Sunday, September 20, 2009

Do Your Characters' Names Dictate Their Personalities?

There are probably several of you who are like me…you can't start writing your story or even plotting it until you have decided on the names of your main characters. Even though I know who these characters are, have fully developed them, they have to have names before I can continue.

A character's name can say a lot about him or her and even more when a nickname is used. For example, if a character is named Elizabeth, that would convey a more formal type of person. But, give her the nickname of Liz and suddenly she's a lot more outgoing, ready to party. On the other hand, give her the nickname of Beth and you have someone who is more shy or withdrawn. I realize those are somewhat stereotyped descriptions rather than fact, but they do give the reader a feel for the type of character you've created just from the name you've given her. And the same applies to male names. Someone named Henry is one type of character where Hank is a different type of person. You have a Charles who is different from Charlie who is different from Chuck. And look at the different image conveyed when you take a character names Sylvester and call him Sly.

A nickname can also come from some aspect of the character's physical appearance. A character with auburn hair could be called Red. Or someone very tall and thin could have the nickname of Stretch.

A recent survey of 3,000 British teachers said names can peg kids as potential troublemakers. The poll reported that forty-nine percent of teachers said they make assumptions about students as soon as they see the names on the class roster. However, while teachers may roll their eyes at certain names, fifty-nine percent of the teachers surveyed said those same kids are usually the most popular among their peers.

With some characters their names are obvious—no worries or concerns about what to name them. Others seem to cause a lot of frustration. That's when I turn to my baby naming books.

And once your character has a first name that suits him or her, then there's the last name to think about. Where the first name needs to be a fit for the character, the last name can reflect on that character's family background. Sometimes that's an important element of your story and character development, but not necessarily.

On one occasion when I was stuck for a surname, I literally closed my eyes, opened the phone book, and put my finger on the page. And that was what I used as the character's last name. It was a minor character, so I wasn't trying to convey any type of an image or using the name to give information to the reader.

What type of considerations do you use when naming your characters, especially your hero and heroine? Any special tricks you use to come up with names? Have you ever named a character after a friend or relative (I'm assuming with their permission)? Do you keep a list of names you've used so you don't repeat?


Gail Roarke said...

I've used baby naming books on occasion, when I'm looking for inspiration. I'll look for a name with an interesting meaning, or sometimes just something with an unusual sound. I don't always need a name to start; sometimes I use placeholders--often the name of an actor or actress I'm using as a mental model--until the right name comes to me.

Samantha Gentry said...

Gail: I've tried using place holders. It's a good idea and should work, but for some reason it doesn't work for me. I still find myself hung up and unable to move forward until I resolve the name problem. :)

Word Actress said...

I LOVE names in general and I especially love naming my characters. I used to be a singer so I think I hear the resonance of names in my head. I keep a fragment file into which I put any interesting names I pick up along the way. Great resources for me include wedding and birth announcements, especially the wedding announcements in the NY Times Sunday edition. That's a great resource. I even wrote a poem called 'The Making of Names'. I always name my characters before I start a story. Then I scan through magazines to pick out pictures of the character as I see him or her. I paste these pictures to my storyboard, keeping them front and center as I write the story. In my current novel Night Surfing, the main character's name is Sosie Bend and she has a blog called Love, Sosie. I truly feel like I know and love this girl. I've recently written a back cover blurb for Night Surfing. All my writer friends say they have a great feel for the story based on the character's names. Sosie's deceased parents are Tripp and Kitty Bend and Jagger is the smart, funny surfer who emerges from the sea, always at night, making her feel like she is happily walking into the rest of her life.
Thanks for the post. I can't wait to get up and write tomorrow...Mary Kennedy Eastham, Author, The Shadow of a Dog I Can't Forget and the upcoming novel, Night Surfing.

Eliza March said...

I agree the names should reflect the characters. In my most recent book I got carried away with the letter 'D' -- I'm in a dilemna because I think they're too confusing. Now I have to find names to fit the characters -- ones that don't all begin with the same letter, don't sound too similar, and yet represent their true nature. Oh the challenges of creative thinking. :-) Eliza M.

Samantha Gentry said...

Mary "Word Actress": Thanks for sharing your character naming routine. That's a great idea about wedding and birth announcements as a source of names, especially using a newspaper with such a huge circulation as the NY Times.

Samantha Gentry said...

Eliza: LOL ... yep, some days creative thinking is a bigger challenge than other days.

Not having several similar names is one of the things I'm very conscious of when selecting names for characters. It's not only the way they look on the page (i.e., Jim and Tim), but there's also the way they sound in the reader's head -- names that don't have similar spellings but do have similar sounds (i.e., Karen and Sharon don't look anything alike, but they do sound similar, same as Sharon and Cheryl).

Mary Ricksen said...

Isn't there always a few names that you like. I mean even when you were young and dreamed of the gallant guy and the white horse. I'll bet we all use that name.
The names are usually pretty manly.
The heroine, hmmm. that name your husband wouldn't let you use. It was pretty, but he didn't get it. So now you use it!

Samantha Gentry said...

Mary: Yes, I think we all have those few names that are special and/or conjure up an image of that special hero. And on the other side of that coin, when I have a heroine who has an ex-husband or ex-fiance, on several occasions I've given that character my ex-husband's name...not anything derogatory and only when he's part of the back story rather than a character who actually appears in the book. :)

Janice said...

I had a highly scientific specialized way to pick out names, I asked my teen daughter and let her pick them out.

I now used the Character naming book by Sherrilyn Kenyon. It great a book and I look up name from different counties and it tells me what the names mean.


Samantha Gentry said...

Janice: I have Sherrilyn's book, too. I like being able to relate names to a specific country. It's one of five naming books I have.

Debra Glass said...

Hero names are much easier for me to come up with than the heroine's name.

Samantha Gentry said...

Debra: I think so, too. I don't know why, but I find them easier than the heroine's name.