Monday, February 15, 2010

How I Write: Character Names

Tip of the Day: Check out the blog How to Write Badly Well for hilarious examples of how not to write.

This week on Author2Author we're gonna have some fun! We're talking about one of my favorite parts of fiction writing: coming up with character names. Because I recycle the names my husband wouldn't let me use on our kids. (No, not really. OK, sometimes.)

I love names. I love looking through baby name books and freaking out my husband. In my public library, there's a big volume of last name meanings that doesn't circulate, and I've sat at a table and looked through that. I like my character names to tell you as much as possible.

Because we don't get to pick our own names. Our parents do. So I like my character names to tell you about their families. A last name can communicate ethnic heritage, or for a funny character, it can be incredibly awkward. A first name can tell you if the character's family is religious, traditional, daring, or not that considerate of how their children will be teased.

The novel I'm writing now takes place in the future, and one of my characters has the last name Tereshkova. Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in space (a cosmonaut) and I like that little fact buried in my story, even if I'm the only one who sees it.

I usually pick my character's first name off the top of my head before I start writing. But once I get serious, I google popular last names for specific ethnicities, or I look through the phone book. I'd like the last name to mean something, but sometimes I just like the last name: it "fits." Then I rethink the first name. If I've realized more about the character's family by then, I change it. A Brittany became a Hannah after I realized her parents would pick a biblical name, for example. I change my first names a lot. Sometimes I wish I could change them more, but I have at least one where it feels too late. The name doesn't totally fit him, but he's been Josh for so long I can't think of him as anything else.

And of course, I google the first and last name together. Nobody wants to find out their main character's name is the same as an infamous mob hitman ... unless that was your intention, I guess.

Do I put too much thought into this? But it's fun! I love this part.

How do you pick your characters' names?

-- Kate, Miss Perfecting the Pages


Andrea L. Mack said...

Great post, Kate. I look through baby books too. And I have fun with the name generator tool at Critique Critique circle. But the character's name is incredibly important to me and has to feel right before I begin writing. Not to say I can't change it, but it's hard to.

Andrea L. Mack said...

Okay, that was Critique Circle. That's what I get for writing comments before I've had my orange juice.

Christina Farley said...

You are right! Names are huge. I had a laugh about your recycled names.

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