Wednesday, November 03, 2010

What's In A Name?

I’ve changed the name of my new British protagonist three times now. She’s upper class born and bred so I want her name to reflect a traditional upbringing. At the same time, she’s a clever, independent modern woman who lives in London. I don’t want her to sound too rural or dull (Harriet or Fiona), or too flighty (Felicity or Leticia). She’s intelligent, smart and grounded. She also has a great sense of humor but somehow Bambi or Tilly seems too weak.

Just like the fashion for mini skirts and bellbottom jeans, names come and go. The craze for last names (known as surnames to us Brits) is still going strong with Madison and Mackenzie being in the top 100 names for girls. For boys, it would appear biblical names are currently all the rage such as Jacob and Elijah. Names of places are becoming increasingly popular—Dakota, Denver or Sydney. Of course, we’re all familiar with Paris.

First names have connotations that may alter a reader’s perception. Plain and steadfast speak of reliability like Jane or Maud. Kurt or Will work well for brave heroes with strong jaw lines and six-packs.

With so many to choose from, I generally create a new character by basing him or her on someone I know—from physical characteristics to keeping their name in mind as a placeholder.As the character develops, I nearly always change the name because this new character has outgrown it—besides, I don’t want to fall out with all my friends.

It’s best to mix up the initials—an Ann, Amy and Annabel could prove confusing to the reader. Also some names have historical implications—a love interest called Adolf or a children’s nanny called Medusa, may be unwise. Ditto for larger than life protagonists. Would we really feel confident following Gladys, the Warrior Princess, or Peaches of Arc?

How do you pick a name for your character? Do you have to create the character first? What isin a name?

10 comments:

Rick Blechta said...

First of all, don't you mean to say "first names" in the second paragraph?

I generally wait until the character "suggests" their own name. Sometimes this happens before I start the novel; sometimes much later. Quite often I just put placeholders for the name, something like "XX", then "YY" and so on, so global changes will be easier when I do have the name.

In your case, given that you want the character to be upper class, you simply must use a hyphenated family name. Could I suggest finding a hamlet in the UK with a two word name? In Staffordshire there's a tiny place called Hamstall Ridware. I think that would make a fabulous family name for your character.

Use it with my compliments. Cheers!

Hannah Dennison said...

Rick - on rereading my post, you are correct. Well-caught! Thank you. And I really like Hamstall Ridware!
Thanks for that one - I owe you!

NL Gassert said...

I’m with Rick. Some characters suggest their own names, even before there’s a story to go with them. But in general, I spend way too much time trying to find the right name. I pay close attention to meaning and origin. I even consult my characters horoscope, e.g. I’d like a Pisces to have a water-related name :-) Yeah, way too much time spend on researching names.

Nadja

Hannah Dennison said...

Nadja ... I hadn't thought about the sign of the zodiac having a bearing on a name - I actually quite like that idea! I know I spend far too much time choosing a name - I believe it's yet another way to procrastinate!

Donis Casey said...

Easy for me. I usually use the name of some dead relative. But I have the same feeling about alliterative names. I try to make the names stand out from one another, because as a reader I know I get confused easily and have difficulty keeping characters straight.

Hannah Dennison said...

Donis ... you crack me up ...

Rick Blechta said...

In looking over your entry once more, I would like to state that it should be made against the law to name any child "Bambi".

Hannah Dennison said...

Ha ha ha .... unless you work for Hooters.

Vicki Delany said...

Hey, what's with Fiona? Who is the heroine of my Klondike books BTW. And speaking of Hooters. In Las Vegas last week a couple of my relatives (the middle-aged English females) went to Hooters. Comment: I guess if you're beautiful in Las Vegas you don't have to work at Hooters. Ouch.

Hannah Dennison said...

One of my close friends at school was Fiona ... Vicki --- and of course the protagonist in my series is named after you ....