N is for Names

N is for names. If there is anything harder than putting a title on a story (I’m horrible at it) it’s finding the names for your characters. Of sure, on rare occasion I’ll end up with someone who pops in my head fully named and confident about it, like Temple Chevalier from Soldiers of the Sun. Mostly I waste hours going through name books (back in the old days and occasionally now) and hanging out at Behind the Name. online. I love that you can sort by ethnicity because on more than one occasion the character’s heritage is important to he or she is.

Finding the right name can be agonizing for the author. I’ve been known to change a character’s name mid-way through. Thank God for the search function in Word because I put it to good use. I’ve also been known to put in place holders like XXX or YYY to use the global find and replace later on once that jerk of a character finally chooses a name. I’ve even held contests to help name characters. My usual beta will help me and then say ‘you won’t use them. You never like my names.’ That’s true (and probably goes both ways).

And that brings me to the other difficult thing about naming characters. What works for someone might not work for another. There is nothing you can do about that of course. I once knew a woman who literally hated her parents in part for her name which was a bit different but I thought it was beautiful and would have loved it. There’s a romance author I’ve run across recently (I don’t read a lot of het romance but this cover struck me and I looked her up) and the names were so bizarre and so weirdly spelled that I found it off putting. Heck I find it off-putting even with my students where you have a relatively normal name spelled so strangely as to make their child ‘different.’

Some names, however, should probably send up red flags to us and make us rethink. The fantasy genre for instance usually has bizarre names and using regular names might give the fantasy reader pause. I mean would Frodo, Samwise, Gandalf and Aragon have been the same if they had been named John, Tim, Dave and Bob? Conversely if you’re writing contemporary fiction and you named your protagonist, Dylton we might look at you strange (Charlaine Harris does that in her Midnight Texas story, all the characters have slightly weird names like Fiji, Xylda, Manfred and Bobo but they ARE slightly weird people). Right now I’m reading a story that I keep getting kicked out of because of the name Jock. Yes I know it’s a real name but naming the assassin athletic jock character Jock is just weird.

Some names make us judgy even if we don’t mean to be. If I told you this woman’s name was Cinnamon you probably would assign jobs in your head to her (like I know I’ve seen strippers with that name, just saying) and never guess she writes science text books (she does). Some really make you think what were the parents were thinking (and if that’s part of your story then by all means go for it!) Like the race car driver, Dick Trickle, with all due respect to the man who has since passed. Or like someone I interact with professionally whose actual name is Precious. That’s a cute nickname for a baby sure but now she has to endure that name professionally and to an outsider, hearing a doctor call a nurse that would sound like grounds for a sexual harassment suit.

Names are very important. My great grandmother on Mom’s side of the family refused to Anglicize her children’s names when she came here from Italy. She was forced to do it for herself by the government (going from Guiseppina to Josephine) but her children she gave Italian names. On Dad’s side of the family they hid their Italian heritage. Many people did because of the racism of the day. We use names as clues to heritage and sexual identity, for better or worse (often worse). My actual name is unisex. When I noticed I couldn’t get a single response to my job search back when I was seeing patients I removed ‘American Association of Women Podiatrists’ from my resume and got dozens of call backs because they thought I was male (and then hung up on me when they learned I wasn’t). A prejudiced character could easily use a character’s last name to judge him or her without even meeting them, assuming for instance Lanisha is African American or Po Chin is Chinese or Stern is Jewish (Hell I’ve seen people doing that looking over resumes and tossing the ones they think could possibly be non-White, non-Christian because that is their only clue since ethnicity etc. would be off limits when it comes to job applications, and yes it made me see red.)

So yes, naming those main characters is a time consuming job, fraught with emotions (damn you why don’t you like ANY of these names?). Sometimes it’s fun. Sometimes you just want to murder the character before you’ve even written about him.



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