NOT YOUR USUAL SUSPECTS

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Friday, September 4, 2015


PLAIN AND FANCY

 

As writers, we’re all keenly aware of the importance of naming our characters.  In my experience, the only other naming comparable in angst and nail-biting concern is what to call a baby.  But even that’s easier.  You have guideposts—family names to pick from (all except your own because you’ve always hated it), but that leaves you with parents, grandparents, aunts, wealthy (?) uncles, distant cousins, well-known forebears.  Mothers maiden names can be pressed into service too and often sound elegant—Hunter, Douglas, Davis, Montgomery, St. John, etc.  Think of calling to your three year old with, “Lunch is ready, Montgomery.”  Monty is adorable too.  And then there’s your favorite name, the one you’ve always loved that you’ve been saving for your first baby.

            But when it comes to characters, the angst ante goes up.  There are no familial guideposts to help you, just an ocean of possibilities.  Yet the names have to “fit” the characters and their times, be ethnically correct, or if not why not, clever, witty perhaps, and as some would insist, memorable, or better yet, unforgettable.

            That’s why a few weeks ago I wasn’t too surprised to read a rant about how awful it was to use ordinary names for your characters.  Jack was offered as an example of what to avoid.  It’s ordinary, doesn’t leap off the page, nobody will remember it.  An author, this writer said, should have the imagination to come up with names that reflect, well, creativity.

Okay, here’s a short list of unusual ones:

            Mal Loda-Bride (for a drag queen, you kind of have to say it out loud)

            Heda Lettuce (another d.q. name)

Rilya (acronym for Remember, I’ll Love You Always)

Ivory and Ovary (female twins)

Semaj (James spelled backwards)

            I really like Semaj.  When pronounced, it’s sexy and mysterious.  So there’s a lot to be said for creativity.  In fact, I’ve used two examples from this list in my mysteries:  Heda Lettuce is a drag queen in Designed for Death. 
Rilya’s in a WOP.  And I’m seriously considering using Semaj in a future opus.  Ovary, though I think I’ll leave alone.

True, Jack is ordinary-sounding and unremarkable, except when it isn’t.  There’s Little Jack Horner, Jack the Ripper, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher and John (Jack?) Corey, Nelson DeMille’s wise-cracking detective, CIA agent and occasional spy.

            Sometimes, though, a book does require an arresting name for an off-beat character.  Devalera Dunne, for example, in my Murders by Design Series.  Her father wanted a son, never had one, so he named his daughter for a political hero, Eamon DeValera, president of Ireland in the nineteen hundreds.  To balance the quirkiness of Devalera, Deva for short, I needed a plain, meat-and-potatoes foil, so her beloved husband is . . . you guessed it . . . Jack.

The truth is not every character must have an unusual name, the kind that tends to stop the reader’s eye mid-sentence.  For the sake of variety and balance somebody has to be known as Jack--or Mary.  Heroines can’t always be called something wild or even downright nutty like Flo Rida, not even if they do live in Florida and hang out in the Keys. 

Do you have a favorite character name to share? 

 

10 comments:

Anne Marie Becker said...

Ovary?! LOL I'm so glad you're not going to use that one. Seems like she'd be the evil twin, amassing all that anger since her sister gets to be the lovely Ivory. ;)

I love choosing names for characters (most of the time) because I only had 3 real-life kids (*grin*), and I had so many more names I loved. ;) The angsty part comes from making sure the secondary character names aren't too much like the primary characters (not beginning with the same letter, sound the same, etc.). Recently, I put a "Mason Gray" in my book and thought he'd be a great hero for another book...until I realized the heroine in that book was "Maya Jo." Not sure Mason and Maya work together. Will think on it...

Fun topic!

Marcelle Dubé said...

I love coming up with names! My favourite to date in my own stories is Gautier, the hero in Obeah. I have several baby books, and I often visit name sites online. Another great place to find interesting names is in the list of credits at the end of a show or movie.

jean harrington said...

Anne Marie, In a recent WIP, I named one character Sam and another Saxby, even though I was aware that they both begin with W. The story is set in Arkansas so Sam ala Sam Walton of Walmart fame was too good not to use. And I couldn't, just couldn't, not use Saxby for a slick businessman with old family connections. The two character are seldom in the same scene, so this time that "no'no" works, I think.

Marcelle, I visit name sites online too and keep old phone books around for the same reason--names of all kinds. Gautier is a unique name, strong-sounding, and what could be better than that for a hero?

Sandy Parks said...

Names are a big deal and I'm well aware of the pitfall of various naming conventions. Many of my stories take place in foreign countries, and while it is easy to look up and use a name from one of the numerous sites online, there are dangers in doing so. Would your character with that name be from the tribal or cast or location necessary. Does he have the same name as a real politician in a country of which you have set your story and a nasty politician is the bad guy? I have Salvador as a bad guy, and a South America was talking about names at a conference once and made the offhand comment that no writer would ever make Salvador a bad guy in a book. Whoops. LOL. Great topic.

Rita said...

Only one book did I have a problem coming up with names. After that I said, well you don't need to know what I said but my characters name themselves. Honey and yes, Jack. I love that name. Olivia and Declan. Hunter and Celia. Sara and Nick. I like Nick because she can call him Nick, Nicky, and Nicholas depending on her mood;-)
I worked for the government and saw many crazy names which I can't share. My boys went to school with Brick and Dusty Rhodes. And there are the famous Texas sisters Ima and Ura Hog.
Great post Jean. Thanks but I'll keep on listening to my characters for names. Plain or not.

jean harrington said...

Good points Sandy and Rita. No Salvadors. Okay, got it. And Rita I have a Honey in my WIP also. As for weird names, I grew up with a boy who's last name was Barr. Guess what his father gave him for a first name?

Elise Warner said...

My characters usually name themselves. Although Annalise, my tap dancing gofer in Scene Stealer was names after a cousin of a friends--just seemed to fit. A fun blog Jean.

Sharon Calvin said...

I have a Javier in one series and absolutely love that name! My current WIP has a hero named Joe, and it is so totally him--just an average Joe who really isn't average at all! I must admit love the process of coming up with the right name for my characters.

jean harrington said...

Elise and Sharon, It's so true, a character grows into a name. Like relatives. Uncle Joe couldn't, just couldn't be called anything else. Uncanny. Off to watch TV.

Becky G said...

Semaj is fantastic! Now all my reading is going to include renaming all the characters! Not in my current read because I LOVE it too much, shameless plug for Sarah Andre and her book Locked, Loaded and Lying!!! It's fantastic! But the next dud I read, I will change the names and maybe like it more!!

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