Wednesday, August 31, 2011

How do YOU choose names for your characters?

What you are about to read is a true story.


It is a fundamental tenet of a writer's life that one must always be writing new material. When one project is complete, it goes into the proverbial drawer for a few weeks or a month. This is to allow oneself to forget what one has written, so that after a few weeks or a month has passed, one may look at one's work with the objective eye required to evaluate the work in progress.


During this cooling-off period, one must be writing new material.


This also applies during the editing/polishing phase in which a manuscript is perfected prior to publication.


To that end, while I am polishing Book 6 of THE GO-KIDS, I am two chapters into a new science fiction novel (the title of which shall remain secret for the time being).


While making a fourth pass through Chapter 1 of this new novel, I decided to go ahead and name the two male characters featured in the scene. They stand on a street corner in Santa Monica, California, on their way back to the office after their lunch break. One of the men becomes impatient while waiting for the crosswalk computer to indicate when it is safe to cross the street.


I decided this man's name is Rory. Don't ask me why, because I don't know. My only answer is that 'Rory' was the first name which popped into my mind as I sat pondering who this person is. (The other man is Tim, though for the time being we shall focus on Rory.)


I finished proofing the chapter, sifting through the dialogue between Rory and Tim, tweaking the tense here and there as Tim regales Rory with an elaborate tail of a friend-of-a-friend who ate some bad Japanese food and had what turned out to be an expensive accident an hour later.


I then sat pondering the blank chasm that is Chapter 2, thinking, "Shit. Now what?" Then I was saved by the HooteSuite alert. So I defied all conventional writerly wisdom and checked in on HooteSuite, and then Gmail. In my inbox I found I had a new Twitter follower. I clicked on the profile in order to better gauge the merit of this person, lest he or she be a spammer, guru, or porn-vending pseudo-slut boasting nefarious links to dubious, virus-laden material unfit for public consumption.


This is what I found:


Her name is Carmen Mismit. She follows 984, has 4338 followers, but only 3 tweets, the most recent of which is what concerns us. This tweet dates all the way back to April 12, 2011. See for yourself:
CLICK PICTURE TO ENLARGE
You'll notice the highlighted blue tweet says simply: RORY.


I about fell out of my chair.


A mere five minutes or so had elapsed between the moment I named Rory in Chapter 1 and when I saw this tweet from CarmenMismit.


How do YOU explain it?


I explain it as confirmation from God/The Angels/The Universe that Rory is indeed the proper name.


So 'Rory' it is!


When selecting a name for a new character, I will sometimes consult my Writer's Digest Character Naming Sourcebook, the purple edition with the blue spine, which I've had for years and which has served me well. According to said tome, 'Rory' is Gaelic for 'ruddy;' Irish for 'red;' and Teutonic for 'famous ruler.'


Interesting.


Often, a character name simply appears, without consulting any books, as was the case with Rory.


How do YOU choose the names for YOUR characters?

25 comments:

  1. Hi Ryan,

    I found this post interesting because I follow @ CarmenMismit also at this time she has 4956 followers and following 779, but only posted 3 tweets when you find an account so all you can think is that a robot Trara.

    Look for information about her to know who is and come to your site, however, I could not see more.

    Do you know who she is? I do find strange since I live in Venezuela, I'm so basic and simple, just follow me 60.

    regards

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  2. Hi, Gaspar.

    You may be correct; Carmen may be a bot or is simply not very active on Twitter.

    What I found most interesting was her tweet with the name 'RORY' in it, as this was the character name I had chosen quite by random moments earlier. At least, I THOUGHT it was random!

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  3. I use http://babynamesworld.parentsconnect.com/ Except for the annoying ads on the page, I like it because it allows you to search by meaning. While I don't write literary fiction, I do love hidden themes and meanings. After I find a few names that I like, based on the meaning that fits, I generally narrow it down through a gut instinct... something that rolls off the tongue and suits the character.

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  4. I often base my nonhuman character's names on physical attributes if they come from a hunter/gatherer society. I like languages, so my characters can end up with names derived from ancient or modern words. My characters will often name themselves!

