Originally published on the Wild Rose Press Greenhouse
Writing Mechanics: What’s In a Name? By Masha Holl
There's more in a name than you think. And it all depends on how you look at it.
Sometimes a character springs up all ready, clothed, in full color, and named. Sometimes, a character is a nebulous creature that needs a lot of refining, from looks to style, down to the name you will call him or her for the next weeks, months, or years, that it will take you to craft your story.
So how do you find a name? Let me tell you the ways...
I. Seven Don'ts for finding names for your characters:
1. Don't use baby-name books for foreign or historical names. Use dictionaries and scholars as sources. In places far away and in times past, naming traditions were not like our own. Big surprise. In fact, in times past, and in to this day in some faraway places, naming is a complex ritual that must follow set patterns of great significance for the child and the adult. Not applying them properly could cause a reader to throw the book at the wall. Turn to someone who has solid knowledge of the culture you're writing about to help you with the naming.
2. Don't forget the meaning of a name. It can trigger a cascade effect that will suggest entire plot lines. Sometimes, the sound of a name is enough to satisfy a writer. Not me. I like the play with the meaning of the name. Or a pun on the origin or the sound of a name. I have a werewolf character whose name is Lucas. Why? Lupus-wolf in Latin- sounds a lot like Lucas. I have a photographer with a last name Lucien. The name is derived from lux, which, in Latin, means light. Photographers work with light. I don't attach any deep meaning to the names, but a play on sound, on etymology, or on meaning helps me focus my character.
3. Don't rely on baby name books and web sites for the etymology of names. Few of them are put together by linguists, nor are thoroughly researched. Always double-check the information. I always look up the Russian names in baby name books, and then the French names, because I can spot mistakes very easily. I always spot very basic mistakes. I do know whereof I speak. If I can't trust the selfsame books to give me information I can verify how can I trust them to provide me with information I do not know?
4. Don't use the same initial of the same beginning sound for more than one character per story. Cathy and Carmen are too close to fit in one novel. So are Cathy and Katerina. But Cindy and Corrina are OK. Sound is more important than the actual written letter, but too many names looking alike will confuse the reader. The reader doesn't like to be confused. Better keep your character's names varied. No, it's not like real life. It's called fiction. Unless, of course, everybody else in the story is confused and it's a significant aspect of the plot. But you would have to justify it.
5. Don't use gender-ambiguous names -- unless you do it on purpose. The name makes the character. Make sure a man's name sounds like it, too. Unless you want it to be effeminate. It's all up to you but be mindful of the effect of the name. I'm not talking fashion and passing associations between names and popular characters, but names that could be either masculine or feminine. Does Robin stand for Robert or Roberta? It can work either way.
6. Don't use first names as last names if it's going to confuse the reader. Especially if they're gender-ambiguous. Unless you're doing it on purpose. Mike Robert might look like a good name, but you're going to trip someone with it. Yourself first in all likelihood. It's not a very hard fix to change it to Mike Roberts. Or even better Robertson.
7. Don't apply English grammar to foreign names. People spend years learning foreign languages. They will throw your book at the wall if you don't respect their hard work.
II. Seven Dos for finding names for your characters:
1. Do recite the alphabet. The sound or shape of an initial letter might bring up the perfect name. Sound is important. It will not matter, not consciously, to your reader. But you have to like your character, and the sound of the name is part of it. Listening to it, or looking at the shape of letters as initials of a character's name is an entirely different game from reading ordinary words on a page. A big part of writing is playing mind tricks with yourself.
2. Do use good name dictionaries that provide the history and meaning of a name. Even if you don't share it with your readers, the information can help crystallize some aspect of your character's nature for you. And you'll have readers who will enjoy looking for it. Just imagine you're building a fan base. You're becoming well known for the small details. Your readers research the meaning of your character's names and how it reflects their nature, their background, or their deep dark secrets. All that can be contained in one little name. A key for you to use.
3. Do break the rules. But know the rules first. Length of name and sound combinations will affect a reader's reaction to your character. But you can only control that in your own language. And your own time. A name will sound odd to another culture regardless of your effort at making it universal. But then a reader who picks up a book by a foreign author expects strangeness, so we shouldn't worry about that. There's really only one rule to anything in writing: don't confuse the reader. And that means, make names memorable, pronounceable, and distinct.
4. Do consider the sound of a name. And the feel. And your first reaction to it. It's a good bet your reader will have a similar reaction. Need I say more?
5. Do use other writers' ideas, even Great Writers such as Austen, Tolstoy, and Dickens. How did they pick their names? How do the names correspond to the characters? Don't be afraid to learn from the masters. Tolstoy often played on names of real people. We will never forget Austen or Dickens's heroes. Why should we avoid reading and learning from them? Why should we limit ourselves to what's on the market right now? It would be like learning to write by typing on a keyboard. What if the power went off? Shouldn't you be able to handle a simple pencil? Old fashioned never goes out of style in writing.
6. Do play with spelling -- but know what you're doing. There are variations, but there are also rules. We're back to the dictionary here. Variations on names are one thing, but creative spelling is a distracter you don't want to impose on your readers. Unless, of course, you need to do it on purpose for a specific character. But then it becomes a plot point, and that's another story altogether. A corollary of the "don't confuse your reader" rule is: "keep it simple". Which doesn't mean "keep it moronic". Streamline it. Smooth it out. Make it glide.
7. Do make sure that the form of the name fits the genre of your story. Time, place, the vast universe... Don't give your Viking a cowboy name, or your Victorian lady a Chicago moll moniker. The same applies to the spelling of said names. And check all of it before you send it to any agent or editor. They know a lot about all of this.
If your critique partner, or group, expresses doubts about names, take it under advisement, but check the historic and linguistic accuracy of names with someone who's a specialist in the field. A graduate student. A professor. A fellow writer with an advanced degree, or proven research experience. Someone who's good at surfing the Web for tidbits of information is not necessarily a good source. Not necessarily bad, but...
Masha Holl was raised on magic tales, Russian literature, Mozart, Verdi, and French cuisine. Today, she writes romantic science fiction and fantasy---that's werewolves, spaceships, and alien universes---to the sounds of Metal Rock.
Reprinted with permission.