Happy Moon’s Day, Everybody! Marcia here, with some thoughts about names. Shakespeare’s words above might be true for roses, but are they always true for the characters in our books? I’m not so sure. Certain names can trigger specific memories and images for each of us, for sure, but not always in ways that are what we want readers to picture when we tell our stories.
For instance, what would you choose to name a gorgeous, well-built Adonis of a hero like this one? Gomer? Probably not, unless you were deliberately being humorous or ironic.
And what about your nerdy little computer geek who saves the world? He might turn out to be a hero, but I’m guessing a name like Goliath would be a poor choice, for the same reason.
It’s not that names always have to point to what your hero/heroine looks like, or even what he or she may end up doing through the course of the book. It’s more that you should be aware that naming your stalwart and handsome Prince Charming after your Uncle Lembert is likely to put an image in the mind of your readers that might not be quite what you intend. Or want.
And then there’s the possibility that your book might actually defeat the odds and become a nationwide best seller and a smash hit movie one day. Okay, those are high odds, but why not write with them in mind if the idea of that pleases you? You know. Just in case. So if Lembert’s your prince, be aware that the second thing Hollywood will want to do–right after totally miscasting everyone in the film, of course–will be to rename your hero. Just ask James Fenimore Cooper how his Natty Bumppo became Nathaniel Poe in 1992’s Last of the Mohicans.
So with all of the above in mind, how do you go about picking the perfect name for your characters? I’m sure there are a lot of different ways to do this, but here are a few tips that might get you started.
First, think about your setting and the type of people who live in your fictional town or area. For instance, I write books set in the southern part of the U.S.A. because this is where I was born and have spent most of my life. I know the people and places and dialect pretty well, and am comfortable with southern characters in my books. So the first thing I do is look for old southern surnames. Yep. That’s a thing. (Probably works for every other locale, too.) One of my favorite sites contains a listing of over 700 southern surnames found in old graveyards.
That’s where I found the last name Painter, which I chose for my three brothers featured in one of my series. It’s also where I found southern last names that worked well for their first names, too, hence, Jackson, Forrest, and Hunter. A little more poking around the graveyard gave me the surnames of Truitt (Billy) and Purvis (Lester) which worked perfectly for two more of my secondary characters.
But sometimes choosing old surnames isn’t the way to go, and it’s not how I picked the names for my two main characters in the first book of that same series. I had specific images in mind for both the heroine and the hero, based on very definite reasons related to the plot. The “old southern surnames” trick wouldn’t work.
My leading lady was to be a fiery, hot-tempered, redheaded gal of Irish heritage, so I chose the name Mary Margaret Devlin for her. I didn’t even have to research to know that her first and middle names are quite common Irish names. But I did do a search for Irish surnames, so I could choose one that fit, but yet was a bit different, too. So my final choice was Maggie Devlin, which worked for me.
For my hero, I deliberately wanted an impossibly good looking, big, and well-built man who was as genuinely nice as he was hunky and attractive. And since I wanted Maggie (who had a grudge against men in general) to hate this poor guy from the get-go, I decided to make him of Scandinavian descent, so she could poke fun at him for looking too much like “Thor.”
I went Googling again for appropriate Scandinavian names, and ended up choosing Gunnar Wolfe because it sound very Vikingly and strong. To me, it had a heroic ring to it, and I wanted that as part of his whole persona, even though he’s actually a rather quiet man who loves nothing more than photography.
So that’s another way to go about it. Think of who you want your readers to picture and how you want them to connect with that character, then do your research–especially if you’re looking for regional or ethnic names. There are a ton of websites out there that can help you find names appropriate to your character’s looks, personality, and heritage. I usually narrow it down fairly quickly to two or three names I think will work, then make my final choice based on the one that feels right to me.
Then there’s my last method of choosing names. Again, relying on Google, I enter “popular baby names.” You can narrow the search by gender, or you can look for the most popular names around the time your character was born.
Approximate birth year alone can make a huge difference. Many names popular decades ago are not in use much today and vice versa. You probably don’t want to name your story’s 75-year-old granny Tiffany, for instance. I can pretty much guarantee you that no baby girls born in 1945 would have been christened that. Mildred, Bernice, or Maxine, maybe. Or even Marcia. 😉 But not Tiffany.
Tiffany? Is That You?
BTW, the most popular names in recent years include Ashely, Madison, Brianna, and Cheyenne, in case you’re wondering, with nary a Helen or Martha in the bunch. (NOTE: I wouldn’t recommend using the most popular current names in a book set today unless you are making a specific point with it. Looking for something popular but not overdone will likely serve you better.)
The take-away from all of this is:
- Fictional names are important because they help your readers imagine your characters. It’s worth spending some time picking just the right ones in hopes they’ll work the way you’d like.
- Do your research based on what you want your readers to imagine when they meet each character. That can include how they picture the general appearance, heritage, and age of each character.
- Try to choose names that will bolster your desired image if you are hoping for a certain look to pop into the minds of your readers immediately.
- Seemingly inappropriate or surprising names can work great if you’re looking for irony or comedy, so by all means consider using them if that’s your goal.
- And REMEMBER: Perfect character names won’t turn a bad book into a good one. They won’t magically improve your grammar, your plot, or your writing style. But great names can certainly make a good book even better. Maybe think of it as the icing on the cake. Plus Hollywood won’t have to come up with new ones when they decide your story is movie material.
Just Sayin’ …..
And that’s it for this week, everyone. Now it’s your turn. Tell us below what you think. Have you employed search engines to help you choose your names? Do you try to find names that portray the look or actions of your characters? Do you have specific sites that have been extra helpful with this? As always, inquiring minds wanna know!
Thanks for stopping by today, and I hope you’ll stay tuned for our regular Monday, Wednesday, and Friday posts here on Story Empire. There are sure to be lots of good things coming up, so don’t miss out! I’ll be back before long with a new Why Write Wrong post for you, too. See you then!
Meanwhile, go forth to write with happy hearts and fabulously perfect character names! And Granny hopes you remember to have fun while you’re at it, because fun’s the very best thing to have! 😀
(All images above were created by me or obtained from Pixabay.)