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Thursday, October 02, 2008


Choosing character names

Another interesting question from Amaryllis, who I'd like to stick around forever and keep asking questions...

I've alway been interested in names, personal and geographical-- derivations, meanings, associations. To take an example not at random, "Lola" made me think both of "Laurel," victorious, and "Dolores," sorowful. How do you name your characters?

I don't have any fixed method. Sometimes names just occur to me, sometimes I have to cycle through a large variety. The main thing I'd say is that I go by what feels right, in ways that I can usually rationalise afterwards - but the logic comes after the choice.

'Lola', for instance, occurred to me partly because I'd been reading a book with a heroine who seemed to have some similar traits to how I pictured my Lola, but it also just seemed to work. It had a certain softness to it that, to my mind, suggested vulnerability, while at the same time, the Ls slipping all over the place had a certain earthy untidiness that sounded appropriately rough; words like 'lopped' and 'lopsided' come to mind. It was sexual without being refined, unusual without being weird. With that character, her family address her by her middle name, May, which I chose largely because it was a stark contrast: innocent-sounding, with overtones of youth or naivete that contrasted with her image of herself outside her family context. The names just occurred to me and felt right.

On the other hand, naming her boyfriend took ages. I spent an entire evening going through the phone book considering first names before finally settling on 'Paul'. It didn't seem a dramatic enough name to justify the search, but then again, it seemed to work: ordinary enough to be reassuring but not common enough to be bland; soft on the ears without being sissy. Once I'd started, it stuck.

The phone book is a useful resource for surnames if you're aiming for a contemporary setting. With Bareback, for instance, I picked out two possible surnames for my heroine, Galley and Keir; the latter I ended up giving to her sister, while 'Galley' seemed exactly right for my mixed-up lass: harsh-sounding to contrast with her soft forename, with overtones of 'gallows' and 'galley slave' (also with printed galleys of books, though that struck me as an amusing irony rather than a reason to use it). Surnames, which can contain actual words, need to be chosen carefully: they convey a lot of suggestion, which you want to make use of without overplaying it.

Ethnicity is something I often try to convey in names as much as in descriptions, because breaking off to describe someone's race too much can feel awkward at best, and at worst tokenistic, as if you assume everyone's white unless explicitly stated. So with some character names, I have to rely on names I'm actually familiar with from other cultures, and try to convey things with that - and sometimes wait and see whether anyone picks it up. The lawyer Adnan Franklin in Bareback, for instance, is intended to be mixed race - Asian forename, European surname - but my heroine's caste-detectors orient more to lycanthropy than to race, so she doesn't bother to mention it, and the name remains the only marker.

Setting affects it a lot. My second novel is set considerably further back in the past, and consequently a lot of names were ruled out. My fiance, bless him, identified a useful resource early on in the process: a guide for people wanting to attend Renaissance fairs. While such fairs sound very strange from my English perspective, and about the last way I'd want to spend a weekend myself, the person who put the website together had evidently done their research, and it chimed with something I already knew: picking first names, I'd be choosing from a very limited list. I could call my heroine Anne, Mary, Margaret, Jane or Katherine, and that was about it; similarly, I could call my hero Henry, Richard, John, Edward, or possibly Robert, Francis or Thomas at a stretch. This simplified my choices somewhat.

The two personalities pushed towards opposite decisions. I went with 'Anne' as appropriately young-sounding; with the exception of 'Jane', which had too many echoes of Lady Jane Grey (was wrong for the character), it was the only name on the list that sounded informal enough to my modern ears to get close to the character. I could have shorted Margaret to Meg, I suppose (any variation of Katherine was unworkable for me, given that my own name is Katharine and it's hard to keep perspective on a character with a name like yours), but that wouldn't have worked: Anne is a somewhat lonely character, expected to fulfil her social role by most people around her and, crucially, by herself as well. A nickname wouldn't work with that; Anne doesn't think of herself in casual terms. Possibly I had some verbal echo of Anne of Green Gables in my head, an orphan who tries to make the best of things, but if so, it wasn't very conscious. Mostly, I liked the name because it was pretty but not weak, timeless-sounding and intimate without being off-hand. It's a name I've always liked anyway, which made it more pleasant to write her perspective.