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  5. As a person with a very unique name I truly appreciate the power involved with getting a name right. When I wrote my first book I just started working at a school i discovered my new coworker's sons shared the names of two main characters. So I understand how Rory was fate. However for me the fact I work at a school has also left me with the added baggage of being influenced by names coupled with parents or students thinking they inspired a character.It's weird.But if I'm writing and I need a name for a doctor, lawyer, etc I will put in a friend or family member it's a nice homage.

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  6. Thank you, everyone, for commenting. It's very cool to learn about different methods of character creation employed by various writers.

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  7. Hi! When I create a character it always depends on different things. For example: For some characters I do a lot of research to find the right name that suits how they are, or what I'm planning with them in the story. On the other hand, I have the characters that are sons of other characters, so I place myself into their father's minds, and think how would THEY name their child. And there are also some times (little ones though) where I just throw a name, because, like Rory, it's the first one that comes to my mind.
    Btw, it's really amazing what happened with your character name! You SERIOUSLY should keep it.

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  8. Sometimes a name will pop into my head and I just know it's the right name to use, but usually I walk through the local cemetery and put interesting first names together with last names that resound with me depending on the character details or the story. There are some interesting names on headstones from the 1800s.

    Terri L. Powers
    @phaedra4real

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  9. That is a very original and powerful method to find new names. A lot of history there. I'm sure it also inspires a lot of stories in your mind as you read the names and ponder who the people were and where they lived and what they did for a living.

    Thanks for sharing.

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  10. My favorite name game is to watch the end credits of a movie or tv show I found entertaining and jot down random interesting first and last names in separate lists. Then when I need a character name I mix and match till I find a pairing that feels right for that individual and story. I used to have a file folder of those lists. I wonder if I still do and what it might be named.

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    Replies
    1. Really interesting method. I'm going to try that. Thanks for sharing

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    2. Yeah, I like that. Sometimes I'll pair first and last names of characters from a related film or book, and create something new.

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  11. I have two main methods, l sit and struggle with naming a character until I've so fed up I look around and see something (an old receipt, pen, ect), I use an anagram of something related to the character (you'd be surprised how ease this is).

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    1. Yep! haha! Those are both great, too. I did that once for a character in a high fantasy piece. I was writing in MS Word and saw that the font I was using was Calibri. Boom! Name. I then strung together the names of 5 different fonts, giving the character a ridiculous, pompous name that suited him and helped flesh him out in a fun and unexpected way. Thanks for sharing, Colin.

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  12. Sounds like it was a sign. I usually keep a book of unique names I come across in daily life or go to my trusty baby names book or baby name websites. I think about the character and let the first letter of the name 'come to me' and then look through all the meanings and find a few that match the character. I make a list and then pick my fav from that list. We all have our own methods it is great to hear from others how they do it. Thanks for the conversation!

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  13. Yes, names often come from out of nowhere. Which sure was the case with Rory!

    I also like to use names which reflect the character in some way. A twist on an adjective or a verb, for example.

    Thanks for sharing!

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  14. Great article. Thanks to all who shared other resources!

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  15. I simply ask the character and he/she tells me his/her name. The women can be very bashful though. I frequently have to ask more than once.

    And sometimes they lie. But that's just who they are.

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  16. I base my characters on people I know in real life, whether I have a close relationship with them or have met them just once. I then picture the person in my head, and give them a name that I feel suits the face. :)

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    1. Has anyone ever asked you if a character you'd written was based on them?

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    2. If it's a period piece, it can be helpful to do the research to determine if a proposed name was in fact in common usage in that time/place.

      For a villain's name, I Google it to ensure that it is not also the name of a real (and presumably virtuous) person.

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    3. Yes, good idea to confirm period names. No "Brittneys" in HOUSE OF MIRTH.

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  17. Rory was meant to be your character's name, no doubt about it. I try to let the right name for a new character pop in my head, too, but often the same names pop up for many characters. So I watch the scroll of names after a TV show or movie. Lots of good (and different) names there.

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    1. Yes, I also like to look at the names in credits for films and TV shows. Usually, they just seem to come from the ether.

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