Monday, April 23, 2007

What's in a Name?

By Josi S. Kilpack

Writers tend to use names they are familiar with in their books, and this is okay so long as you don't make your mother-in-law the evil vampire. However, keep a few things in mind:

Is pronunciation easy to figure out based on spelling? Hermione makes me nuts in Harry Potter. I'd never heard the name before and stumbled over it every time until I saw the first movie. Ask yourself if you really want to trip up your reader by naming someone by throwing a Thaidya or a Schven in there for them to fumble with. Even Phoebe and Chloe throw me off.

Does the name end in S? If it does, such as Chris, you'll be using Chris's or Chris' over and over again, which can also be a bit daunting for a reader--especially younger ones. That doesn't mean you can't use ending-s names, but in regard to your main character you might want to give it some thought.

Are some of your names too similar? If you have a Lisa and a Leslie and Liesel and Libby, you might have trouble. If you have a Chrissy, and a Stacy, and Tracy and a Chris--again, you're readers might have a hard time remembering who is who. As a general rule, try to have your characters names start and end with a different letter. So Lissa and Stacy works well, as does Jessica and Leslie. It allows your reader to identify a new character right away.

Do last names and first names match up? We don't often refer to our characters as Lisa Andrews, it's Lisa or maybe a Miss Andrews now and then. In my first book, Earning Eternity, I had a boy names Jackson, and a love interest of this boy's mother with the last name Jackman. it wasn't until a year later that I caught onto the Jackson Jackman thing. Five books later I wrote about two secondary characters from that book--Matt and Maddie. Their names were cute when they were secondary characters, but confusing as the main characters of their own story. I made sure to point it out and be very clear when they were speaking to one another, but it would have been a lot easier if I'd just names the guy Bob in the first place.

Are you using too many names of people you know? I can all but guarantee you that if you use your neighbors name, she will think you were writing about HER. And your brother-in-law will also think the doctor is really him even though he does drywall for a living. They can't help it, and even if you simply liked the name, they will identify themselves with your character. So be careful. Don't use your sister's name for the prostitute or have your neighbor's name for the doctor who looks like a bloated rabbit. It's not worth the angst.

The key is awareness--pay attention so that someone doesn't have to point it out to you later.


Heather B. Moore said...

I think this is very insightful, Josi. I still can't pronounce Hermione either :) I've used names of people I know in my novels (mostly last names), but they are always the "good guys". But it is funny when someone thinks you've named a character after them when you haven't.

Lu Ann Brobst Staheli said...

Hey, we must think alike. I talked about authors using secrets in their books (like naming characters after each other) in my column this week for the Spanish Fork News. Since I wrote my coumn on April 22, I guess I got the idea abefore you did.

Annette Lyon said...

Well put! I didn't realize what a problem this was in one of my books until my critique group pointed out in a draft how confusing it was when I had Abe and Abby talking to another in a scene. They got so confused. Abby just had to turn into Abigail after that!

Katie Parker said...

When I read Earning Eternity, I noticed the Jackson Jackman thing myself. As I read, I wondered when the characters would notice it and address the potential problem the kid would have with his name if his mom married the guy she was dating. Without giving anything away, I think the solution you came up with worked pretty well...even if you didn't recognize the problem you were solving!

Julie Wright said...

I have an entire novel where I chew my nails while waiting for the lawsuit. I wrote my bad guys exactly as they are and didn't bother changing the names to protect the guilty. Where was such sage advice when I was starting out???

Janette Rallison said...

This is why I can't name any of my characters after my children. They wouldn't be who I imagined then--they'd be my kids.