'Henry' I chose for more or less opposite reasons. Partly, when I thought of the original English kings, the Henrys had the right feel, usurping Henry VII and aggressive Henry VIII in particular. More important, it's a name that can't be shortened. In modern usage, Henry is not exactly obscure - it's not like calling someone Aelfric or Ethelbert - but its pet forms, Harry and Hal, are a long way from their origin, to the point where Harry is now an independent name. (I even have a fine nephew called Harry, and that's the name on his birth certificate; 'Henry' is nowhere in sight.) Given that England, at least, is heaving with Ricks and Eds and Wills, using Richard or Edward or William in its full form would have felt a bit Eddie Haskell, which is entirely wrong for my confrontational protagonist: a name that couldn't be shortened except to a pet form - and I'd expect Henry to resist nicknames, as people making free with his identity discomfits him at the best of times - had the right ring. The most important factor of all was this: Henry's name is foisted on him at the age of five, and sits a little ill with him. A name comfortably familiar, like 'John', wouldn't have worked: I needed a name that felt a bit formal without being so easy to abbreviate that it sounded sissy.

Fundamentally, I wanted my heroine's name to feel close and my hero's to feel distant. All of this is something I'm figuring out post facto; at the time, I was simply going with what felt right.

The surnames were a particularly useful resource: they had a good, consistent feel, familiar-sounding while not, on the whole, being names you generally encounter. Picking them out, I went by a certain logic that I think I'll leave for readers to spot, if they choose - I'll come back to this once the book's out, if anyone wishes, but it would be a bit heavy-handed to point it out at this stage. (My extremely alert editor only noticed it when I mentioned it to her, so hopefully it's not too obtrusive.) In any case, there was an attempt to use names as a kind of background world-building, something that didn't need spelling out but gave the place a flavour.

The book I'm currently writing has more modern names - Rose, Lucy, Sylvia, Louis, Sarah. One of the factors I've considered here is how somebody came by their name in the first place. I have an Arthur, for instance, whose mother chose a prototypically English name, which expresses a certain family dynamic that affects his sense of nationality. My heroine, Rose, is the younger daughter of Sylvia and the younger sister of Lucy: there, I was thinking about the kind of names you might get cropping up in the same family. Sylvia is presented as a charming and basically good person with a big moral blind spot when it comes to her younger daughter; the name, to me, suggested beauty without formality, given its original meaning of 'forest'. It also had overtones of the poem 'Who is Sylvia', which, as well as its connotations of loveliness, had an interestingly questioning beginning: 'Who is Sylvia? / What is she / That all our swains commend her?' Sylvia is viewed with deep ambivalence by her daughter, and that slight air of uncertainty worked well with that. Having the concept of Sylvia, I need to consider how she'd name her daughters. The names she'd choose, I felt, would be pretty ones; there were certain overtones as well. 'Lucy', the name of the elder, means 'light'; as Lucy is the favourite, the light of her mother's life, and Rose feels something of a shadow to Lucy, the meaning sat well; from Rose's perspective, I would imagine she views her own pretty name, fairly or not, as something of a consolation prize, a well-meant gift that doesn't quite make amends: roses don't grow without light. (I don't think I'd say anything that obvious in the book, so I might as well say it here.)

I didn't, though, sit down and think of the meanings before choosing the names. Rather, I shuffled through a selection of names in my head, and when one sounded right, thought for a while about why. Usually it chimed with other facts that were already in my head - that 'Lucy' means light, that there's a poem called 'Who is Sylvia?' - but I heard the chime before I heard the explanation. There's a lot of stuff rattling around inside the average brain, and in my experience, choosing names is often a matter of bouncing one name after another around in there and seeing if anything makes a pleasing noise when struck.

In contradiction to this, I'd say that it's best to be careful in being over-specific when it comes to name meanings. If you want to write a passionate character and you call her Scarlett McFire, you're probably hammering the point, and, worse, you're confining your character to a single property. Scarlett McFire might well be passionate, but if that's the name you have to write out every time you talk about her doing something, it's going to limit your understanding of her and she's likely to come out as having very few personality traits except passion. If you do manage to round her out, the overly-defined name is going to leap out at the readers too, and even if they don't mentally award you their book club's Annual Captain Obvious Cup, they may have difficulty seeing past the name. If that's a route you want to go down, try to be evocative rather than blunt. Calling someone Patience Makepeace is like trying to publish your preliminary notes; think of a surname that has soothing overtones, like Meadowes or Poole, and a first name that's soft on the ear, like Laura or Susan. 'Susan Poole' sounds just as relaxed as 'Patience Makepeace' - and probably more so, since she isn't carrying such a heavy handle around.

Some names occur straight away; others have to be thought of later. There's a character in my current novel that my notes presently refer to as 'Mr Horrible'; I expect his characterisation will round out a bit once I've settled on a name. At the moment, he's mostly a plot concept, and will remain so until I call him something.

