What’s In a Name? Everything!

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When I create a character, I love mapping out personality quirks, physical appearance, and flaws, but my absolute favorite thing to do is pick a name.  A lot of thought and planning goes into a picking a name because there is so much riding on the fact that it has to “work” on so many levels.  The name of a character can make or break a reader’s opinion right from the first page. I know this from my own experience as a finicky reader who will put a book back on the shelf if I don’t like the main character’s name.

When I set out to write my first and second novels, I spent a ridiculous amount of time deciding on names for my characters.  The process goes much deeper than picking a name I like or settling on something that’s easy to type.  All names have meaning, so its imperative to find one that matches the character’s personality and relates to the his or her ultimate journey in the story.

My favorite place to go hunting is in the pages of a baby name book.  I own a few of them, despite the fact that I’ve never had a baby other than the fictional “babies” I create.  Meanings of names can vary based on etymology and spelling, so its good to have at least three baby name books from different sources floating around.  Baby name books not only tell the meaning of a name, but also the ethnic background of the name, which was very handy when I was looking for Greek names for my second novel.

After countless hours of paging through baby name books, making brainstorm lists, and matching meanings to the cores of each character, I’ve managed to create a cast of aptly named characters for each of my novels.  I thought I’d share some of those names and why I chose them.

Novel #1

Noah – peacemaker. The main character is very passive (his fatal flaw), which leads to a lot of internal strife.  The name of Noah suits him because the story starts with him doing what makes everyone else happy in order to keep the peace, yet he remains at war with himself.  I like the irony of that, especially as he grows toward a different path. His journey is one towards placating the conflict between what everyone tells him to do and what he knows is right for himself.

Quinn – planner, enclosed dwelling. The secondary main character is a crotchety old man who has spent most of his life regretting his mistakes, hence the metaphorical connection of an enclosed dwelling. He is a loner by choice, until he meets Noah for which he plans the ultimate life lesson.

Novel #2

Amanda – to love, fit to be loved.   I was busy creating a profile for the main character when her name popped into my head.  When I looked it up and saw the meaning, I knew the name Amanda came straight from my muse. Amanda is a young girl who is very alone and struggling with the absence of her father and her mother’s debilitating illness.  She isn’t a whiner, but rather a fighter who needs someone who won’t turn their back on her when things get tough. Her journey of finding strength she didn’t know she had and understanding what it means to love and be loved unconditionally ties beautifully into the meaning behind her name.

Ian – believer. The second main character put up a little more of a fight than his counterpart.  Due to his true identity  (which I cannot divulge), I needed a name that could easily be converted into a name of Greek origin.  The name Ian stood out for its meaning as this character is the ultimate “believer” in humanity as a whole, (and Amanda, in particular).  However, it also morphs to the Greek name of Iason in a way that won’t confuse the reader later on.  His journey starts with believing his life is predestined towards a certain path, but ends with believing his ultimate dream is closer than he thinks.

The art of naming varies from writer to writer, but we all have the same goal of creating believable characters.  Perhaps, I think a little too hard about how to name my characters, but its a big part of how I connect to them.  The harder I work to find the right name for them, the deeper I have to look into their souls.  In doing so, I learn how to tell their stories.

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c.b.w. 2012

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44 thoughts on “What’s In a Name? Everything!

  1. Aren’t baby name books wonderful? I actually just snared a couple more when I was sorting through some used books friends gave me to donate to a book sale. :)

    For the next book in my series, I needed Scottish names for the children of one of my characters, so I looked on-line. I found a website that features Scottish names for boys and girls which was just perfect because it also had the meanings of the names that I could match up with the characters. [See, you're not the only one! :) ]

    Your characters sound very intriguing. I love how Amanda’s name came to you and fit perfectly with the character you had in mind. How serendipitous! I can’t wait to meet them, so good luck finishing your book! :)

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    • I picked up a fantastic baby name book at a used book sale earlier this year. It has some really interesting names that don’t show up in the newer editions. :-)

      Ooooo, Scottish names are so much fun! I can’t wait to see what you picked. :-)

      The more I write my second novel, the more I feel it was meant to be. Everything is falling into place!

