A Rose by any other Name…


So I was fortunate enough to get a round of notes on my new YA adult novel from no less an author than R.L. Stine (of Goosebumps among many other things) and he pointed out that I had to rename one of my major characters. Her names was Isabella, often simply ‘Bella,’ which, he pointed out, was the same as the heroine of the ubiquitous Twilight series. I had realized the coincidence before, but a better name hadn’t leaped to mind so I had left it as it was. But Mr. Stine was (unsurprisingly) clearly right. I had time to change it, and doing a quick find/replace in my Word document was no sweat. All I needed was a new name.
This is where things got tough. The problem was that I had finished the first draft of the book almost five months ago and had been tinkering with it ever since. I now knew this girl and her name was Bella. I tried inserting alternatives and they wouldn’t work or didn’t fit. The search for a replacement—which took several agonizing days and produced only a provisional solution—made me acutely aware of how difficult naming characters can be. Today I offer a few things to bear in mind as you dish out monikers.
Things to be aware of:
1. Real or made up? If you make up a name (i.e. if you invent a new word, or invent a name from a regular word like Neil Gaiman’s Door) remember the way we respond to real people who have odd names. And if you do start making up words, ensure that it fits the world of your story, that the pronunciation is clear and that the word feels right without unfortunate associations or echoes (see below).
2. If you choose a conventional name, test it out on your friends to see what associations it generates. I wanted to call my new character Angelina, but since I see a real Angelina looking at me from every supermarket tabloid these days (not to mention Angelina Ballerina) I decided I didn’t want to battle what ever baggage that name might evoke for a reader.
3. Ethnicity. Few names can be found in all cultures, so choose what fits your real or imaginary world. I wanted to call my African American girl Danika (partly because I liked its abbreviations, Danny/Danni or Dan) but my wife (a pediatrician who knows these things) pointed out that the name has northern European roots and is rare outside Caucasian families. Right now, it’s particularly associated with a race car driver, which wasn’t the right association.
4. Meaning. The web is jammed with sites offering baby names, and these are an obvious resource when you are assigning names. Most give a short explanation of what the name means, and such information can help determine whether it’s right for your character. Some of these definitions are a bit shaky, however, so once you’ve identified a name you like, look it up in some more reliable source.
5. The irrelevance of point 4 (!) Appealing though it is to name a character something with a really cool meaning, remember how little we think of people we know in terms of what their name actually means—even if we know. Unless you find a way to explain it in the narrative (which has to be handled carefully), the meaning may not be much of a factor in determining the impact of the name in your story.
6. More likely to shape that impact is the feel of the name: what it sounds like when spoken aloud, whether it’s driven by hard consonants or broad, open vowels, how many syllables it has, or whether it ends with something tight and closing (like a ‘tt’) or flippant—even trivial—(like a ‘y’ or ‘i’). What does the name weigh? Is it light like Pippin (note the child-like repetition of the vowel) or simple and earthy like Sam (with the tell-tale honorific ‘wise’ tacked to the end?) Does it have an onomatopoeic quality, like Grond (Tolkien’s orkish battering ram) which is the sound of its iron head against the doors of Minas Tirith?
7. How does it look on the page? The appearance of a word is slightly different from its sound and can have implications for feel too. If you make up a name full of Ks and apostrophes, ask if it is ever going to feel familiar—like a real name—to a reader, no matter how many times they read it.
8. How does it combine with other names, particularly a surname or title, but also with other names in the book? All the above concerns about feel come back into play when the name is paired with another proper noun, both of which might be good alone, but dreadful together.
9. An extension of that, is it different enough from the other names in your book that it won’t get confusing for your reader? I once had a book where it seemed like every minor character’s name began with H. Maybe I’d been thumbing through the phone book and got stuck there. It was very confusing. I also had two characters who were together a lot and both had names beginning with D. I had to change one so they didn’t sound like a nightclub act.
10. How does it abbreviate? Only in the highest fantasy do four syllable names not get contracted by the people who are supposed to be their friends. Plan this out.
11. Is it—or might someone think it is—close enough to the name of someone you actually know that a reader might think they recognize them from reality? If so, change it. You don’t want your sense of a real person to dictate your character, for you or your readers, and you certainly don’t want to face a law suit over perceived defamation of character.

I’m over thinking, right? Well, maybe. But readers recognize these thinks at least subconsciously, and the name has to feel right if you are going to write the character well. Sometimes it’s good to wait, let the character emerge in the writing before giving her a name. If I give a character a name arbitrarily right out of the gate I find she will be shaped by the name I picked, and that’s a pretty random way to write a story. One dodge I use is to assign the character a generic tag like XXXX until I have written enough to know what the character feels like. A simple find/replace search can then be made. So. Any great character names in your current works in progress?