I've said elsewhere that I have little patience with names made up purely to sound good: things like ethnicity, language group and psychological probability tend to get subsumed into an author's fondness for pretty sounds. If I was going to make up names, I'd have to do a lot of thinking about a character's culture and what I wanted the names to suggest. It can be done, and it's effective when it works, but it's a whole can-o-worms that should never be opened gratuitously. Cultural background yes, name porn no, is my basic rule.

To sum up, then, I have a few basic rules when it comes to names.

1. Pick a name the character's dear old mum and dad might conceivably choose for their little offspring.
2. Go by what sounds right for the character's cultural background.
3. Be appropriate, but try not to bid for the Captain Obvious Award.
4. Think about how the name sounds, run it through your mind and see if it works.
5. Use the phone book or baby name guides if you get stuck.

Thanks, Kit!

Especially since I see from the link that you've already written once about names and naming, before I took to dropping in on you.

Is 'Mr. Horrible' a descendant of Robert Horriblebastard, perhaps? ;) 'Galley' made me think of ships, persevering through stormy seas.

And now I really want to meet Anne and Henry.

I agree with you in general about avoiding the meaningful-name trap, although it can be well done in its place. Where, after all, would we be without Mrs. Proudie, Mr. Quiverful, Dr. Fillgrave? Though I suppose that "its place" seems to be restricted to minor or comic characters.

Joan Aiken once invented a 'Dutiful Penitence Casket.' 'Croopus', Dido murmured, and by the end of the book had helped the overburdened Dutiful Penitence to evolve into the braver, happier 'Pen.' That would, of course, be Dido Twite -- another of my favorite fictional names.

I went to a Renaissance Fair once. Too disorienting, seeing the ruffs and farthingales mixing on equal terms with the tee-shirts and shorts. "Reenacting" of all sorts seems to be very popular over here; you get your Revolutionary War reenactors, your Civil War reenactors, your medieval shire-folk, your Roman legions -- sometimes all on the same fairgrounds! I've never seen the appeal myself, but I'm not much of an actor of any type, so I'm not going to join in. It's okay for popular entertainment, but my husband has become a fan of The History Channel, where it's all reenacting, all the time, which kind of annoys me. Just tell me what happened, you don't have to act it out for me. If you need visuals, show me locations, documents, maps, artifacts, even talking scholarly heads. But you don't need people dressed up in costumes, creeping around pretending to be Cromwell's army or whoever. If you want to act, act fiction. Act real drama.

Sheesh-- how'd I get onto that? You shouldn't encourage me to talk so much here.

So anyway, thanks again.
I keep a book of baby names by my bed for character naming (got me some worried looks from my boyfriend first time he came round). Usually a protagonist's name will spring to mind immediately, but secondary characters tend not to, so I flick through until something jumps out at me.
If you *REALLY* want to overthink your names, check out "Albion's Seed", which is an awesome history of the colonization of America.

The most (for me) fascinating part was the breakdown of names by year and region, with possible reasons as to why. I might want to pursue such a thing as a field of study...
I love making up names. It may be my favorite part of writing fiction. And I'm going to have to have hundreds of kids to use all the names I've picked out for my hypothetical children over the years. Those names tend to be much more conservative than the character names, though. For instance, I'm reluctant to call a character "Anne" myself, because I like it too much and its safe to inflict on a real person. I'd prefer to save it, just in case. I too own books of names, but I read them just for fun. But this site is even more fun.

As for RenFaires... I love them too, not in spite of their absuridty, but because of it. I love ridiculous costumes, jugglers, jousts, neato hand-made crafts and jewelry, sketch comedy and bawdy songs, elephant and camel rides, retro carnival games, and cinnamon roasted almonds.

And you can't tell me "re-enacting" is purely an American thing. I studied abroad at Durham University for a year. A number of my friends there were members of a live action role playing group, complete with fake swords and fake armor. Whereas another friend was a member of a Viking re-enactment league, and they took their re-enacting very seriously indeed. Hand stitched costumes featuring period appropriate materials only, drinking horns made of real horn. They got invited to be extras in ads and such sometimes, since they could provide their own costumes.

When you said "Henry" had no common nicknames, I thought of Hank, but I suppose that *is* American. Still, isn't there a prince Henry these days who's rarely called by that name?
That's an interesting-looking site - though I'm not sure my mouse skills are quite up to navigating it!

And you can't tell me "re-enacting" is purely an American thing.

