Wednesday, January 25, 2012

What’s in a name?

Barbara here. Yesterday I spent my writing time beset by names. Character names, that is. How to pick them, how to tell them apart, how to make them enrich character. It’s more important that one might think. How many times have you read a book with a Peter, Paul, Penny and Pam. Janet and James, or a dozen variations on Mac? These are errors that a writer, or the editor, should catch before the book goes to print If reader have to spend time flipping pages to figure out whether Peter or Paul was the wife’s lover, then the writer has lost them from the story.

When I’m writing the first draft, I don’t worry about such things. I just pluck a name from my imagination that seems to suit the character, and I’m off. Due to the miracle of “Find and replace”, I can switch all the Peters to Edwards in a few clicks of the mouse if need be. The only trick is to be on guard for partial names, possessives or nicknames that the search function might miss. The computer has no brains, unfortunately. It will change all the Peters, but not the Petes or even the Peter’s. But if you’re not vigilant, it will created the phrase ‘edwarded out’.

Once the creative first draft is done, however, and my whole cast of characters has been developed, I need to make sure the names all work. The first step is to create what I call the Vicki Cameron chart, after my friend and fellow Ladies Killing Circle author. Take a blank page, divide it into two columns and list the letters of the alphabet down the left-hand side. Then enter all the character names into the chart, first names in the left column, surnames in the right. The repetitions and gaping holes are visible at a glance. Also visible is the pattern of names. Are most of them one syllable? Do several have similar sounds, rhythms or endings which might be hard to differentiate?

Next comes the chopping block, where names get replaced by others. I usually leave my main characters’ names alone, since they have already been carefully chosen to suit not only the personality, but also the ethnicity, age and sometimes geographical origin of the character. Besides, they have become old friends, and a name change is difficult. I once met a reader who said to me, “I never guessed that XXX was the murderer!” I remember thinking “Who the devil is XXX?” I had changed the villain’s name at the last minute.

Secondary and tertiary names are fair game, however. I keep my chart in front of me as I switch that third L name for a G name that sounds fine too. Always keeping in mind the age and ethnic origin of the character, as well as how smoothly the first and last name fit. The sound or image of a name plays a huge role. Personalities are captured quickly in a name. Is it fanciful and melodic, or stubby and utilitarian? Bud conjures up a different image than Nigel. I might give a nasty character an ugly name, or contrarily a lovely, sweet name. I consult the internet for the proper ethnic names, using a simple Google search. There are websites that list popular baby names by decade, helping to find just the right name for a woman born in 1950, for example.

I set my books in Canada, but even within Canada there are regional differences in names. Newfoundlanders, for example, can not only recognize whether a surname is an “island name”, but they may want to know if the person is a Petley Mills or a Shoal Harbour Mills. Canada 411 (or the phone books in the library) is the perfect source for regional names. I just look up the town, enter the first couple of letters I’d like to use (if I’m filling in a gap on that alphabet chart, for example), and browse through the names that come up.

That’s what I’m trying to do right now. Trying to find the right name for my young RCMP corporal, who’s a good Ukrainian farm boy from the prairies. Anthony Bidulka comes to mind, but I think it’s been done.



"Edwarded out" made me giggle.

I've started to keep an alphabet page at the beginning of my story notebooks. When I add a new character, I write their name next to that letter and then cross that letter out. Of course, there are always some characters who really want a letter that someone else has claimed, so I have to decide whether sharing the letter would get confusing or if one of them is more deserving of their original name.

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NL Gassert said...

I write a series set on Guam and the phone book is a great resource for names. I have a chart with the most common names, the Guamanian equivalent to “Smith” and “John.” I use these names for walk-on characters. When I named my villain I checked to make sure no one with that name lived on the island. When I rechecked years later … you guess it, someone with that name had moved on island :-)


Barbara Fradkin said...

So true, Nadja! You have to make sure there are more than 4-5 people with that name in the location in question. Otherwise, hmmm...