34 comments to A Rose by any other Name…

  • Squeak

    When I was young, I created a character I called Syria that my imagination built on as I grew. The name always sounded familiar but at twelve, I didn’t go to an Almanac to figure it out (we didn’t have the internet until a year later). Sometime in high school, it came to my attention that Syria is a country and not a common given name.

    I’ve had a hell of a time changing it. I love the look of Syria and how neatly it rolls off the tongue. This past year, I’ve managed to substitute in Seria. It didn’t feel right to be renaming someone that I’ve “known” for so long, but it was worse to keep on referencing a modern nation in an alternate world fantasy.

  • That’s a great example, Squeak (and where did THAT name come from?!). I remember writing stories when I was young based on games I played with my brother. Years later I came back to them and was amazed to find that all the proper names had been borrowed from other things: books, TV shows etc. including many I THOUGHT I had made up!

  • Irena

    I used Lason and Thane for boys names and Noake was one of the original girl names I came up with. Yeah, you aren’t going to find most of those in common use. But they worked for my characters. Isabella is pretty common what with the twilight series, but depending on the age of your character and the time period she lives in should help you choose a name. Isabella always makes me think Spanish, maybe a Zorro reference or something brings that to mind….

  • That’s a good suggestion about minimizing the influence a pre-chosen name has on you – very helpful article.

  • Sometimes while writing I’ll introduce a new character that I wasn’t planning on and find myself needed a name at that moment. The brakes hit with great force at moments like that. I just can’t go on until I’ve got the right name. I often start looking at book spines on my shelves. This author’s first name, that one’s last name, maybe a publisher’s name. Problem with that is after a few years, you’ve used up all the good ones! Of course, as I meet new authors I get new books on my shelves. Now I have A.J., Hartley, Coe, Misty, Massey, Faith, Hunter….hmmmm….got some character ideas growing…what about Hunter Hartley? 🙂

  • AJ, will you marry me?
    (laughing too hard. I have tears in my eyes)
    Will come back later to comment…

  • I apologize for the silliness to both AJ and Stuart. No reason for my giggles, except I finished the first rough of the WIP yesterday (it’s been a booger) and have been giggly ever since.

    What I intended to say is:
    AJ, you said
    >>If I give a character a name arbitrarily right out of the gate I find she will be shaped by the name I picked, and that’s a pretty random way to write a story.

    I had that exact problem with Jane Yellowrock. I had no name to start out with, wanting some cool AmIm Cherokee chick name, that meant war woman, and ending with a real surname like like Man Killer or SixManKiller. So I named her Jane Doe. Random. But then my hind brain came up with a story to match and Jane was born. I like the random creativity that my mind applied to the name. But next time I’ll go back to the XXXX method, which is my more common method of character not-naming-until-I-find-the-right-one.

    Again — sorry for the totally unprofessional proposal and giggles. (Yes, I am still laughing)

  • What’s to apologize for? Laughter is one of the great joys of life. Especially if you’re celebrating finishing a first draft of your WIP. Congrats and laugh it up!

  • Faith, I only write to get random marriage proposals 🙂

    Stuart, yes, I’ve done the picking names off my shelves too, though I started getting questions about how my work was some kind of commentary on or response to that of the names I’d nicked! I’m more cautious now…

  • Thanks guys…It’s a good day!

  • Wolf Lahti

    In the name Samwise, ‘wise’ is not an honorific. The first half of the name ‘sam-‘ is from the same root as ‘semi’. Samwise literally translates as ‘half-wit’, as Tolkien himself has stated…

    …to speak of the irrelevance of what a name actually means.

  • I seem to have more problems coming up with good book titles than character names. No idea why. Names just kinda jump out and scream “this is my name!” Occasionally I will have a name jump out at me and I’ll reject it for the above reasons, “no, I don’t want Conner because it’s the same name as that whiny character on Angel.” But generally, I’m okay with it. What I need is better skill at figuring out what my tale is called.

    Whenever I use a name that may be hard to pronounce, like those kind with the Ks and apostrophes (like an alien race), I’ll either give a nickname to them or have a character give a phonetic version either in dialogue or in narration. Like in a series I’m writing up now, I had a race called K’rrg’Zrkh, which the characters were pronouncing Kurgzark in dialogue. Not really the correct pronunciation, but IMO, giving the reader the ability to read it simply as Kurgzark whenever encountered.

  • Wolf, that’s interesting, and illustrates my point that meaning (accurate meaning) can be irrelevant, as you say. The word simply doesn’t “play” the way it is supposed to mean. I suspect for Tolkien the irony is deliberate, that we’re supposed to reassess Sam’s status in the book as it progresses. That point is lost now (and I suspect it always was) on readers.

