What’s in a name?
And now, a dramatic (and only partially fictitious) reenactment:
Random Stranger: Congratulations! When is the baby due?
Me: I’m not pregnant.
Random Stranger: But…you’re reading through a book of baby names…
Me: Yes. I’m a writer. Writers use baby names books to help us name characters.
Random Stranger: Oooh… writers actually do that? Seriously?
We’ve all been there. Well, ok, gents, my guess is you haven’t been asked how far along you are as you flip through a book of baby names at McNally Robinson, but I’m sure that I’m not the only woman who has been asked if she’s pregnant just because she has a book of baby names on her person and I’m sure I’m not the only one who has gotten the wide-eyed-deer-in-the-headlights-oh-god-my-life-is-over stare from a significant other when they come home to see you jotting down names at the kitchen table.
But sometimes it’s totally worth it because baby name books (or websites) allow us to view a wide array of names and cross reference them with their meanings, genders and ethnic backgrounds. This in turn helps writers add another layer of depth to their characters and helps keep the literary landscape from being populated by people who all have the same name. (“Sally? This is Sally. She’s Sally’s daughter. You remember Sally, right Sally?”)
I personally love baby name books and often use them at home while I’m writing. I also love www.babynames.com . They even have a section specifically geared towards writers!
How do you name your characters? Do you use baby name reference materials like books or websites? Do you put a lot of thought into naming characters or do you just pick the first name that comes to mind? Do you have a bunch of names you like written on little pieces of paper and draw them out of a hat at random?
Inquiring minds would like to know.Lindsey Childs
One of the things I think of when choosing character names is time period – i.e., when was the character born? Sometimes I amuse myself by choosing the most stereotypical name possible, like in one story I wrote about a girl who was roughly the same age as me, and who I named Brittany – the most iconic eighties baby name I could think of.
Great topic for discussion Lindsey! Naming characters can be as daunting as naming children–take it from someone who has had two of her children change their names legally! I take some satisfaction in knowing that characters can’t do that!
I find that most of my characters come fully formed and fully named. From the moment I first visualized her and she started talking to me the main character in my novel was named Liv. People have asked me if I chose the name because it is different or somewhat exotic. The simple answer is “No, Liv is Liv, when she arrived she arrived name intact.” However, I did have to spend a great deal of time on the net researching her pre-marital (I hate the term “maiden”) name . Although it only gets a couple mentions throughout the entire story I combed over lists of “Norwegian Surnames” from the last census in Norway until I stumbled across “Stordahl”–and there it was, it literally jumped off the page.
I have had characters in short stories who, much like Daphne du Maurier’s “Mrs. de Winter” in “Rebecca,” have remained nameless throughout. I think when that happens their story is what is important so somehow their name never comes up.
Good call, Hilary. Historical accuracy is also very important. I tend to (lately) write things set in the 1740′s, so I have to make sure that I don’t choose names that are too modern.
Also, Mela, I totally get where you’re coming from. Sometimes characters just show up and they say “Hi. I’m blah blah blah. Write my story, please!”
It’s so much easier when they name themselves. I often find supporting characters are the hardest to name.