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Monday, February 25, 2013

What's in a name?


Character names, to me, are one big headache. They cause me sleepless nights.

I spend hours, sometimes days, trying to come up with the right name for a character. I need that name before I can write anything involving that particular character. 

How do I choose those names? I start by working out their year of birth and I then look up popular baby names around that time. (A woman born in 1920, for example, isn’t going to be christened Chardonnay.) I can spend hours looking up the meaning of names. I’m one of those sad people who pauses the TV when film credits are rolling to see if a suitable name catches my attention. 

So, after a while, I have my character’s first name. The work starts all over again then as I try to settle on the surname and, again, it has to be exactly right. I know where my character was born so I look up surnames familiar to that area of the country. I find one I like - and then realise that it sounds ridiculous with the surname. I have software that generates random names, about 5,000 of the things, and none are ‘right’. Eventually, after a great deal of blood, sweat, tears and gnashing of teeth, I have my characters' names. 

That should be that, right? Sadly not. The nightmare continues. In my ‘Jill & Max’ series of crime novels, for example, I had Jill and Jack. Jill Kennedy is a lead character in the series so I obviously couldn’t change her name and I also had a curmudgeonly old man called Jack - and he could be called nothing but Jack. Jack was his name and nothing would make me change it. I spent days writing out a scene they shared so that I didn’t have something like Jack and Jill went up the hill.

The book I’m working on at the moment will soon be off to my editor. I’m doing a final edit before I send it. What do I find? Well, after all the time spent finding the perfect names, I have the most ridiculous names ever. Truly. I’ve been working on the book for months and I’ve only just realised that I have characters with the surnames Hiller, Miller and Mellor. Jeez! What was I thinking? They will be changed, of course, but it means I’ve now got to spend hours - maybe days - coming up with perfect ‘alternative’ names for some characters.

I think I need chocolate. And wine. Lots of wine...

14 comments:

Anne Marie Becker said...

LOL - good luck Shirley! I once changed the hero's name after the second draft of a book...and I still have trouble referring to him by his "new" name. Geez. And I've realized I tend to choose one-syllable names (easier to type?). Not sure why, but I'm try to vary that! I've gone back and created a bible for my series so I can keep better track of who I have, now that three of the six books are published. It helps.

Marcelle Dubé said...

Oh Shirley, you reassure me that I'm not the only crazy writer around! I obsess about names, too. I have to know who they are before I can start writing about them.

And Anne Marie, I've had to create a bible, too, for my Mendenhall Mysteries. I'd hate for someone to change names or eye colour mid-stream!

JB Lynn said...

I hate naming characters almost as much as I hate copyedits, lol.

I feel your pain. I've actually given two characters in my Confessions of a Slightly Neurotic Hitwoman book the same first name. Unfortunately I didn't catch it until after the first book was out. Fortunately, I think I'm the only one who's noticed (so far).

Helena said...

Shirley - when you're thinking of new names please spare a thought for those of us readers who cannot cope with characters whose names begin with the same letters. I would have a real problem with your Jack and Jill book - in fact, I probably couldn't read it. In common with many who read quickly, I think I see the capital letter and recognise the name from it, and don't see or read the rest of the word.

Sorry to add to your problems!!

Rita said...

Oh! Man do I feel your pain. I'm fighting a name change right now. I am totally unwilling to change my heroines name. She is Honey and I don't care if it sounds like a strippers name (says editor) It's who she is. So there!

Jean Harrington said...

Rita, Honey is my nickname (please don't spread this around. After more years than I want to count, John still calls me Honey. Actually, it's kind of sweet. And someone I know has a Winchester type of show dog called Charlotte. Just learned the other day that there's a song titled "Charlotte the Harlot." Still on the fence about whether or not to tell Charlotte's owner about this new/old development. Just goes to prove what's in a name?

Maria Zannini said...

I agonize over names too. Not only must they be appropriate to the time period, I try to match the meaning of the name fit the character's personality or background.

Shirley Wells said...

@Anne Marie - I've just cobbled together a series bible too. I love that you changed the hero's name and can imagine the problems that caused. :)

@Marcelle - Are you saying I'm crazy? LOL.

@JB - I find copy edits a breeze compared to naming characters. Ha - everyone will be studying CSNH to find the duplicated name. :) I had a bad review for one of my books and the reviewer said "this author even managed to get a character's name wrong". LOL

@Helena - I do try very hard to avoid using names with the same initial. When I've finished writing the first draft, I compile a spreadsheet of the names to double check for similarities. The trouble is, a book can have many more characters (and I'm including walk-on characters) than there are letters in the alphabet. It's a nightmare. :)

@Rita - Honey is soooo not a stripper's name. It's a lovely name and always reminds me of the Bobby Goldsboro song (cheesy but I loved it).

@Jean - Aw, that is so sweet, Honey. :)

@Maria - I try to do that too. I remember writing a sweet romance many years ago and my editor suggested a few names for the heroine as she didn't like my choice. I plumped for Theodora despite not caring for it too much but as soon as I discovered it meant 'gift from God', it suited the character perfectly.

Thanks for stopping by, everyone. I'm so glad I'm not alone with this problem. :)

Maureen A. Miller said...

Miller!! I made it in your book??? wooo hooo. That is so awesome! (Yes, too much caffeine for me this morning.)

Anne Mackle said...

I never realised how hard it was for authors to find the right name for a charactor and I'm so impressed that you look for popular names around the birthdate of the person.

Shirley Wells said...

@Maureen - You made it, Gladys. Um, you're a thuggish detective sergeant. Sorry! :)

@Anne - Believe me, there's nothing impressive about how I choose names. Just when I think it's perfect - it's completely wrong. :)

Toni Anderson said...

I also struggle with names. I call a lot of baddies "Brian." I don't know any truly nasty Brians so I think it must be a Magic Roundabout thing :) Then because I write romance I want the heroine's name to work with the hero's surname--JIC they get married and she wants to change her name (I leave that choice up to them). Then there's naming secondary characters who suddenly become heroes (Brent Carver in my August release was not a planned hero). It can take a while to come to terms with a new outlook on a character.
I also go look at the year they were born, country of origin and the meaning of the name. My baddy in my soon to be published SAS book is Russian (well, kind of), so I needed a Russian name, so I had to research the meaning of Russian names. *wipes sweat off forehead*
It isn't ever easy.

Mike Keyton said...

Names are crucial. I sleep on them for however long it takes before the right one materialises. And then I ponder some more until I'm sure. An earlier weakness I had was to have characters with names beginning with the same consonant.

Tony said...

This is cool!

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