  • Daniel, yes book titles are tough because they have to encapsulate so much of the story while also being suitably catchy.

    I confess to an aversion to propernouns that skip vowels becasue they seem to enact something logically odd. Why should the rest of the language of the book be conventional English but the names aren’t? To me it feel like the exoticism is inconsistent, and I have a hard time connecting to something that doesn’t actually look like a word (while surrounded by others that are), but maybe that’s just me 🙂

  • It’s usually not a problem for me when I read it in other novels, but I can see your point. It would almost be better to reference the actual spelling once and then use the phonetic the rest of the time in dialogue and narration if the race’s language was always translated to English, so to speak. The race was dead, so there wouldn’t have been any chance of hearing them speak in their own language, except in recorded media, which was likely to happen. Either way, in the rewrite of the synopsis (I had some issues with a few things in the original story) the race got cut.

  • Daniel, I like the idea of introducing the correct spelling and then using the phonetic form. Good fix.

  • Naming can be tricky. There is the name which comes from inside which I feel is the character’s “real name”. Then there is the name which I write to fit agent’s/editors’s/reader’s expectations.

    Case in point.

    My current WIP is full of names which I am sure will need to change. My evil goddess in the story is named Tyra. Obvious connections would be drawn to Tyra Banks (yeah I know some people may consider her an evil goddess but that is beside the point). The good god is named Balin which has Tolkien reference even though I made it up before ever reading the Hobbit.

    As for name meanings, my book is titled ALTAR OF HEAVEN and my main character is named Araceli. In Spanish, Araceli translates as Altar of Heaven. I am not sure how publishers will like this yet. I hope to keep it.

  • P.S> Bela is also the name of a horse in Wheel of Time which has been implicated in the death of Asmodean, of being a darkfriend, and of being an avatar of The Dark One. Just FYI. *grin*

  • Mark (which I now see as Markwise), I see your dilemma about the difference between what you feel is right and what editors and readers in general will go with. I have to confess that when I read your name “Tyra,” some deep recess in my brain bellowed BANKS. And yes, not knowing about Balin will help you about as much as my not knowing about Bella (vampire lover and horse) helped me. i.e. not all all. You’ll have to change it.

  • Late to the discussion. Sorry for that. I am having A Day, and not in a good way.

    My new hero — for the Thief Taker books — is named Ethyn Kaille. I wanted a name that was ordinary enough to feel like it belonged in our world, but with a spelling that made it a bit distinctive. I wanted a first name that that didn’t need to be abbreviated, that sounded friendly. I also have to admit that I had a friend in elementary school named Ethan, who I loved and still think about often. And the name “Ethan” (or “Ethyn”) means “Consistency” which works very well with his character. The name had good connotations for me. For the last name I wanted something hard sounding, because this character has lots of sharp edges, but not so abreviated (like “Coe”) that it sounded abrupt. Hard meant a “k” sound, or perhaps a “”T”. Kaille just came to me after a half hour or so of playing with sounds. I googled the name and found few enough matches to make me feel that it was at least somewhat “different”.

    Anyway, that was my process, if you can even call it that. Interesting post, AJ, and great tips for coming up with names.

  • My AKA’s Law of the Wild, (part of the DeLande Saga) published in the UK, had *every* new character’s name changed. (Something like 7 characters.) The editor suggested that the *Southern* names I’d chosen sounded *South London* which was not a good thing, it seems, though I still do not understand why. Cultural differences are not something we can always prevent in naming characters, but this was very odd to me, then and now!

  • David, that’s interesting. Do you see the name being pronounced exactly like Ethan? Or is the ‘a’ more an ‘i’? I like the name, thought process and the speed(!) with which you came up with this.

    Faith, South London, huh? That’s intriguing. I’m not a Londoner myself and don’t really know the cultural associations, South London being a very diverse area. A class thing, perhaps? Matters of British geography often are.

  • Squeak

    For role-play we used to perform web searches on our chosen names, in addition to reading them backwards and making sure that it wasn’t a common word with a letter tacked in front. At times this produced bizarre names (Eiruyna, Aldaetia) but they were unique.

    “Squeak” is not very original at all but a game handle I adopted over five years ago. The norm was to have a bizarre name or a combination of things you liked (people I played with had screennames like blockofbloowood, ooPooPaaCaaC, CantelopeBandit (sic), and gerbilsinmybutt). I loved alliterations, so I chose “super_squeak” for mine and in time it was shortened to Squeak.

  • Tom Gallier

    I really enjoyed your post. I’ve had to change names in previous works after the first draft, and it was Hell. By the time I finish the novel, the name is stuck in my brain.

