QueryTracker Blog

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Monday, March 25, 2013

A Character By Any Other Name

New moms are forgiven for choosing awkward or overly popular baby names. Until you stand on that playground, you really have no idea that your child will not be able to pronounce "Ellison" until well after his fifth birthday, or predict that little Ava will share her name with two others in her class. After kid #1, we wise up.

Repetitive authors, what is your excuse? I have seen the name Gray or Grayson in ten different novels this month. (That is, unfortunately, no exaggeration.) There can only be two possible explanations: either authors are subconsciously imbued with 50 Shades sales figure envy, or worse--the imitation is intentional.

Granted, naming characters is not easy. Every time I name one, the new name jumps off the page like a counterfeit interloper until I've typed it at least a hundred times.

One way to make a character unique is to invent a name. But that's risky too.

My kids' recent obsession with Star Wars has brought a host of unpronounceable names to the family dinner table. It's difficult to say Count Dooku with a straight face. Ditto Qui-Gon Jinn. Not only are those characters' names awkward on the tongue, but both spellings violate English language expectations. For example, "ook" in English usually rhymes with "book" not "puke." And "Gon" leaves us similarly guessing as to whether the O should be a short or long vowel.

Yet some authors have perfect pitch. J.K. Rowling is a naming master. When we first meet Harry Potter, we learn that "his hair simply grew that way--all over the place." She's subtly merged a homonym physical characteristic of her hero with his appearance, and all before we get a sense of him. She loves using adjective suggestions in naming. The Dursleys live in Little Whinging (whining). Professor Snape seems to blend "snap" and "snake" and "cape" into one offensive bundle. Flitwick. Hufflepuff. Muggle. So colorful! How does the lady do it?

And what, if anything, can we learn from our favorite literary naming masters, without copying them? For the truly flummoxed, consider these two time-tested ideas:

1. Action is Good

When a verb or adjective is used as a name, the character takes on a gleam of action immediately. Luke Skywalker, for example, is a very memorable and actionable name. Write down some attributes of your character, and then squint at the things you've written. Is there a name in there somewhere? There are a surprising number of verb names out there in the ether, even in common names. Lance. Walker. Harper. Chase. And that's just for starters.

In Colleen Hoover's very successful book HOPELESS, the perfect boyfriend's name is Holder. And it is the perfect descriptor of his character. (Although I should point out that Ms. Hoover is another Grayson offender, but at least she gives it to a secondary character.)

2. Keep Looking, Seek Help

If you're just stuck for inspiration, there are two websites I find invaluable. Nymbler is meant for parents-to-be to brainstorm baby names. But unlike other baby naming websites, this one will generate a bunch of "similar" names from those you type in.  So if you're tempted by an over-popular name, put it into their algorithm and see if something just as wonderful pops out.

Also, if you just need to be realistic, and aren't sure which baby names were popular in, say, 1996, the social security administration is happy to help you. During my birth year (not 1996, unfortunately), Sarah was the 58th most popular girl's name. Jennifer / Michelle / Lisa were the top 3 that year.

Let us feel, authors, that your hero and heroine are unique yet believable. Go forth and name well!

Sarah Pinneo
is a novelist, food writer and book publicity specialist. Her most recent book is Julia’s Child. Follow her on twitter at @SarahPinneo.


chihuahuazero said...

What comes to mind right now is that it seems like that there are a lot of teenage girl protagonists named "Alex" in places like Wattpad, Fanfiction.net, roleplaying forums, etc.

One day, I need to write about that, along with find some examples.

Erin Kane Spock said...

Have you noticed all the heroes have stallions named Demon or Lucifer?
My Elizabethan novels all use historical names that were popular in that era -- so are pretty boring (Mary, Anne, Frances, Jane...). I'm having fun with names now that I'm writing in modern times.