Friday, October 23, 2015

George By Any Other Name

Frankie here. The subject of naming characters has come up here on occasion. In fact, I probably bring it up more than anyone else. Well, I'm back there again -- resorting to everything from name generators on the Internet to staring at the names on the books on my bookshelves. A first name here, a last name there.

I've been struggling with this because I'm starting a new book. The only characters who have names that haven't changed in the past few days are my protagonist and the police chief. And I still don't know the police chief's last name. Well, I have managed to name a dog and a cat, but I looked at a lists of popular canine names to find one for the dog.

The problem is that I need to do a synopsis for my editor for this book. I would like to get it done before I'm a whole lot older. I have the basic plot. I've even managed to write chapter summaries. I won't be able to move any further until I have given my victim, killer, and suspects names. I certainly can't begin to write the book until my characters all have names. Placeholder names are dangerous because they can end up sticking. 

However, I think I may have had a breakthrough as I was waking up this morning -- or rather between the time I turned over because the light outside was seeping around the blinds and the moment when my cat, Harry, decided it was time I got up and meowed outside the door. Luckily, this morning, he let me sleep in. That gave my brain long enough to process the thoughts that were drifting through it. 

What occurred to me was that maybe I was going about naming my characters the wrong way. For example, I had an image in my head of one character and assigned a name based on that image. But this morning before I was completely awake I started playing with other names. Silly names. And one of them stuck and the character morphed into someone else. And suddenly I had a solution to how to handle that character's essential presence in the book. 

Having solved that problem, I got up and began to think about "George". George is the name I gave to a character who I wanted the reader to think of as an average guy. But this morning, it occurred to me that each reader will bring his or her impressions of and experiences with "Georges" to the book. Maybe I'm thinking George Wendt, who played "Norm" on the TV sitcom "Cheers". 

Maybe they're thinking George Washington. And then I thought of my own two grandfathters, both named George. I was too young to have known my paternal grandfather well and my maternal grandfather died before I was born. But they were both farmers, and I suspect not the kind of average guy the George in my book was intended to be. 

What if instead I named this character Malcolm or Ross. How would my former George, who would be playing the same role in the book be different? Maybe instead of rejecting a name because it doesn't seem to fix my character, I should think about who my character might be if he had that name. How would George's life have been different if his parents had named him Donovan or Adam. 

Yes, names conjure up images in our heads and we all associate certain names with certain personalities. We expect Brandi (with an "i") to be more likely to be a stripper than a lawyer. We might expect Cyrus to be a bit gruff or at least taciturn. 

But what if the stripper were named Catherine? How would a Catherine have become a stripper?

I confess that I am thinking a bit about my own name here. Being a woman named "Frankie" has certainly give me a different view of the world than if my given name were Ann because I have to take into account that some people may anticipate a male person when they see my name. For example, the driver of the airport shuttle bus who was picking me up at my hotel a couple of weeks ago -- he was surprised when the male passenger he had anticipated turned out to be a woman -- which caught me off-guard because I was thinking about something else and had forgotten the driver might expect a man. I could always put a "Ms" in front of my name, but that's a real drag -- although it seems "Drew" one of "The Property Brothers" on HGTV, does have "Mr." in his email address. 

But I digress. My point is that I've stumbled on this idea of picking interesting names and then thinking about who that character might be if he or she had that name. But I am naming-challenged. I discovered a few days ago that I had given the victim in my new book the same name as the victim in my last book. Two very different guys but I'm apparently fascinated by the name "Kevin" -- which would suggest that a name can send one in a number of different directions. Or maybe I was just desperate to find a name for my new victim and plucked the first one that occurred to me out of the air. 

Thoughts?  How do you go about  finding names that suit your characters? Name first or personality first?


Anonymous said...

I relate to your dilemma! I try everything you mentioned and somehow I always wind up changing the surname usually, but somehow when I give the first name to a main character it's usually the right one.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and being a Catherine--nope not a good stripper name :)

Sybil Johnson said...

Naming characters is hard. I particularly have trouble with last names. I've used baby name books for first names, trying to match the meaning of the name to my character, a book on American Surnames for last names, names of teachers I had for last names, Saints names...

Donis Casey said...

One nice thing about writing a recent historical (100 years) is that I can name my characters after my own grandparents and their siblings. As an aside, I've had my own problems with "Donis" in my time.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Catherine, I know what you mean about surnames. A surname has to work with (or against)the first name. I go through a lot of those before I found the right owe.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Sybil, I hadn't thought of surnames of teachers. Over the years, I had teachers with a variety of interesting names.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...


I'm planning on using some family names when I get around to writing my 1939 thriller. And I'll been looking at baby names by decade.