A reader of Writing Magic, who is also an English teacher and clearly a fellow writer, has sent me a letter in which she puzzles over two topics, the first about names. At the end of her questions she wonders if she should just “get over” herself and recognize that names don’t matter much.
Without revealing your name, Thanks! I’ll respond to your second question next week. To everyone else, I’m always looking for blog topics, so I’ll be grateful if you put them in your comments.
To my letter-writer, please don’t get over yourself! Names do matter. Picking them shouldn’t be a random act. Naturally, tastes vary. I don’t like names that are obvious, the way they are in Pilgrim’s Progress, for example, with characters named Obstinate, Pliable, Goodwill, and so on. I even dislike semi-obvious names. I named a selfish fairy Vidia, rather than Invidia, as had been suggested to me. To my ear, Vidia sounds exactly right, a mean name, but Invidia lacks subtlety, and it’s too long (see below).
I’ll never name a character Stormy because she’s moody. But I may name her Stormy if her sisters are Rain, and Skye. Then, if I’m going in a certain direction, I’ll name their parents Bob and Jane; in a different direction, Yearning and Insight. (Is Yearning the father and Insight the mother? Or vice versa?) Names are fun!
One way to get a name that has meaning without being obvious is to think what the character you’re naming is like. Suppose your character happens actually to be moody. Look up moody in the thesaurus and stare intently at the synonyms. Do you see anything that calls a name to mind? Melancholy – Melanie for a girl, Mel for a boy. Petulant – Petula. Also, I have no problem with neologistic names. (Kids, maybe you’d like to look neologistic up or see if your parents know it.) The synonym irascible (irritable) can become Rassie for a girl, Rass for a boy. It doesn’t trouble me if I’m the only one who gets it.
Nicknames can also take you where you want to go. That moody personality again – his name may be Michael, but his friends call him Mope, which may make him mopier.
I prefer names of one or two syllables, three the limit, unless I’m being funny, and then the more the funnier. Or unless there’s some other purpose for the long name. Even when I’m not going for humor, a character can have eight middle names, but the name for everyday use will be relatively short, and that goes for fantasy and science fiction. I hate names that I can recognize on the page, like Xlmaeiothipnm, but not pronounce.
Sometimes readers, even adults, get confused when two names are very similar. If the main character’s boyfriend is Brad and her brother is Bart, the reader may have to work unnecessarily hard to remember who is which. If you’re writing for children who’ve just learned to read, the experts suggest that all the character names start with a different letter.
Names should work for your story or book’s genre. If you’re writing historical fiction, you probably don’t want to name a girl Brianne or Aspen or a boy Denver or Brooklyn (all popular 2009 names, according to an online source). If you’re writing fantasy, the names Phil and Susan may seem out of place, unless they’re visiting from our world.
I have nothing against using the names of people I know. By chance, I happen to know three Mollys, but I won’t hesitate before naming a character Molly. However, if my friend has an unusual name, I may hesitate, and I may ask the person’s permission, especially if the character is going to torture squirrels. I did name a character after a relative who has an usual name. This relative gave me permission, and the character is not only good, but also my favorite in several books, and yet my relative has not been entirely pleased. So you never know.
Also, pay attention to the names of the people you meet. Write down the good ones (probably not right at that moment!), so you won’t forget.
Sometimes having a naming theme helps narrow down your choices. The book I’m working on now began by being based on Perrault’s version of “Puss ‘N Boots,” although it’s moved away from that. Perrault was French, so I decided that all my names should be pronounceable in French. I know un peu French, so some of the names are Anglicized versions of actual French words. A few readers will catch on, but most won’t, and I don’t care. I get a chuckle out of it.
Which is the point. You get to pick. You are the final authority. Make yourself happy. Even if you don’t use a name you like, save it. It may come in handy in another story.