Sunday, April 27, 2008

The naming of cats is a delicate matter....

~TS Eliot, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats

Doesn’t matter if it’s a cat or a character, the name is all. Readers fall in love with characters and their names, sometimes going so far as to name their children after a favorite. I know this as fact because I named my daughter for the title character in William Shakespeare’s The Taming of The Shrew. In fact, the first words my seconds-old daughter heard her father speak were from that play, “Your name is Kate, I hear.”
So I fully understand the impact of a character's name on a reader's psyche. Names matter. A lot. And as a writer, if I want my characters to be memorable, I not only need to give them a memorable personality, I need to give them a memorable name. A great name. A name that will stick in the reader's mind long after the last page has been read.
In fact, names matter so much that I will start a brand-new story and only write about 500 words of it before I have to stop and tell the characters it’s time for them to fess up and tell me their names. I cannot take the story further without that piece of information. In every story I’ve written, the name and the character are inseparable. No story.

Isabel in Cabin Fever was very willing to talk. She was named for a hurricane that had spun its way onshore the year or so previous. I saved that name until I was ready to tell her story and she was very cooperative in helping me along. So was Master Richard in Table for Four. I’d seen a drawing of a Dom and sub...don’t know the artist or the title of the drawing (but I do have it on my Yahoo newsgroup...if anyone could help me identify it, I’d be grateful!)...and as soon as I looked at the picture, I knew the character’s name and part of his story. And thus the story was told.

But mostly the characters are nowhere near so accommodating. Usually they are very recalcitrant or just plain stubborn, making me do all the work. In that case, I need to go looking for inspiration. And that’s where it gets interesting because the names come from all sorts of places.

Baby books are often a good source...both hard copy and online versions are useful in their own rights. I have a paperback that I bought long after my own children were named just so I had a resource for those stubborn characters. Adora from Table for Four came out of that book. I specifically wanted a name that denoted beauty (“Adora” means “adorable” in Italian) and yet had a foreign sound to it.

Last names are often found in the phone book. Just open and point. See what comes up and go from there. To be honest, I never use a name exactly out of a phone book, but I’ll take the first syllable of my first stab on the page and another syllable from a second stab somewhere else in the book. Combine them and you have a good name.
I know this one sounds odd...but I have been known to wander cemetaries reading headstones to find inspiration. I found a great name this way, but the man has been notoriously quiet. Every time I give him his chance, he gives me back a bit of his rogueish personality, but he's keeping his story to himself. Sooner or later you'll find Quintillin Cassidy in one of my stories...I love that name and he was a real person in a real cemetary (btw, I gave this inspirational tip to Kara Godwin of Kara's Captain...the story starts with her wandering a graveyard in search of inspiration for a new story. I wrote that scene while waiting in the car for family...and I happened to be parked beside a cemetary with a wrought-iron fence).

But I’ve recently discovered a new source of underutilized by authors, I’m sure. For who wants to give credit to spam email for anything but trouble? No one...much easier to hit “delete” and ignore it entirely. Except you’re deleting an entire population of possible character names each time you erase them all. Let me give you some recent examples:

Someone named Zachary Scott sent me an email entitled, “Ready for Use” spamming me for Cialis or Viagra or some other penis-enlargement offering (don't have a penis, don't want one...although I can attest that they are great fun!). But look at that again...not only a great name for a hero...but he thoughtfully provided the title of the book as well! Can’t you just see him? Standing tall and commanding, his hands firmly planted on his hips, his stance wide. And kneeling at his feet, a beautiful woman, naked...her knees spread wide, her hands palm up on her thighs, her head down, her hair a veil before her face...Zachary Scott and his slave, “Ready for Use.” Voila! Inspiration! And from a spam email.

One of my favorite names to come from spam is “Clinton Hunter.” Don’t remember what he was selling, but doesn’t the name make you think of a character out gunning for a certain presidential candidate? Clothed in black, ninja-like, lying in wait...(perhaps our hero Zachary Scott saves the day?) See what fun you can have with spam?
So names come from everywhere...and they can make or break a character (can you imagine Shakespeare's Katherine if she were named Tiffany?). Authors out there...where do your best names come from? And readers...what are your favorite names?


Lynn LaFleur said...

Great post, Diana! I, too, get a lot of my last names from the phone book. I used to work for a newspaper/print shop. We'd print the high school football rosters every year. Another great place to get names!