    As for some of the names in my UF WIP…
    Rymone Ó Riagáin
    Sable Hart – vampire vamp-hunter (Called Black Heart by the vamps)
    Dane Douglass – vamp hunter
    Antoinette LaRue – vampire
    Bone Daddy – vamp pimp
    Henry Moonwalker – Apache vamp
    Mercedes Trudeau – werewolf from the vamp mafia Trudeau Family

    I love names. Bet I have to change every one of them. Aaaagghh.

  • Squeak, some tongue-twister pronunciation issues there! Not going near the screen names 🙂

    Tom, great names. Sable Hart, Antoinette LaRue (except the surname will conjure Danny Larue for Brits ) and Bone Daddy are especially neat.

  • Emily

    Way late, but in a WIP with my co-author, our main character’s name is Deor. She’s (and she’s a she) is named after an Anglo-Saxon poet from a poem called Deor, and the person in the poem is male. But I liked the name, we didn’t have anything else, and so we chose it. Plus, we figured that it wouldn’t show up in a lot of other places, and people who recognized it might like it more for that.

  • Emily, nice: overtones of the divine (through Deus). I assume the first syllable sounds like “day” rather than “dee” (which takes you too close to [Christian] Dior), yes?

  • AJ,

    R.L. Stine? You rock! 🙂

    I like the names of characters to have meaning, so I do a lot of research on my character names, especially the MC’s. I even did it for my secondary characters in my current WIP. I guess because my name is different and has a meaning, I like to have the same in the stories I weave. Good post.

  • A very timely post for me! I’m working on a new project, and so far only two characters (main, and one supporting) have names. I use a consistent place holder abbreviation for unnamed characters (Mom, Sister, BF, etc.) until I figure out the names that sound right. It sometimes takes me a long time to get the name that feels like it belongs to my characters.

    Faith, having lived in London, I can understand your editor’s motivation behind changing the names. Names that sound “south London” will connote a specific economic class, culture, educational level, and to some extent possibly even ethnicity. If that didn’t fit with your characters, your target readership, I can see why the editor wanted to make the change.

  • Tyhitia (great name, by the way! Sounds like a flower from Polynesia), glad you liked the post. THe R.L. Stine connection is a story of itself which I may post when I’ve a better idea of what’s happening with this book. Suffice to say I was amazed by his generosity.

    FictionForge, yes, tagging your unnamed characters by function is a great idea, so long as that function doesn’t make them one dimensional. I guess the point at which they start to outgrow their function as mother, girlfriend etc. is when they get identities and names. Kind of like life, huh? Well, the identities part.

  • jim duncan

    I confess to general randomness for creating names. I just roll them off until I find one that I like the sound of. Though, because I tend to plot out a story before I start writing, I have a pretty good image of the character in mind when I’m doing this. Not sure what it says about me that my main character’s name for my book is the same as my mother’s.

  • Jim, randomness is not a bad thing, and much of what I’m talking about here (as is often the case with these blogs) is making conscious and deliberate what we often do instinctively. A name often feels right or wrong because the clever but understated part of our brains is performing some version of my check list without announcing the fact! If you can happen onto good names without going through a more deliberate process, all power to you.

  • Good names, Irena. Thane is a general term for a Scottish lord, as I’m sure you know (see Macbeth).

    Thanks Tattered Spinner. Glad you found it useful.

  • I agree with Fiction Forge about the “south London” names issue. The Southern US is a different culture from US TV land and most people in the UK don’t have a clue about it and would make other British assumptions based on the names which probably would not be anything like your characters. Certain names or types of names give different cultural clues depending on the reader’s culture of origin.

    Southern Americans seem to give UK people some confusion because we don’t fit their stereotypes usually based on media. We find it very funny when people in the UK are amazed that we are from the US (we don’t sound like any Americans on TV as we have a mix of Alabama, NC, Maryland and Northern Ireland in our speech). They expect Americans to dress like the flashy people on TV, sound like Yankees and be very rude, demanding and apparently not very bright. We have come to the conclusion the last assumption is because many Americans who travel have money but not much education which would be of any help in understanding a culture much older than the US and until recently many British people thought all US people were idiots because of the government we elected. I think unfortunately many retail establishments in London have had Americans who do fit the stereotype in their shoppes and thus it has been reinforced. Outside the common tourist areas of London we didn’t notice this at all.

    Even though we all speak English (at least most of us do) in the US and UK, our cultures can be very different within and between the countries. We find we have more in common culturely with people from Wales and Scotland than we do with people from California and New York. Of course both our families’ ancestors came from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland so that makes sense somewhat.