February 3, 2014

The Naming of Characters

I still haven't named any of the characters in the new novel I've been planning. I had thought that even making notes would be too cumbersome while the characters remained nameless, but it turns out that I'm having no trouble referring to them by their roles, or by letters that signify the roles. I could probably leave the characters unnamed throughout the entire planning and research phase, and only choose names as a final act of procrastination before I embark upon drafting, but I think it might be time to start making some concrete decisions about this story. Naming the characters is a good place to begin.

The naming of characters is a difficult matter. The name of a major character might appear hundreds of times throughout a story, so there's pressure to choose wisely, but it's not clear what that means. In theory, it's an arbitrary decision, unrelated to the many elements that create a stronger plot or a more compelling conflict. In practice, names carry a huge amount of baggage, some that will be familiar to the writer as part of a larger culture, and some that individual readers will bring to a story and that the writer has no chance of anticipating or controlling.

You can see why I've been reluctant to approach the naming problem. Occasionally a character has appeared in my head with a name already attached, but more often, and in the case of this new novel, I've thought up fairly detailed stories for these people without imagining what any of them are called. That means I'll probably end up scanning the lists at 20,000 Names in search of possibilities. Like most name sites, that one includes name meanings, but I almost never pay attention to those. I don't pick character names for symbolic purposes, so the meaning only concerns me if I think it would have mattered to the character's parents.

When I choose names, what I'm focusing on are these considerations:

The inscrutable quality of rightness. I recommend finding a name that feels good to you as the writer, and I have no advice about how to do that. I may reject a dozen names because they don't fit before deciding that one is perfect, and it's a completely idiosyncratic decision that I couldn't hope to explain. In the best case scenario, that perfect name I've chosen will also resonate with the reader as embodying every facet of the character. In the worst case, it will be the name of the reader's most despised ex, but there's nothing you can do about that.

Suitability to the character's background. Consider when and where your character was born, their ethnicity, and any other familial factors that contribute to naming patterns. Do your research on this. When selecting names for the three different time periods in THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE, I spent hours with NameVoyager charting popularity over time so that the names would be appropriate for each era.

Neither too common nor too unusual. It's strange if everyone in a story has a top-ten name, or if they all have extremely unfamiliar ones, so unless you're going for a specific effect, aim somewhere in the middle. Usually my major characters have medium-popularity names, perhaps with one that's odder or more prevalent, and then I give the smaller characters a whole range, so that the balance is a set of names that feels neither too generic nor too ridiculous.

Not the name of anyone I know. This is trickier than you'd think. First of all, I'm acquainted with a great many people who monopolize a great many names, so I actually have to narrow it down to only excluding the names of my closer friends and family. Then it turns out that I have a weird tendency to give names to characters without even noticing that they match the names of my nearest and dearest. This led to some awkward conversations about my earliest manuscripts, which were only ever seen by those same nearest and dearest, and I now take extra care to avoid unintended overlaps. Finally, I do have a natural bias toward names that are familiar to me, so I often draw from the name pool of people I once knew but haven't talked to in decades. I don't have any motive in giving a character the name of an acquaintance from high school, it's merely that the name was more likely to appeal to me than one I'd never encountered. All of this is to say, if you ever think I've named a character after you, please be assured that I haven't.

Those are my basic criteria for selecting character names. Later in the week, I'll be back with thoughts on avoiding naming pitfalls and the special pain of picking last names.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Vulture, Kathryn Schulz identifies The 5 Best Punctuation Marks in Literature: "Once in a while, though, a bit of punctuation pops its head up over the prose, and over the prosaic, and becomes a part of a tiny but interesting canon: famous punctuation marks in literature." (Thanks, The Millions!)

No comments:

Post a Comment