What’s in a Name?

Plotting a new novel recently I have come across a familiar phenomenon. I’m working away on the plot, then move on to fleshing out a particular character, or describing that particular character’s backstory or role in the plot.

Slam. Dead stop.

I need the name.

If I cannot get a name that works for me for that character I am completely stumped. It is part stubbornness, part determination, part – well I don’t know what. But I have an instinct for what name is right. It’s like the core of the character starts as a seed of emotion, and I know that thing intimately. I know that I need to find the right name to unlock it, as though that unique combination of letters and sounds is itself a key.

Once I have the name, everything starts flowing. I can describe the character, I can move on with the plot. Suddenly I know what happened when they were seven, how they feel about their mother and what colour their hair is.

So what is it about names? Do other people find it the same when they are fleshing out a new book?

The idea of changing character names after the book has been written makes me shiver like a ghost just walked on my grave.

In fact, come to think about it. I can’t even start plotting a book until I get the title of the book.

So what is it? What’s in a name?

By the way, I’m running a book giveaway for The Calvanni, first in my new Heroic Fantasy series, the Jakirian Cycle. To win a copy of The Calvanni, enter here!

22 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. I love names. I have a double handful of sites useful for looking up meanings for names, associations (the name Joan has the association of Joan of Arc, forex), history/etc, or just popularity of names.

    Typically, I do go for “meanings”. It started with my real fandom – SWAT Kats – where the naming theme was very obvious. Nearly everyone had a cat-related name (Calico “Callie” Briggs, Jake Clawson, Chance Furlong, Commander Ulysses Feral, Felina Feral; etc). It was superhero-ish, though, and we all know how American comic books are big on names with a theme. In any case, saturated with both influences, many of my characters have names that relate to some sort of theme, either by meaning or association.

    For those who don’t, they usually are in my contemporary stories and I usually pull them off of here: http://www.ssa.gov/oact/babynames/index.html based on their supposed year of birth. In those cases, I choose based on a “feeling”. A character named Edward is good for a person whose family upbringing is traditional and possibly stuffy. Unless I’m working against that idea as part of the character’s growth theme in the story (or a set-up for a joke, maybe), it goes to a character who is likewise. Jayden for a person whose family is likely to be more free-spirit and creative – and likely to grow up similarly.

    Just recently, when working on my NaNoWriMo attempt, the main character’s name changed because I didn’t think that her family would give her the name I’d originally chosen. I settled on “Melissa” which is a weird name for me. Visually, I really like it, but I must have had associations with it from school years, because it puts me off. It seems to suit the character (as in, “in her head” she goes by Melissa, with “Lissa” being reserved for particularly close friends to call her casually by, but she’s still “Melissa” to herself), but I’m in an odd position of having to force myself not to forget who she is rather than the kind of girl the name makes me think she is.

    My dad, however, doesn’t seem to be nearly as attached to names as I am. From what I understand, very few of his stable of characters has any name at all and he has placeholders. How he manages to continue with names like “Lt. [AA] [BB]” and “Sgt. [CC] [DD]”, I have no idea. (Just using those for example – I haven’t actually read it yet because he wants it to be in a more final version before I go through it.)

    1. Hi, CR. That is a very structured approach. It makes a lot of sense, particularly for more contemporary stories where the real-world names have certain associations.It’s interesting that you research all the word meanings and associations. I should probably do that to make sure I’m not working cross-purposes with popular associations.

      I’m almost the complete opposite in approach:) Probably because I mainly write in fantastical settings – my names are almost exclusively invented. I play a kind of word-creation game until I get something that feels right. For me it is really about getting a name that is emotionally evocative for me – which enables me to kind of unlock of the creativity behind my feeling for the character.

  2. I don’t need names. As a matter of fact I think I have at least one story drifting around where the main character has no name. In first person, you see, you don’t think of yourself by name very often.

    Same for titles. I do occasionally title a work before it is fully written, but I prefer to wait until some of the story has been fleshed out to choose the right title.

    I think the process is different for every writer. Chances are, that which makes me a pantser (which autocorrect wants to make panther. I could live with being a panther from time to time) is also why I don’t need a name at first. Because I’m narrating what my characters are doing onto paper, not plotting and choreographing their every move before they can make one.

    1. Hi, Cedar. It is certainly fascinating to see the different approaches from other writers. These days I plot fairly loosely. Getting the name, for me, is more about emotionally connecting with the character.

  3. I love names. And not just the pun names I liberally sprinkle through my works, but the more serious ones too. The one place that can be a little difficult are the foreign ones. I’ve looked at a few sites for those, but there are plenty of pitfalls there, like not knowing the culture enough to say, but the name that might be from one region of Russia on an entirely different Surname. Or worse, getting the genders wrong. (Bambi was a boy deer, after all.)

