Names. In a way, doesn’t seem all that important a subject. But it is.
Writer’s Digest has a whole book dedicated to the subject, The Writer’s Digest Character-Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon with Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet, 303 pages without the index. I put tabs on my copy to separate some of the ethnic categories to make them easier to find (you can tell it was when I was writing fantasy, too; the categories marked are: Celtic, English, Gaelic, Irish, Native American, Norse, and Welsh). I also have at least one baby naming book, and it’s a good one: 60,000+ Baby Names by Bruce Lansky. I should pick up a newer edition of it. What I like about it is it has lists of most popular names by decade.
So, between the character-naming sourcebook and the baby naming book, I’ve got over 80,000 names to choose from. Some of them are repeats, I’m sure, and many of them are variations, such as the different names for someone called Robert (Robbie, Bob, Bobby, etc).
And yet I still have trouble naming my characters.
I’m not sure why. I think part of it has to do with the fact that how someone is named gives us a preconceived notion of them. Think about it. Picture someone named Scott. Now someone named Tom. Different guys, huh? Even someone named Tommy looks different than a Tom. On the other side of the gender aisle, how about a Tiffany as opposed to a Gretchen? Or a Teresa as opposed to a Veronica? I’m sure you got a picture in your head—even if it was something of a generic one—at the mention of each name.
Childhood associations have somewhat to do with this. Think about that girl or guy everybody picked on in school. Chances are, they had an old fashioned name, or their last name was unfortunate. When I was in middle school, we had a girl whose last name was Pollock, and boy was she picked on. This was in the late seventies when Polish jokes were so popular, so you can imagine what this poor girl went through.
I’m horrible at remembering names. Even the names of my characters. I’ve had to make a character bible for my Rural Empires series, and even with some of the characters I use more frequently, I have to stop and think of their names. It’s kinda embarrassing to be this way, even though I’ve run into several folks who have the same problem. How do people feel when you can’t remember their name?
I think, too, this is related to the hard time I have coming up with titles. That should be evident by the titles I do use: Spree, Startup, Franchise, and like that. Simple titles. I try to find a title that sums up the book, and the fewer words I use, the better. Makes it easier to—wait for it—remember. And the reason I think it’s related is this: “Hey, you heard about the new Stephen King book?” “No. What’s the name of it?”
See? We even “name” our books.
My favorite comic strip of all time is Calvin and Hobbes. In The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book, creator/author Bill Watterson does profiles on all the characters in the strip and tells where he got the names for them. Calvin and Hobbes are named for historical people. Calvin is named after a sixteenth-century theologian who believed in predestination, while Hobbes’s name comes from a seventeenth-century philosopher who had a dim view of human nature (appropriate for a tiger, don’t you think?). On the other hand, you’ll notice Calvin’s parents don’t have names. And Calvin’s teacher is named Miss Wormwood, after the apprentice devil in C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters
For me, knowing all these things just made the strip that much better. Though he’s only six years old, Calvin often starts asking really deep questions and using words that no six-year-old would have in his vocabulary (and no, I don’t mean profanity). He goes on at length about such things as the existence of Santa Claus as well as pretty much any moral issue you can think of. What makes these conversations so interesting to me is that Calvin will spend three panels (or more in Sunday strips) asking questions and rationalizing things. Then, at the end, Hobbes asks one simple question that pretty much cuts through the Gordian knot Calvin has constructed, which often sends Calvin off on another tangent.
All this from the names of the characters. Just goes to show how important those names can be.
I try to pick names that will give you an idea of what the character is like. But I also like to give them the names their generation would have, as well as the kind of names they’d have because of where they are in the social strata. In other words, I rarely have a country girl from the farm named Tiffany.
Sometimes I do like to make characters break those molds, though. I have two dealers named Justin Ingles and Travis Baker. They sound like they should be good ol boys, driving jacked-up trucks and wearing ball caps with rolled brims. Conversely, they dress hip hop, drive an Escalade tricked out with bling, and talk like gangstas. It’s fun breaking the stereotype sometimes.
The problem I run into is this: I try not to repeat names. The reason for this is because my main thrust is a series, and I often connect other stories to that series. So giving two different characters the same name could be confusing to readers. Yes, it happens in real life. But in real life we have very definite visual references to help us keep the two Bobbys we know separate. And since I tend to give vague descriptions in order to let the reader flesh them out, this isn’t a luxury I have.
So how do you name your characters? Do you just pick them out of thin air? Or do you try to pick one that means something? I remember when I wrote fantasy, I would pore over my name books looking for a name with a specific meaning that also sounded right. Thank God I went into crime fiction, where it’s a little simpler.