Thursday, September 19, 2013

On Naming Characters

A couple months ago, I went on a road trip with a good friend. She had a fun idea for a book and wanted to brainstorm and outline as I was driving. It was great fun bouncing our ideas around the car as it cruised through the mountains of western Idaho. 

And then we got to character names. 

My friend wanted names that reflected her characters - the wild child needed a wild name, the sheltered girl needed a sheltered name, the mean secondary characters needed mean names, and the douchebag boyfriend needed a douchy name. 

I had a horrible time coming up with names, because I can't name characters that way.

When parents name a new kid, with few exceptions, they don't know what that baby is going to be like when he grows up. They don't sit and think "Hmmmm...I think he'll be a popular football player, maybe even Homecoming King. What's a good Homecoming King name?" Two stuffy accountants aren't likely to name their baby girl Starshine Rose, even if that name will work wonderfully with the quirky teenager she'll grow up to be.

Our characters are full people with lives outside the pages we write them into. Their names should reflect less who they are and more who their parents were when they named their baby. After all, your characters didn't just get named when the story you're telling starts; they've had their names for their whole lives before page one.

But what if your character has boring parents, but a boring name just won't work for her? A quick way to get around this is by using nicknames. When I lived in Montana last, I was part of a YA Book Club. One of the members was a girl about my age, maybe a year or two younger, named Finn.

Except her name was actually Linda.

She grew up thinking her parents had given her the most boring, old-lady name in the world, so when she went to college, she told people to call her Finn, and it stuck. 

(Apparently Linda really is a boring, old-lady name, because it's also my step-mom's name, but she's always gone by Cathie.) 

Now, you don't have to name characters this way. Authors give characters names with meaning all the time, and it works. (And, really, who is going to argue with Queen Rowling?) I'm just giving you something to think about next time you are trying to come up with the perfect name that will, in one word, encompass everything your character is. 

Your turn! How do you name your characters? Sound off in the comments. :)

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