Um... I didn't. I was under the impression that role-play, historical re-enactment and Renaissance fairs are three different activities, though possibly done by the same sorts of people. I suppose it sounded particularly odd to me as an American activity, given that during the Renaissance America was just starting to be settled by Europeans and certainly wasn't much with the jugglers, while I had the sense that British historical re-enactments tend to be done by people enacting the history of their own country. But then, my experience is largely limited to seeing people in costume milling around whatever castle I happened to be visiting, so I may just be missing the existence of less location-based re-enacters.

Having worked in a gift shop in a touristy area of London, I have a rather jaded sense of American attitudes to other cultures - there's a certain theme-park air that wore down my patience - so I may just be generalising a cultural prickle because I got sick of people demanding something 'typically English' and then refusing to take an actual English person's word about what that involved; I have some bad experience with American kitschification of my own culture, which makes my hackles rise at little at the idea of a Renaissance fair ... But I may also be mixing up a sense of national oddity with the general sense of oddity everyone gets when other people are into doing something that doesn't sound like much fun to them.

I thought of Hank, but I suppose that *is* American.

Pretty thoroughly, I think - at least, I've lived in England thirty-one years and never met a Hank. It sounds so American I'd actually hesitate to call a baby Hank, purely because I'd expect him to get bored with people asking if his parents were American. It's quite American-sounding - American accents tend to be more nasal and English more throaty, so 'Hank' feels much weirder in my mouth than 'Hal', for instance.

Still, isn't there a prince Henry these days who's rarely called by that name?

Prince Harry, third in line to the throne, I believe. Both sons have traditional royal names, William and Henry. According to Wikipedia, William was addressed as Wills, which again is symptomatic of the fact that male names in England are seldom left alone, particularly by other men. There's a great drive towards shorter versions. My fiance's name is Gareth, for example, but his university friends simply refused to address him as that and call him Gary.

I don't think this is unique to the modern era - I recall a letter from Queen Elizabeth I to Robert Dudley that address him as 'Rob', for example - but given that I was writing for modern readers, the modern naming conventions were going to get in the way. 'Rob' sounds very modern, to my ears at least; it's hard to picture a past-times character with the same name as someone you've got drunk with at college. 'Henry' and 'Anne' are both names you might meet, but they're not so common that they have a particularly modern air.

Language as a whole was something of a compromise: if I'd gone too much in the direction of period language (even if I'd been able to master it, which is an open question), it would have been more difficult for modern readers to identify with what the characters were saying - or even, at an extreme, to understand it. But on the other hand, I didn't want them speaking too much like moderns either. So I compromised on a fairly plain style of speech, in the same way that I went for two names that are less often shortened in modern speech than most of the alternatives. It was a question of charting a middle course.

Setting something in the past, on the whole, requires a degree of illusion: you want to make it feel past-y - but to get that effect, you have to falsify to some extent, because nobody feels like they're in the past while they're actually there. The past probably felt surprisingly modern. But if you create an entirely modern feel, then it feels inauthentic in a different way. It's a matter of judging what you can get away with, really.
P.S. Another fan of Dutiful Penitence Casket {grin} and her Aunt Tribulation here....
My "you can't tell me" was the impersonal rhetorical sort of "you," not an attempt to pick an argument, and I'm sorry if it sounded otherwise.

You can type in the box at the top of the Name Voyager site. Typing just one letter can be fun; you can see names across decades beginning with "E," for instance. You can also get variant spellings that way. And you can select male names or female names only.

Regarding language -- it's a shame everyone can't use Connie Willis's Doomsday Book trick. Her heroine hears all of the characters in old English at first, which gives us the flavor, and then her babelfish (or whatever the gimmick is, I can't recall) kicks in, and we get the modern translation. But still without modern slang, naturally.
I have some bad experience with American kitschification of my own culture

Hee. You should see Germans re-enacting the American "Old West."
Amaryllis, Sharyn McCrumb has a fairly entertaining mystery, Highland Laddie Gone, that's about a sort of American "gathering of the clans" event. The tartan seller does land-office business assuring buyers that here, indeed, is precisely the correct tartan for Clan Bloomberg or Clan Wang, and the only actual Scotsman, from actual Scotland, is running around in khaki shorts and a "Save the Whales" t-shirt, being a polite guest to the friends who dragged him to the event, telling everyone that no, he's never met an actual Silkie, and becoming increasingly convinced that there is something in the water that makes all Americans act crazy. There is (of course) a murder, and the sheriff arrives fresh from a Civil War re-enactment, in full Confederate uniform. This does not reassure the only actual Scotsman about the water content.

