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?