Saturday, September 11, 2010

How do you name your characters?

Author Alison Kent recently blogged about having to change character names partway through a manuscript and how it was unusual for her.

That got me thinking: how do other people come up with names for their characters?

I think with every book I've tried to write, I've struggled with the problem. Every time I write in a new character (primary or secondary), I hem and haw over what to name them. I waste so much time on baby naming websites and census websites that it's ridiculous. Sometimes I have to name a character HISNAME for a few chapters so that I don't stall out on page 1.

For my first manuscript, I stole the first name of my 4th grade crush. Dorky, I know. For the heroine in that story, I borrowed one of my sisters' middle names. My first book notwithstanding, I am leery of picking the name of someone I know well. I'm figure I'll either offend them, or make them think that I'm stalking them. And many times the memory of an old classmate or acquaintance will interfere with me using a name for my hero or heroine. I can't name my protagonist after someone I disliked. I just can't. It's tempting to use them for the villains, though >:).

For my sci fi story, I had my heroine's name, Myrrah, early. And I have no idea where it came from. I thought it was made up, but I've since heard a reference to that same name, with the same spelling, used in a different context. Guess I'm not that original. I had a really hard time with her leading man, however, and wasn't sure about his name for half the novel. The name has grown on me now.

On my other contemporary, I've had many people (contest judges and an editor during a pitch) suggest that I change my hero's name. It's Helmut. Yes, it's unusual and kind of foreign-sounding and I'm open to changing it. But people remember the name :) And my heroine's name, Claire, came about because I wanted some identity confusion in the opening scenes. I didn't want to give her an androgynous name (no Chris or Pat), so I manipulated her initials (CJ). It worked. For me anyway.

I think the easiest so far is my newest work in progress, a fantasy. It's not Earth-based, so I can do whatever I want. And I am. I have a couple of basic approaches to creating fantasy-ish names, including name generator sites and looking up words in ancient languages and then chopping them into something pronounceable. In one case I needed four related names (four brothers) and I'm kind of ashamed to admit that I made up an A name, a B name, a C and a D.

As I posted last time, tracking all of this is a bit of a chore. As is spell-checking. I usually add characters' names to the Word spell-check dictionary. But that adds it to the dictionary of just one computer, not two, and the dictionary applies to every manuscript I write on that computer. So, my laptop will currently let me misspell "helmet" (as in headgear) as Helmut and not complain. Oops.

What about you. Any fool-proof name-choosing schemes? Favorite sites? Or am I just nuts? (wait, don't answer that one...)


Shawntelle Madison said...

Hey Kristi, this site is my favorite right now:

I actually pull a name out of thing air and then I have people tell me later that the names don't work. LOL

Kristi said...

I'll check that name generator out.

There aren't any names in my air, apparently. That's why I have so much trouble coming up with them. When a name does come up, its usually a person I know, which makes it totally unsuitable.

Picking names for the kids was really hard too. I actually dreamed my daughter's name--in the dream I'd already had the baby, and she was talking as an infant and she told me what her name was. My son's name took research and reading through list after list after list.

I think pulling teeth would be faster. After all, you know exactly where the teeth are, and how to get them out.