from ours. I believe we do have an obligation to try to get it right, though, and to avoid harmful stereotypes. We may be past the time when a white actor can get away with painting his skin and playing a Native American in a movie, but writers have a broader canvas and we should portray the real world.

Liz, I doubt we'll see an end to male nicknames for female characters anytime soon. It's common in real life too, so much so that I now think of Alex as a gender-neutral name, and I'm starting to think of Sam that way.
It's a little bothersome that there are so *many* Alexes -- and Kates too.

Sandra Parshall said...

Lorraine, did you really wear the same shirt for two years?

Judy Clemens said...

It's a strange thing, but characters usually come to me with their names attached. Sure, sometimes I have to change them for the logistical reasons you mentioned, but I don't know -- I tend to trust my sub-conscious. : )

As for my own name, I've never known a lot of Judys. Of course they're out there, but not in today's little kids. I've never met a toddler with the name Judith!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

What a great post! And I was just thinking about this today as I was sorting out names for my second book...realizing from now on I'll make a list of each name as I use it.
Why? Well--I wound up with a main character, Charlotte McNally (and I fear, Liz, many people call her Charlie, but she arrived named)who was failling in love with a professor, Joshua Ives Gelston. He came already named,too.
But his ex-wife, who had to be a somewhat haughty, smart, upper class doctor, I made Claire. Which I thought was perfect. Then I realized--Charlie and Claire? Waaaay too similar. She's now Victoria.
Another example: I needed a last name that was straightforward and no nonsense for a character with a fanciful first and middle name: Margaret Isobel Derosiers. Her married name is now Green. She's Maysie Green. Which I also love.
I was patting myself on the back when I realized I had sort of randomly given someone else the last name Brown. Green and Brown.
Gotta make a list next time.
Love your posts...and see you soon.
Hank Phillippi Ryan (and that's another whole name story!)

Cat D said...

Good post, Sandy.

My characters seem to spring to life pre-named. It's the one thing about them that remains a constant throughout this writing process.

I found, when trying to rename them, they weren't the same characters with their new names--I could not relate to them as I had before. I'm talking about main, not minor characters. I did successfully rename a couple of the minors when in-laws entered the family with the same names as some rather dumb or dubious characters.

I confess (and you know of one) that I have main characters, male and female, with names beginning with the same letter in two different WIPs. In one of these the female's mother's name also starts with that letter. But I won't change any of them, for they are who they are.

Of course, this will change if an agent or editor tells me ....