Kit, what about generational patterns in names? In the U.S., you can often tell within a decade or so when someone was born by his/her name. "Sadie" belongs to the early 20th century at the latest, and you'll find few Maurices or Murrays nowadays--they're all very old. The Heathers and Tiffanys are all in their thirties and forties, and, with a few outliers, Lindas were born in the late 1940s and 1950s. Do British names tend to follow these waves, where certain names all but take over for a few years, then drop out of sight? (There are some perennially popular ones, of course.)
Another book for those who like murder mysteries featuring daffy re-enactors: Revenge of the Wrought-Iron Flamingos by Donna Andrews. The setting is an American Revolution-themed craft fair.
You people! You all have the same (brilliant?) thoughts as mine, and you post them first!

Naomi, I frightened a librarian once by checking out a tall stack of baby naming books at the age of 12 or so. I loved naming characters and was always disappointed when minor characters fell too far from the main plot to be included, as I'd already given them names and backstories and homelives and families and favorite foods and such.
And hapax, the German fascination with cowboys and Indians was the first thing I though of, too. My knowlege thereof is mostly second and thirdhand, through German friends' parents, but it sounds at least as goofy as anything we get up to at Renn Faires.
Oooh, dash, that book sounds fun. Reenactors-gone-wild has a certain appeal. There is certainly a broad spectrum of those types of activities, from the the reenactments of particular events/recreations of places (e.g. Civil War or Revolutionary battles, Old Town Wherever festivals, living-history museums, etc.) to re-creations of specific groups, to the SCA hybridization of role-playing, made-up governments, and different time periods with rigorous scholarship...

On a vaguely related topic, can anyone recommend any good fiction books dealing with traditional or reconstructionist religion?
Well, if you must go to Renaissance festivals, at least leave the snakes alone: A couple were bitten by a snake at the Renaissance Festival in Crownsville yesterday, an Anne Arundel County fire official reported. Division Chief Michael Cox said a woman in her 20s picked up the wild snake about 6 p.m. and was taunting her boyfriend with it when both of them were bitten. Baltimore Sun, 10/7/2008

Thanks for the book recommendations. On the non-fiction side, Tony Horwitz's Confederates In The Attic was an interesting look at Southern Civil War reenactors.

Baltimore, of course, is the home of Fort McHenry, famous for being the site where "The Star-Spangled Banner" was written in 1814, during a battle with the British invader (saving your presence, Kit!). There's a program at the fort every year, with reenactors and demonstrations, and cannons firing at imaginary British ships. One year there was a British Navy warship in port on a good will visit of some sort, and they very kindly steamed off to the Fort, fired a few blank rounds at it, and let themselves be chased away. It was widely considered very good-natured of them.

Generational fashions in names: I knew I was getting old when all the "J" babies of the '80s -- Jason, Jennifer, Jessica, Justin, etc, -- were suddenly turning up at work pretending to be all grown up.

What is "reconstructionist religion?"
What is "reconstructionist religion?"

Wikipedia to the rescue: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polytheistic_reconstructionism

The page seems to reference what I meant. Recon practitioners would be distinguished from adherents of "traditional" faiths by the fact that their faith was not continuously practiced. (Of course there's overlap; Forn Sidr in Iceland and other branches of historical faiths have survived conversion, and traditionalists may use evidence from historical or archaelogical records to supplement their knowlege base).

Anyway, Recons are the folks likely to get pissed when someone uses "dead religions" as a throway point, e.g. "Well of course nobody worships Zeus anymore." (This particular tactic is one the many reasons I feel reading "The God Delusion" would be a huge, infuriating waste of my time and effort.)
Re: the British Navy warship

Very good-natured indeed!
Just a fun data-point: I was at an SCA event ("Renaissance re-enactment, essentially) when there was a Civil War group in the next section of the park. Well, of course, they had to "fight" -- the SCA gave a decent account of themselves, largely due to the lack of cannons and Gatling Guns.

A good time was had by all.
lonespark: can anyone recommend any good fiction books dealing with traditional or reconstructionist religion?

Not sure if this is what you're looking for, but Rosemary Edghill's Bell, Book, and Murder is said to be good. I haven't read it yet, so I have just told you all I know. Revenge of the Wrought-Iron Flamingoes is on my shelf, but not yet read, so thank you, Chris Laning, for the encouragement to get to it soon.
Can't remember who did it, but I've always loved the name Hiro Protagonist...
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