February 7, 2014

The Surnaming of Characters

Earlier this week, I offered some advice about choosing character names and avoiding common naming pitfalls. While most of the suggestions in those posts apply to all parts of a name, I wrote them with first names in mind. Today I promised to talk about specific issues related to last names.

So here's where I admit that I have no real advice on this topic. I hate coming up with last names, and I find that in most cases, characters don't need them, so I only give surnames when it's absolutely necessary.

For the first novel I ever wrote, which I spent several years on, I had a database of character information that included -- I kid you not -- where the protagonist's friends' parents went to college, even though that never came up in the story in any way. I never gave the main character a last name.

My recently completed novel is about a family. I did choose a last name for them right from the start, and fortunately, that took care of a whole bunch of characters at once. There's one other family in the novel with a last name, and a doctor appears briefly and is referred to only by title and last name. That's the extent of the surnames. One character who marries into the family doesn't take her husband's name, and that's a fact I know in my head, but I never worked out what her last name is.

I don't have a good reason for my aversion to last names. They might be slightly harder to choose than first names due to carrying more cultural information, but they also have somewhat less "must feel right for the character" pressure, so it probably comes out about even. Certainly it's fine, and even advisable, that the majority of my characters don't have last names, but I shouldn't be so intimidated.

This is what I do know about last names:

Research is a good idea. Last names, even more than first names, are tied to ethnicity and potentially a great many other familial background factors. I've picked surnames imagining that they signified one culture, then later learned that I got it completely wrong because I didn't bother looking anything up.

I also had a weird (though kind of cool) thing happen once when I essentially made up a last name by putting together some syllables that sounded plausible. This was for one of my early NaNoWriMo novels, and at the time, I had the whole thing posted on my web site. A stranger emailed me, excited because he searched for his extremely rare last name and found my site, and he wanted to know if there was any family connection (it wasn't apparent to him that the name was in a story). While he was tickled by my explanation that I had fabricated the name, I did think that in the future it would be worthwhile to search and verify that any name I use isn't practically unique.

I don't have a single go-to internet source for last names. My method tends to be that I think up or find a name somewhere and then do a search to learn more about it. But like I said, it's not something I've dealt with very often.

I'd be thrilled to know your resources or strategies for identifying and researching names. One reader has already pointed me to a great character name generator that asks you to input ethnicity and birth decade before spitting out a random first and last name matching the criteria (plus a detailed personality profile).

Last names can overload the reader. If some readers have a tendency to not fully absorb first names, you can bet that even more of them are skipping past last names. I get irritated by books that keep giving me new characters with both first and last names, because I know I'm going to have enough trouble remembering one name per person, let alone two.

In most stories, most characters don't need last names. I gather it's more of a convention to introduce every character by full name in some genres, such as mysteries and thrillers, and maybe if I read more in those genres, I'd be more tolerant of the phenomenon. But I'm perfectly happy not learning a character's last name unless it's going to be necessary, for the purposes of logistics or realism, to have the narration or a character use it. The reason I was able to write multiple drafts of my first novel and never know the main character's last name is that throughout all his many plotless adventures, it just never became story-relevant.

That said, if you are going to use a major character's last name, it's good to introduce it sometime early in the story even if it's not important until later. I recently read a book and was totally jarred when halfway through, the protagonist's last name appeared, and I realized I hadn't seen it before then.

I already know that my new novel is going to require quite a few last names, so please, share any advice you have. And I still haven't made a lot of progress on even the first names, so wish me luck!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Tor.com, a group of science fiction authors discuss food in SF: "Food is an excellent way to do very elegant worldbuilding, the kind that can make a fictional world seem real, like it extends way past the edges of the frame."


laurenhat said...

Rather than a random name generator, I'd love to see the most popular names for a given gender/time/geography/ethnicity. I look that up when generating names... But yeah, it's hard!

Lisa Eckstein said...

Yeah, lists of popular last names can be useful, but only if it's a fairly long list. I guess if your character last names all fell near the end of top 100 lists, they wouldn't seem too generic, but you don't want to have characters named Smith, Garcia, Lee, and Patel!

laurenhat said...

Hee, true. :) I recently wanted a generic UK surname beginning with A, and thus only needed a short list, but it wouldn't do to assign a bunch of similarly forgettable names... That would probably also make for more name confusion.

It would also be nice to have a tool that takes in a name/time/place combo and gives you back a popularity metric. (I suppose maybe I should see if I can find a good data source and write these myself...)

Lisa Eckstein said...

I am entirely in favor of you applying your data wrangling skills to this problem! The Social Security site has a lot of (US) names data, and while the first names seemed easier to get at than the last names, I think both are available in some form.

I should also add that I haven't looked that extensively for last name sites, so there may be something close to this already out there.

Iphy said...

How about searching for "Mrs" in Google books, and filtering by century (or more granularly if you can)?

laurenhat said...

Both good ideas! Thanks. (And yes, I'd search more for existing tools before building something.)

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