    1. Hi, Dr Mauser. Yes, it can certainly be embarrassing when someone slips up with gender or meaning. I immediately think about that old Kate Bush song where she dressed up in sexy fantasy gear and sung ‘Babushka. Babushka. Ay Ai!’ Which I guess she thought meant sexy siren, but actually means grandmother in Russian. Ouch:)

  4. Oh God. I SUCK at names.It’s so bad for me that in one of my WIP I gave all of the kids at the start of the books numbers and explained it by saying that “names give a sense of pride and separation from the community.” The MC escapes and changes his name to “Niner” because that’s the last number of the designation I gave to him. The book is a bit more political than what generally goes on here so I’ll leave it at that. The good news is that I write a lot of fantasy. I can hit random keys until something sounds right. Yup, that’s my totally awesome naming technique.*smirk*

    Titles make me batty. One of the main reasons I’m afraid to go indy (once I actually _FINISH_ something anyway) is because then I’ll have to come up with a title myself. Other than one short (My Mommy’s a Necromancer) I haven’t been able to come up with a decent title ever. My great dream of being published by a house isn’t the huge (or not) check that comes with it. It’s a freaking marketing department that can come up with a title for me. Really. I can pretty much deal with the money sucking but Pwwwweeeeeeease can someone tell me what to call my work? Somehow I don’t see working names like Dwarf Story and Action Adventure selling all that well. I could be wrong, but I know which way I’d bet.

    1. Well, there are traditions in certain cultures of giving the kids numeric names.

    2. LOL. Numbers! I love it, Jim. Niner sounds pretty cool.

      Actually, your naming technique is pretty close to mine. I pretty much invent names for the fantastical settings by playing with letters and syllables and until something feels right.

      For titles thought, I have to have the ‘right’ title to start working. This is potentially a problem as I would probably riot if a publisher wanted to change it, but hey – I’m willing to make the sacrifice for buckets of money!

  5. “The naming of [characters] is a difficult matter/ It isn’t just one of your holiday games . . .” 🙂

    I have mixed luck with names for characters and story titles. Some spring up instantly, fully formed (Rada Ni Drako, Zabet, Shi-dan, Rahoul Khan and Joschka von Hohen-Drachenburg, Elizabeth von Sarmas and Lazlo Destefani). Others, well, I have to noodle with the naming conventions or hunt around for inspiration. When I mess up a name, for example getting a Russian surname wrong because of not knowing the gender conventions, I usually either change it or come up with a work-around in the story.

    Titles vary – I have working titles, and most of the time those end up being the final titles. Otherwise I’m open to changes, some of which hit me at 0200 when I’m answering nature’s call. Ah, the subconscious.

    1. Hi, TXRed. My names also tend to be a mixed bag. Since I go with a kind of gut inspiration people often ask me – ‘Hey, how come you have this common name in the same story as this bizzare one?’ Mmmmn. Embarrassed silence is usually the response.

      You’ve got some great names there. Joschka von Hohen-Drachenburg, rolls right off the tongue, but this is the shortened version surely? Love it:)

      1. His full name, which he very rarely uses, is Joachim Peter Joschka Graf von Hohen-Drachenburg da Trobak. The first three names are his baptismal names, Graf is his rank (count), von Hohen-Drachenburg is his surname because he married into his wife’s family, and da Trobak is the name of his birth House. You can see why he goes by Joschka von Hohen-Drachenburg.

  6. My characters get snotty if I don’t give them the right name. And one tried to steal the name of the hero from another book. I had to buy him off with a historical mouthful that made him an automatic Texan. Yeah, I know, call the fellows with the wraparound jacket.

    I frequently start a book by going to a random name generator and running off twenty or thirty names. then I get to pick and choose what fits a particular character. You can also hunt down name lists from different cultures. For the future settings, sometimes swaps some vowels or otherwise tweak names.

    1. Hi, Pam. I like the way you refer to your unruly characters;) I guess mine don’t get snarky, they just cross their arms and stare back at me in frosty silence:) LOL.

      I’ve never tried a random name generator. I’ll have to have a play with one and see what comes up.

  7. I first read the mention of titles as being like Headmaster-Principal or the like.

    I think whether labels are needed to handle ideas probably has individual variation. I imagine it would depend on how a person uses and stores ideas.

    I’ve characters where I know most things, but haven’t found or assigned the name, ones where I have the name but haven’t found the rest, and different characters with the same name, like versions of King Arthur.

    When complete, best practice is to have the character labeled well enough for the reader to have an idea of them.

    Before then, do I need a complete list of a character’s physical statistics? Do I need their grades in school? Do I need their resume? Do I need a list of their ancestors for five generations?

    Track enough details that you can give the readers what they need for the story.

    I pull names from history, fit them to themes, rob languages, go with a source, just slap something together, or have my intuition push stuff on me.

    When I’ve attached and used a name, replacing it sometimes feels awkward. Sometimes it takes some experimentation to get the name or title right.