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  2. Fascinating. I get hung up on names but mostly because I tend to relate most names to a person and so I don’t want to do that. Names do mean a lot in writing and in life. I wonder about the future with some of these poor kids getting “creative” names. Easy to type would be helpful though. lol

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    • I run into so many names due to my profession, so I’m able to create some distance between myself and names. After a few years of 200+ students, it easy to get desensitized! I’ve had a few interesting names come across my desk and I too wonder what parents will do to the next generation.

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  3. I’ve heard that before, that baby name books are handy for just this type of thing for a writer. Interesting that you put so much thought into your characters. Though I shouldn’t be surprised as that each of your characters also has a sound track. You so thoroughly know them! Many authors don’t.

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  4. Ooo. I agree with you on character names. I avoid books with names that have terribly odd spellings or are difficult to pronounce.

    Have you ever tried a random name generator? There are several available if you Google that, but my favorite is this one: http://www.kleimo.com/random/name.cfm – because it allows the user to set the obscurity factor high or low. It’s as much of a hoot to play around with as the random sentence generator. LOL

    If you’re into specific origins, you might like this one:

    http://www.behindthename.com/random/

    Great post! :)

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  5. As I write characters I let them become themselves. It feels as though I have very little say in their words or actions beyond knowing how the story is going to go overall.

    I’m just going to hit you with a list of names from my first two novels. I wonder what you will draw from the names.

    From ‘Lupa’ (about to be published): Jelena Stepanovic, Franjo, Vittorio, Massimo, Signor Ciani, Eunice, Patricius, Moloch…

    From ‘The Everywhen Angels’ (currently under consideration by a publisher): Angela, Christine Cook, Kesha Patel, Charlie Seacole, Ashe Sobiecki, King and Kathleen Shaw, Dulice Seacole, Elder Phillips, Tinker, Baal, Yamm, General Poniatowski, Hulagu Khan…

    There’s a reason why I ask, though I probably won’t explain it.

    M

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    • Ooooo, the names you’ve chosen are so interesting. I’m getting an Eastern European vibe from those names in the first batch. Stiff upper lip, tough, yet sensitive people who hold everything inside.

      I love the title of the second and you’ve got another very interesting selection of names. I think I may have to look up a few of those! :-)

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  6. Great Post! I love character names. I love names that roll off the tongue. And while I’ve never put down a book because I didn’t like a character’s name or a name was hard to pronounce, I pay an inordinate amount of time making sure my names fit my characters.

    Thanks for this fun reminder on how names are a part of a character’s over-all personality.

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    • Sometimes I am a bit too finicky as a reader, but I’ve gotten more tolerant as time goes by. ;-)

      I’ve always been amazed by how some people truly embody their names and other’s don’t. One of these days, I’ll have to write a character with name that doesn’t fit him just to see what happens.

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  7. I love the process of choosing names when I’m writing, too. I still have a baby names book from when my own children were born – and, incidentally, I spent months choosing their names. I wanted classic yet unique names with good meanings and historical connections. I have often jokingly told my husband that I would like to have more children just so that I could use up the rest of the interesting names I found! ;)

    I love behindthename.com. It’s a very handy website. Also etymonline.com if you’re interested in the history of English language words.

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  8. I remember in my Creative Writing class that we were told that choosing an uncommon name doesn’t necessarily make a character more interesting because people can identify better with every day names which relates to every day people and a believable story. I’ve always kept that in mind when I write, but can’t say as thought I followed that theory.
    I’ve had success in using the name Fozzie (shortened from the name Fazoli)- for a tough Italian, New York born, FBI agent. Approved by the same teacher who said it was daring considering everyone would picture a joke telling bear.
    I did go to the baby name book most recently as well as an aide, but then started serching more ethnically and chose the name Emerson Collins for the my new female lead character. I thought how it would sound shortened. Would other characters call her Emmy or Em and how that would change how people view her.
    And it’s always fun waiting to see if people can figure out why you picked certain names!

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  9. settleandchase

    Very interesting – I do admire writers – I struggle to even come up with a name for a song or a band, let alone having to come up with not only their name but an entire history and character, and then a story to go with it!!! Amazing skill you have!

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  10. Character names are as important for the writer as they are for the reader. WE have to connect with our characters just as much, no? In order to bring them to their complete selves. Thank you for your explanation of process – we forget sometimes how much goes into this craft.

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