Wednesday, December 19, 2012

What's in a Name?

by  Annette Lyon

Every writer has a unique way of coming up with names for their fiction, whether it's for characters, locations, or objects. This is particularly true with science fiction and fantasy, where we have different worlds, technology, magic systems, and more.

A great name can last through the ages, give multiple layers to a character, or, at the very least, create a specific effect you're looking for.

Some writers aren't subtle with using symbolic names. J. K. Rowling is famous for using Latin and other roots to hint at the personalities and world views of her characters. Draco Malfoy alone says a ton, with draco meaning dragon and mal being the prefix for bad (think malicious, malevolent, and so forth).

Suzanne Collins did the same with with many of the names in The Hunger Games series, although a bit more subtlety. For example, the boy who is a baker's son is Peeta. Say it aloud, and it sure sounds like a kind of bread (pita). I've seen entire articles based on picking apart the names in the series; you could spend all day at it.

Naming characters in this way has been popular for a very long time, but the manner it's done and accepted has changed. Charles Dickens is known for his totally outrageous character names, which tell you exactly what the person is like. (Think: Scrooge, Polly Toodle, Mr. Sloppy, Belle, and many more.)

Modern readers can appreciate Dickens, but they expect different things from modern books, so I wouldn't recommend being quite so overt with your names.

Using literary allusions often works well, especially biblical and mythological names. I have a story I plan to write with the main character named Diana, which I picked especially because of the connotations from Greek mythology.

The Matrix movie series used root words, including religious ones, a lot: Neo, Trinity, Sion, and Morpheus.

Even Twilight did it: The ugly duckling heroine is Bella (beautiful) Swan.

For my novel Band of Sisters, I had five main characters, all women, but of varying ages. I figured out their birth years and then searched online for names that were popular when they were born. So we have Nora, who is the oldest of the group, and Kim, the youngest, with Jessie, Brenda, and Marianne rounding out the middle years.

For my historical novels set in the 19th century, I loved going to cemeteries and looking at names from that era. I kept a notebook with me, and I jotted down names that were accurate to the time, first names in one column, and last names in another. I often picked character names by selecting items from each column.

I've been known to keep an eye out for name tags at stores and restaurants to get name ideas. Look in the phone book. Search online for lists of popular (and least popular) names. Be sure that the names you pick are relevant to the time your story is set.

And if you're writing a story set in the future or on an alternate world, be sure any name you invent has a spelling that gives the reader a fighting chance at pronouncing it right. Otherwise, they'll be pulled from the story over and over again.

Buy a baby name book and keep it on your writing shelf. It's a great place to look for ideas, as well as meanings of names. Even if you don't want to intentionally add meaning to a name, it's a good idea to check the meaning anyway, just in case the name you've selected has a meaning you don't want associated with the character.

You can also use sound and rhythm to name your characters. Hard-sounding letters such as D, K, G, V, and so on, sound more abrupt or harsh (think: Draco, Vader.), while other sounds, such as P, Sh, M, B, and short vowels automatically give a softer image to the reader's mind (think: Cinderella). Longer names tend to feel "softer" (Dumbledore, Huckleberry Finn).

I heard that J.K. Rowling wanted her hero to have a common-sounding name, and Harry worked for that. But say his full name, and you'll hear almost a trochaic rhythm, which uses two beats, the first of which is stressed: Harry Potter. (Or: HARR-y POTT-er)

For the poetry people out there, trochaic meter is the opposite of iambic, which is what Shakespeare used (a soft beat followed by a stressed beat: what LIGHT through YON-der WIN-dow BREAKS).

Whatever you do, take a lesson from me: be sure to run you name through your memory to be absolutely sure the name has no resemblance to a person from your past, because people will think it's intentional. Read my story about that in a post I did on my personal blog about the Hairy Ape Man.

3 comments:

T.J. said...

Some people name characters after the people in their life.

Example: I needed a name for the main girl in my book. Went to FB and since the friends list is seemingly random, I picked the first name. I wasn't sure about it and looked at the next one. Well, the 2nd person was male, but ironically enough, his wife has the same first name as my high school friend whose name was first.

I had to use it.

Stephanie Black said...

I love the Social Security baby name website, that can give you lists of names and how popular they were in any given year, so you know if a character born in, say, 1970, would be likely to have that name. http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/babynames/

Charissa said...

Haha! I didn't ever pick up on Peeta's name being bakery related til I read this. And Stephanie...thanks for that website. That could be very helpful.