    1. Hi, Bob. it’s good to have a fleshed out character, but for me this is more about their personality, personal history, the events that shaped them and most importantly – what drives them.

      It’s interesting to see how few attributes are needed to carry a character in successful fiction. Quite often it will only be one or two things that are repeated in association with that characters – e.g. Ron Weasley’s red hair, Hagrid’s large size or a detective lighting up a cigarette etc. Of course, these need to be presented in conjunction with an element of action that is consistent with the character as well. But I guess the point is you don’t need more than a few touches to get the right balance.

      That doesn’t mean you don’t need the detail, but just be reserved about using it.

      Of course, this is a great excuse to be lazy and just fill in the details when you need them:) Works for me.

      1. For me, the name is another attribute, important but not essential. Depending on how I’m looking at them, I may do values, role in scenario, or collections of features before names. Yes, I’m very likely to need one for the reader, and they are useful for my book keeping, but sometimes they seem a very low priority, not related to my understanding of their choices.

        For example, the character whose current shortest label is were-shoggoth HVAC contractor. Or the girl from Abraham, seat of Lincoln county (fictional locations), whose personal name, if I had any, I’ve forgotten.

        Conversely, Rat Bastard and Fu So each have names that are deeply integrated with my understanding of the rest of them.

        I’ve a character named Steven, possibly surnamed Browning, but that could just as easily be one for the girl I think may end up his love interest.

        I more often attach a name than I do the other bits of filling out I mentioned on the sixth. Family ancestry, who raised them, is sometimes looked at, but rarely to five generations. But if I’ve finished the first build of the character, and the name hasn’t come up, I not going to hold up the story on that account.

  8. I often struggle with names. I’m bothered and can get stuck if the name isn’t just right.
    I have found a solution that alleviates the problem, at least for me. I have a crop of stock names that I use as placeholders. When a new, unnamed character shows up I just pull the next one off the roster and continue on my merry way. I don’t get blocked or bothered because it’s not a “good enough” temp or wrong – it’s just a placeholder. I’m not attached to it at all, and _because_ I’m not attached at all it let’s me keep writing. It’s also easy to search-and-replace when I do find the perfect moniker.

  9. I find a kind of magic in naming. A character well-named becomes fully-fleshed. When I design a character — as opposed to when one just walks on and takes over — I usually start out with function, then try to figure out what made him/.her that way, and along the way, a name generally suggests itself. And nicknames. Frex, I needed a group of redshirts. And, yes, most of them DO survive, but I didn’t know that when I started. One was to be an artist. A forger. Like, maybe, Neal Caffrey. But a girl. A teenager. She lived in… abandoned tenements in… Glasgow, yes. That’s the ticket! And she’s a rapscalion ragamuffin, but absolutely brilliant with all media. And her name is… Jeep? Where did that come from? Oh. I get it now. Her full name is Gillian Mary Elizabeth Paul. Her mates called her Gee Pee at first, then shortened it to Jeep. She’s a redhead who blacks her hair with boot polish and wears a lot of black denim and leather.

    And now she’s one of Daddy’s favorites.


    1. Hi, Mark. It’s amazing how it all comes together. And where do all these little flashes and inspirations really come from? The depths of the subconscious? The Universe? It’s great to be part of such a creative process in any case. I love that phase of story creation.

  10. I don’t have to have the right name… I figure that just like real life the character informs the name. So “Mary” could be the girl next door or a spy. It’s true that “Ruth” has an undercurrent of practicality, but is bold and brave. Yes, sure, sometimes a really great name informs the character. But if I can’t think of one it doesn’t stop me.

    What stops me is not being able to come up with *any* name. And usually I’ve got the main characters but the secondary ones show up “on the go”… and “on the go” becomes “full stop.”

    I don’t know who I heard it from first but the idea is to begin with name lists of undetermined and unassigned names that can be selected from on the fly. So far this is working really well for me. I use Gary Gygax’s Extrordinary Book of Names (if I had to be Historically accurate I might use something else.) So with the last thing I’ve been working on I have a list of ancient Scottish names and another list of Hellenic Greek names that I picked out of the book to make a list of names that avoid ones that sound too similar or that I just don’t like, so if I’m typing and I realize that Medic #2 now needs to be something other than “the medic” he doesn’t turn into a road block instead of a bloke named Balios.

  11. There is an excellent website on the Internet called “Behind the Name”. It tells the meaning of names, both familiar names and surnames, even separated somewhat by ethnicity. It’s not perfect, but it’s useful.

    I used to tell people I picked names by taking a very sharp pin and pushing it through a stack of telephone book pages, then flipping to various pages and checking the pinholes. I’d choose one name from one page, and another from a different page. Sometimes I’d even “slur” them to account for language “drift”. It’s not great, but it works. Sometimes, the character appears full-blown in my head, complete with his/her entire history. Others take a bit more work… 8^)

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