Friday, June 4, 2010

Start Where the Trouble Starts-Up Close and Personal with Characters' Names

Posted by Ruby Johnson

"Start where the trouble starts" usually refers to the inciting incident of the story. But for me the trouble started with my characters' names. Sometimes, when you think your characters have what you consider the perfect names, they aren’t. I learned that at a meeting with my critique partners. My characters once were named Dorcas MacKenzie and Cagel Bradshaw.

One partner said my female character sounded like what kids in grammar and high school called dorks-Dorcas, Dork for short. Since Dorcas was going to solve a mystery, I worried she wouldn’t be respected if  that was the general consensus of opinion. Recently, I watched “Intervention” and the woman on the program (a shopaholic) called it “dermabrasion of the soul.” That’s sort of what it felt like when I retired Dorcas and Cagel’s names.

Before I changed their names, I decided to do some research and get some input from other writers.Here are their tips:

The name needs to reflect the character. You can’t have a woman, with the name Bambi, in a profession requiring brains. An alpha male is more likely to be named Jake versus Kevin.

Don’t choose the name of a famous person. Miley Cyrus, Elvis Presley, Bill Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Britney Spears are all fine names, but not for characters because their names cause a reader to think of the celebrity. Enter the name in a web search to make sure it doesn’t belong to a famous person.

Don’t end the name with an “s” or an apostrophe. You will get sick of stopping every time you write the possessive form of the name. Readers get annoyed if you overuse names with apostrophes.

Don’t use names that sound the same or have the same first letter. Do not use the same letter for heroine’s first name as the villain’s name. It confuses readers when they have to look backward in the book to find a character’s name. This advice was from a judge and acquiring editor.

Avoid androgynous names. Lots of authors use pen names that are androgynous and that’s okay, but when a reader has to try to figure out the sex of the character, that is just way too distracting. If your hero is name Laurie and your heroine is named Hank,that is bound to be confusing for the reader.

How to combine surnames. While working on Obstetrics, I must say I saw name combinations that were really odd, i.e. babies named for the place they were conceived like Frisco Bay, Little Rock, for the seasons, days, or long and unpronounceable. One father named his daughter’s baby a name with all consonants. It’s recommended to combine unusual first names with common last names or common first names with unusual last names.

Be aware of cultural and regional differences. For instance, in the hill county of Texas, there are large segments of the population with German, British and Vietnamese names. That might not be true in east Texas. In North Carolina, there are large segments of the population with English and Scottish last names. In Miami, you’re more likely to see Spanish names.

Sometimes, arriving at the perfect name takes time and work. It is the process of gathering and then eliminating. Finally, it can really payoff when the name is exactly right. One suggestion was to be careful of how much you let your critique group influence details like character names.

The heroine of my current WIP is of Scots descent. I wanted to keep the last name I had given her, although I'd previously considered Duncan as an alternative surname. I wasn’t attached to the hero’s name so I looked for an English name.

Choosing a last name for the hero which would not clash with the heroine’s was important. For instance, if her name was Royce, I wouldn’t want the hero’s first name to be Roy or his last name to be Boyce or Hagerman. Two are very similar in sound and the other too dissimilar. However, if his last name was Steele, then Royce Steele has a nice ring if the story is romance and marriage is in the future.
Then I took the long list and narrowed it down to the names I thought looked and sounded the best. Obviously, it’s a matter of opinion and others may not like or do it this way.
Next, I narrowed the list down until, at last, I arrived at a name that I felt looked and sounded right.
Then I did the same thing for last names until I, again, had a short list.  I went through the same process for the hero’s name. At last I had names that felt right.

Their new names, though their identities haven’t changed, are Rae MacKenzie and David Hunter and their names are in protective custody!

Sources for further study are:

Character Naming Sourcebook, Writers Digest Books.

The Guinness Book of Names, Leslie Dunkling.

The Baby Name Book

Movies: Look at the credits for names

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