Tuesday, March 6, 2012

What's in a Name by Andy Scheer

How do you choose the names for your novel's characters? Do you put as much effort into the names of your cast as you do your book's title—and how do you decide what names fit your story?

My experience this past week at the Florida Christian Writers Conference, plus the novels I read while traveling, prompted me to ponder what's in a character's name.

Boys Named Sue
Besides fifteen-minute appointments, this conference still lets people submit proposals and sample chapters for the faculty to critique. As I expected, the people whose work I reviewed ran the gamut from veterans to first-timers.

What I didn't expect was that the name of a novel's protagonist would cast a cloud over the  entire work. But that's what happened.

The lead character's name was Shamrock. I envisioned a winsome Irish lass with a lilting brogue, her long auburn locks floating in the breeze over the heather.

Wrong. This Shamrock was a guy. In New York City. With conventionally named parents who had given their other child a normal name. What was going on?

I should have been prepared. The writer had targeted twenty-something readers and used an “edgy” style. (I think that's the euphemism for first-person, present-tense with random punctuation.) But a guy named Shamrock? Shades of that old Johnny Cash song.

Edwina's Insights
Talking to another novelist the next day reassured me some writers remain dedicated to getting their character names right. I'm not sure how we got on the topic, but she told me how her parents came to name her Edwina. On first glance, I'd never have expected her to carry that name. But once I began to get to know her, the name fit perfectly.

She mentioned in passing how she never gave two major characters names that began with the same initial. Why risk confusing the reader? We talked about how names reflect their time and culture. And she pointed to a great source for credible names for people of a given place and generation: high school yearbooks.

Shane Quintana
During my travel, I enjoyed rereading John Dunning's 1995 New York Times “notable book of the year” The Bookman's Wake, a mystery that explores the dark side of the world of book collecting.

The woman who holds the key to the book's maguffin was born in 1969. Her family name is Rigby. Her parents named her Eleanor.

Through much of the novel, cop-turned-rare-book dealer Cliff Janeway tries to evade a determined Seattle police officer identified only as Quintana. The name suggests a man at odds with expectations. A scene near the end—when Janeway finally meets and teams up with Quintana—reinforces that impression.

I asked if he had a first name
“Shane,” he said, daring me not to like it.
But I couldn't play it straight. “Shane Quintana?
. . . “I was named after Alan Ladd. Kids today don't even know who . . . Alan Ladd was.”

For the sake of later scenes, Dunning needed these characters to resolve their differences, and he also needed to show another side of the Seattle cop. Revealing an unexpected first name and the story behind it helped him accomplish those goals.

What's in a character name? Potentially a lot. Especially when the writer takes time with this key detail.


Kathryn Elliott said...

Love your definition of edgy, Andy.
Names are tricky. When I’m stumped, I sometimes thumb through a dog-eared copy of “5000 Baby Names” someone gave me as a shower gift many, many moons ago. Knowing the origin of a particular name helps me narrow down the choices considerably – especially if it adds a layer to the character.

Linda Glaz said...

One thing that simply bunches my socks is when an outdated name is used for no other reason than to "date" the author. In my class in elem school, half the girls were named Linda, but today? Unless the author points out that Linda was named after her great aunt or something it totally dates the author and turns off a lot of readers who are in the "Shamrock" generation.

Diana said...

Edwina' suggestion to use a high school yearbook is an excellent idea.

Heather Day Gilbert said...

Shamrock, wow! It's one thing when all the characters have strange/unusual names (The Hunger Games, with Prim, Peeta, Katniss, etc). But I agree w/you that it was too far out, esp. if the sibling had a normal name.

Terry Burns said...

There is a large cemetery not far from our house. Sometimes I go over there and work with my laptop on a bench by the pond that has ducks and geese swimming in it. Very peaceful. I also get up and walk around looking at the headstones. You can not only get names, but see the dates the names had been used, and often get a little feel for the person from what they chose to go on the market.

Terry Burns said...

Marker . . . not market

Andy Scheer said...

You can also put your tax dollars to work and visit this website from the Social Security Administration: http://www.ssa.gov/oact/babynames/
You can select any year after 1879 and find a list of the most popular names for boy and girl babies born then.

Timothy Fish said...

I choose names that I think fit the nature of the the character. I'm not too concerned about which names are popular right now.

Davalyn Spencer said...

I found myself spending too much space on characterization of a secondary character too early in a manuscript, so I changed his last name to Metzger. Every time I see it I think of the rottweilers - meat-wagon dogs from yore. That's how I had earlier described this person. Readers may not make the connection because it requires digging, unlike those wonderful names mentioned in today's post. But I know and that makes me smile.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all the great info. Naming "my children" is important and challenging, I'm finding. Terry, when I read your comment about the cemetery it reminded me of old Addams Family TV show, when they used to picnic there on rainy days.

Cheryl said...

The name of the main character usually comes to me before I even start writing. I write historicals, so I have to be sure a name fits in the time period, but luckily I haven't missed yet. I guess my characters are pretty smart.

I like the ideas posted by others for how to find names. I wouldn't have thought of them.

Rick Barry said...

I used to thumb through phone directories in search of random names. Then Dr. Dennis Hensley pointed how names can carry extra significance, sometimes obvious and sometimes subtle. Now naming characters becomes more exciting as I choose a moniker with deeper meaning, even if the reader never grasps it. For example, many family names come from foreign lands and mean something the typical American would never guess. My latest manuscript includes several characters with Germanic backgrounds, and their surnames correlate to their roles.

Thanks for an interesting post.