I do use a baby name book for a lot of my first names. (One of my critique partners sometimes shakes her head at the names I come up with.) The names definitely have to "fit" the character. I've heard from several authors that their book wasn't flowing. As soon as they changed a name, viola! There's a plot again.


WindLegends said...

Sometimes naming your character can get you into trouble. When I created the fictional Prince Ardalan Jaleem for Desert Wind, I had no idea there was a real Ardalan Jaleem lurking out there who was/is a prince. He's also a sometimes actor and he sent a scatching email to me threatening to sue both me and Ellora's Cave for using his name and making his father (not even the same name I'd given the despot king in the novel) a bad rep as being a particularly nasty dude. I turned the email over to my publiser who in turn wrote this person and basically gave him the disclaimor that is in every book: the characters were fictional, bear no resemblance to living/dead people, etc. He wrote her back, threatening to sue. Did I say he was a SOMETIMES actor and a prince who had...supposedly...been ejected from his country and was most likely down on his luck?

I kept receiving emials from this guy until I blocked him. THEN I immediately started receiving emails from some dudette who claimed I'd used HER name for a character in another book. I blocked 'her' as well and haven't had any more such emails.

I did, however, receive one several months later from a guy who asked how I came up with the name Conor Nolan since that was his name.

I explained to him that most of my names are Celtic-based and I put them together in what I hope sounds like a sexy way. He wrote back to say he, too, thought his name was sexy.

I take great pains to use names that fit the character. I look at the meanings of the names to match them up. There is a website with over 20k names from all nationalities. If you can't find one there, God love you! Sometimes I use names I have slightly altered: Declan=Deklyn, Cameron=Kamerone (pronounced kam uh roan), Sinner=Cynyr, Angel=Aingeal, Aaron=Arawn, and Aidan=Viraidan. Those have been some of my most popular names with readers.

N.J.Walters said...

Wonderful post, Diana.

I've gotten quite a few of my last names from the phone book. LOL Baby name books are another great place.

Every now and then, a character's name will come from out of nowhere. Like Delight Deveraux. I just love her first name.

Or, they'll come from classic literature, as in Annabelle Lee Murphy. Thank you Mr. Poe. *g*

The hardest thing to do is to try and write before I know the character's name. It's virtually impossible. And if I sense the name is wrong, all writing has to stop until I figure out what the right name is.

WindLegends said...

The character of Mystery Butler from My Reaper's Daughter got her name from a lady who processed the loan for our new car. Her first name was Mystery and I thought that was so neat.

Shelley Munro said...

I can't write a word until I have names for my characters, and my names need to fit my hero/heroine. I use baby books and the phone book for surnames. Another great source for names are the credits for movies and TV shows. I'll mix and match and come up with some great names that way.

I love your idea of harvesting names from SPAM emails. That's a wonderful way of using SPAM!

Great post, Diana.

Diana said...

And don't you just hate it when you have a really, really good story going, but the character shuts up about his/her name? The story stops completely for me at that point! If I can't cajole the name out from any source...that story is essentially a non-starter.

Wow, Windlegends! That's scary! To have someone threaten so just because of a name??? I'm glad your publisher backed you up.

(waves hello to Lynn and NJ and Shelley too!)

Terry Odell said...

I had to drop by because someone left a message on the EC loop called "What's in a Name?" -- which just happens to be the title of one of my Cerridwen Press Releases.

I go nuts coming up with names, but try to make them 'age appropriate.' I used to manage membership for an international organization, and I'll admit to browsing the membership database, especially when I need a "foreign" name.

Names have to fit the characters, but can't be stereotypes, and they seem to appear in cycles. I was reading contest entries and had 3 Jacks as heroes, and lots of "S" named heroines -- Sarah, Samantha, Sophie (2 of those).

Titania Ladley said...

Love this topic! Just like with titles, I usually can't start writing until I have the characters named. If a new character butts in and demands a role, I usually do XXXXXX in place of their name while I'm trying to identify them. And since they're so big and intimidating, the XXXXs don't stay there long. I usually have to stop and go name 'em before I can type another word. I use several sources for names. I have an excellent character-naming source book I use that gives the names' meanings and origin (French, Italian, Arthurian, etc.), and I also watch the credits at the end of movies with a notepad---hubby hates that! LOL Another good source I use that has TONS of names can be found here:

Great post, Diana. Have a fabulous week, y'all! :)


Lynn LaFleur said...

Hey, Ti, thanks for the link. I'm always looking for new names.