Friday, September 23, 2011

Naming Your Characters--and Other Forms of Torture.

Names are funny things. Growing up as a ‘Toni’ in a conservative English county meant I got a lot of teasing. 

“That’s a boy’s name.”

Kids chanting “Boney Toni” and “Toni Chestnut” and then singing, “Hey, Mickey, you’re so fine” (because it was sung by Toni Basil). Ugh. As a shy little kid who disliked being the centre of attention, my name was a major embarrassment to me. 
I grew into it.


Sometimes people ask me about naming characters. And because of my own experience I always give character names a lot of consideration.


There’s the obvious stuff, don’t call your hero something laughable or ridiculous. Wally Wankerly is not going to inspire a reader’s love even if he’s got muscles the size of Pierre Spies’ (Rugby World Cup 2011 reference for those who don’t know). The hero’s name also has to work with the heroine’s name and, if they ever decided to take the walk down the matrimonial aisle, the names have to fit together.  

The hero in my WIP has been called Andy, Craig and currently Tyrone. Andy didn’t work because the heroine’s name is Axelle, and Andy and Axelle combined was too twee. Craig didn’t sit right. Even Tyrone is not set in cement. The name I really wanted him to have was Tadhg, pronounced ‘Tieg’. But Irish names are notorious for their mispronunciation and I don’t want to have to explain his name every time I say it and nor do I want readers to pause every time I mention Tadhg. See? 
I got away with an Irish name for Sorcha in STORM WARNING (I think—I hope) because it’s pretty straightforward.

BTW talking of name combos—Axelle comes from a little girl in my daughter’s class when we were in France last year. Her twin sister is called Rose


Another problem that sneaks up on me is having lots of names starting with the same letter. Writing a trilogy this summer, I was merrily working on a book when suddenly, for the first time, 3 secondary characters come together on the page: Marty, Markov and Mendez. *Bangs head on desk*

I changed Marty to Harry and the rest works.


Naming characters isn’t as easy as people think. Think of the great literary characters: Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, Augusta Weidenmaier, Hannibal Lecter, Atticus Finch. The name and the character are intimately locked in your mind. Getting it right is an art form. But it doesn’t mean the name has to be whacky or weird: Elizabeth Bennett, Sam Spade, James Bond, George Smiley. Same response, different type of name.

So--Tyrone Dempsey. Does he sound like a hero to you? What's your favorite character name?



13 comments:

Rita said...

OMG times three. I thought I was the only one who did this. And….Wally Wankerly????
Snort! I kinda like that name. I do names with the same first letters all the time. I guess when I find something I like I stick with it.

Ellie said...

The best advice I've read on naming is to keep the main characters' names short because you have to type them so much. This is why Alexandra just became fond of the nickname Ali in one of my WIPs.

JB Lynn said...

Okay, now I'm going to have "Oh Mickey you're so fine, you're so fine you blow my mind" playing in my head all day. ((sigh))

I think there's a fine line btwn finding names everyone can pronounce and having said names be too generic.

I loved "Severus Snape" as a character name.

Shirley Wells said...

I do the times three thing too!
I have a terrible time with names and can change a character's name half a dozen times while I'm writing the book.
I love the name Toni. It's one of my favourites!

Clare London said...

I can't help but think of the British actor Larry Lamb - just what would his school days have been like?! And my sons went to school with a boy called Peter Peters :).

I just blogged on this topic on Wed, Toni, great minds think alike :). We had some great input, ranging from the resources authors use to choose names, the problem of 2 main characters with the same initial, and the joy (!) of unpronounceable fantasy novel names. And in selfish recompense, I'm going to post my link LOL>
http://clarelondon.livejournal.com/344929.html.

Toni Anderson said...

It looks like the 3 times thing is a common problem--more common than I realized :)

Ellie-keeping them short can help, but this can also cause problems. I have a Cam and Dan in one book. Sounded stupid so Dan was Daniel every single time :)

Toni Anderson said...

JB--JK Rowling is a genius with names. Sorry about the earworm.

Shirley, I'm so glad I'm not alone! And Toni is one of your favorite names? Aw. I feel better although I definitely used to it now LOL.

Toni Anderson said...

Clare--I will check out your link. (Maybe I picked up the vibes via ESP?). I didn't want to get into fantasy (I just make up a pronunciation :)) or abbreviations, or names that mean rude words in other languages. Names can be a minefield :)

Rita said...

Okay if we are telling horrible names. These are true. My children went to school with brothers last name Rhodes. First names Dusty and Brick. Worked with brothers Rocky and Blueridge Mountain. There are the Texas sisters, Ima and Ura Hog.

Mike Keyton said...

Got much the same problem now. My heroine is set in colonial America 1710. She started off as Verity but I tend to over use this name. At present she's provisionally Kate, but she's not working for me.
Abigail is floating around...And your post just reminds me I still have to sort this out :(

Toni Anderson said...

Mike--when it's right, it's just right! But when it's wrong... :)You have the added constraint of historical accuracy to deal with. I try to look for some sort of cultural background that might help me, and then research those aspects.

Marcelle Dubé said...

I can't start my story until I have the main characters' names down. Sometimes I have to start over when the name doesn't feel right. I spend a *lot* of time poring over my name books to make sure the name fits the character.

And even then I'll get a couple of first names that are too similar and have to change one mid-way.

As for cruel parents, I once knew a couple who named their child Fleur d'Amour, which translates as Flower of Love. The only saving grace is that the child was a girl.

MaureenAMiller said...

I'm like Marcelle. I have to have the character's names before I begin. My WIP heroine is Olivia, which is somewhat common, so I wanted her childhood nickname to be Ollie. Whewwww-eeee, the feedback I got on that one! So she is now Livvy. :)