In the Name of Love... Finding the Right Names for Your Characters
by Desmond Lindo
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Let's say you are writing a Harlequin romance (and who is not?), and you have come to the point in your story where your heroine encounters the man who will become her love interest. She has literally fallen into his arms -- she tripped over his foot while staring in rapture at the domed ceiling of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, where she is vacationing from her job as Assistant Curator at the Moose Jaw Museum of Classical Antiquities. (She's a Canadian, eh?)
And let's say you have already decided upon the following biographical details about the young man: born on the island of Ibiza, he is the love-child of a beautiful Irish-born film star notorious for her tempestuous love affairs with a series of South American military dictators, one of which, a ruthless and depraved scoundrel now living in exile in Libya, is the young man's father. Suspected of having links to assorted terrorist groups, your heroine's lover is under surveillance by Interpol, and is wanted for questioning by the FBI in connection with a spot of industrial espionage he might have engaged in. Besides English, he is fluent in Spanish, French, German, Arabic, Armenian, and Farsi. And needless to say, he is as handsome as the devil.
You have imagined him so clearly you are half in love with him yourself. But you have a problem: you can't decide upon a name for the rogue. No ordinary average-Joe moniker will do; he's just not a Tom or a Dick or a Harry, even though it will turn out that he is a decent and sensitive (if misunderstood) young man who wants nothing more than to marry a sensible girl like your heroine and settle down to quiet domesticity in Moose Jaw.
You really wanted to call him Lance, but this heroic (and clearly phallic) cognomen has been rendered dull (and limp) by overuse in romance fiction. Your sister-in-law's suggestion, Sarsfield, a good Irish name, did not appeal to you, even when coupled with O'Donohue, your current choice for surname. Sarsfield O'Donohue? Nah, you don't like it.
So what are you going to call him? And what about his father, the ex-dictator, who will play a villainous role in your story? Indeed, what is your heroine's name? Shirley? Jane? Vanessa? What names are you going to attach to all these delightful characters? Your choices are vital; they could determine whether your creations live on, like close friends or loved ones, in the memory of the reader, or slip quietly into some back chamber of her mind, lost among the host of nameless but vaguely familiar heroes and heroines from other stories she has read.
If you do not have a knack for devising interesting and unusual names, there are a number of exercises you can undertake to develop this faculty. A fun way to start is to make a list of all the characters in fiction you have read or know about whose names you can recall instantly. It will take a bit of time and effort to fish all these names from the depths of your memory, but before long you will notice a number of interesting things about the entries on your list. The first is that a majority of these are made-up names, names not often found in the 'real' world. (How many Ebenezer Scrooges or Hester Prynnes or Humbert Humberts will you find in the New York City telephone directory, for example?)
The next thing you will notice is the number of characters from works by Charles Dickens that turns up on your list. Dickens is the acknowledged master in this area, and you would do well to read him. The key to his skill lies in his thorough knowledge and understanding of the fundamentals of English, his intuitive grasp of the way language works, and his sheer love of language. All these can be developed to a high degree in the average writer.
Here are some other useful exercises to get you on the right track to imaginative and colorful naming:
Once you have a sizeable collection of names you can now begin to work with them, to play games with them. For instance, you could try matching a list of first names against another of surnames to see what combinations take your fancy. For fun alter the spelling or transpose some letters in a name to see what you end up with. Simple reversals sometimes work out very well, as instanced by Nomar Garciaparra, the baseball player, whose first name is 'Ramon' spelt backwards. Spoonerisms are always fun and a good way to derive an unusual name. While casting about for a name to give to a minor character in one of my stories -- a Swede who operated a lumberyard -- I came up with Svend Yumberlaard. Purely by virtue of his name the character grew in stature and started demanding a greater role in the story.
- Always make a note of any interesting names you encounter in your reading or elsewhere. Keep a notebook just for this purpose.
- Search your telephone directory for unfamiliar or unusual names and put them in your notebook.
- Remember that ethnic or linguistic origins are important determinants of people's names. If your character is Lithuanian, or hails from Lesotho, then his name will more or less have to reflect this, and you better get it right. Consequently, you will have to learn the naming conventions that govern individuals of that linguistic or ethnic group.
- Consult reference works or websites on genealogy, paying special attention to both the origins of names and the various spellings or forms in which they occur.
On the other hand you should try to avoid the following:
The genre you are working in (romance, action-adventure, etc.), and the level of humor or seriousness you want the work to have will also determine your choices. Those who write humor have the easiest time and the most fun making up names. Most writers have at some time indulged in the joy of making up amusing names. It is a residue of the fun they had as children learning their language, discovering its oddities and exploring its potential. Try to invest the naming of your characters with that same sense of fun. You never know -- perhaps the names you give your characters will one day render your name unforgettable.
- Giving your characters names that already belong to, sound like, or evoke other well-known characters, real or fictional. You cannot, for instance, call your hero Hamlet, no matter how tough-minded and decisive he is. And naming your heroine's love interest in a Harlequin romance Richard Speck would be a major mistake.
- Using a particular name because it has a special meaning or resonance for you, or because you think the character is 'typical' of persons bearing that name. ("But he's a real Paul", I've heard writers protest in defense of their choice.)
- And finally, do not for any reason use the names of individuals known to you, unless, of course, you would like to be involved in a lawsuit.
Now, about a handle for your heroine's lover. You know what? I'm beginning to like Sarsfield O'Donohue. If you don't use it, I will.
Find Out More...
- The Name Game, by John Robert Marlow
- Name That Character! by Anne Marble
- A Rose by Any Other Name... by Devyani Borade
- What's In a Name? by Moira Allen
- What's In a Name? by Victoria Grossack
- Writing-World.com Links: Character Naming Resources
Copyright © 2000 Desmond Lindo
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
After many years of writing jokes and speeches for his co-workers, plus helping friends develop comic characters and routines, Desmond Lindo took early retirement to become a freelance writer. He has published mostly satires and short humor articles in magazines in Canada, but has recently happened upon the market for inspirational pieces -- a great reprint market. The characters in his fiction often begin with only a name, and by some process Desmond does not fully understand, start asserting themselves, demanding that he tell their stories. Sometimes they bug him for years until he gives in and writes about them.
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