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What's in a name?

You want to know what I hate about the process of writing novels?

Coming up with names.

Judging by the number of “Help me name my character!” threads on the NaNoWriMo forums, I’m not the only one.

Seriously. What a chore. That is hands-down my least favorite part. On the one hand names are irrelevant to the story, so inventing them feels like make-work. But while a rose by any other name might smell as sweet, your characters’ names must sound right or you’ll lose the reader.

Well, most of the time they’re irrelevant to the plot. One book I read recently jumps to mind as a great counter-example where the author built a significant reversal about the character into the revelation of what the character’s name means. It’s is enough of a spoiler that I’d ruin the book for you simply by telling you its name, so I won’t.

Setting the occasional counter example aside, usually names are nothing more than labels to hang on the characters so we can keep the players straight. For example, there’s no reason why J.K. Rowling had to give Harry Potter that particular name. She could have called him “Alan Smithson” and made it work just fine, too.

Names do have to sound right, though. That is, they must fit with readers’ preconceived notions about names for people with similar backstories. At the very least they must not clash with the backstory too severely, unless you explain why. For example, absent a good reason for doing so, you wouldn’t give your lovable Irish priest character a name like Boris Solyarin, because that doesn’t sound at all Irish. It sounds Slavic. Or, you wouldn’t give your Femme Fatale a cartoon character name like Jessica Rabbit unless, well, unless she actually is a cartoon character.

I didn’t grow up in Dublin or Belfast, and I didn’t grow up in Toon Town, so for me it’s difficult to think of names that match the backstories of characters who did. Or, frankly, characters with any backstory different from my own broad socio-economic background. Thus, names become tedious research which doesn’t help me advance the story. Goodness knows any book involves enough research just to satisfy the plot; I don’t need name research dumped on me as well!

I end up wanting to name all my characters “Bob” and just be done with it. Of course, I don’t. Here’s what I do:

Don’t sweat it too much

Honestly, if you have as much trouble with character names as I do, the best single piece of advice I can probably give you is just to relax. Once you start stressing over the perfect name for your sexy Brazilian Women’s Volleyball team captain, you’re going to find that everything you think of doesn’t match up to what you want. Everything ends up sounding stupid. But that’s just to you, because you’re the one stressed out about it. Readers are much less likely to think the name sounds stupid so long as the name is plausibly Brazilian, and plausibly female.

Just google for “Brazilian Girls Names” and pick the first thing you find that you don’t absolutely hate. Odds are it will be just fine.

Have fun with it

One thing you can do is pick a name that bears some relationship to the traits of the character in question. This can be fun, because it turns the name into a private joke between you and anyone else who is word-wise enough to get it. For instance, in the novel I’m writing this month, I have a minor character who’s a Russian woman. Her backstory involves having done some very difficult things in her past, things that were necessary. While googling “Russian girls names” I happened upon “Darya,” which at least according to that one website, comes from the Russian word for “strong.” To me, that fits. So that’s what I picked.

Take care, though. It’s easy to go overboard with this. For example, (paging Dan Brown, paging Dan Brown...) naming your red-herring character “Arringarosa,” which literally means “red herring,” is taking things just a bit far. On the other hand, Neal Stephenson made that trick work just fine in Snow Crash with the sublimely named “Hiro Protagonist,” so as always, there’s proof that you can violate any rule of writing so long as it works.

Have faith

If it helps, pick a name as above but make yourself a deal: if you really and truly believe that the perfect name is out there somewhere, just waiting to be found, then give yourself permission to change the character’s name later. Pick something so you can get going, but let it be nothing more than a placeholder until the One True Name comes along. If there is some perfect right name for the character, then you have to have faith that it’ll come to you eventually. When it does, great! Search-and-replace is your friend. But if it doesn’t, then there probably wasn’t, and again your placeholder name is just fine.

Still, a rose is a rose is a rose

The name may be invested with all manner of emotional weight for you, the writer, because you are in the intense emotional throes of writing the book. But for the reader, the name just has to satisfy two simple criteria: it has to readily identify the character, and it has to sound right enough that it doesn’t blow the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief in your story.

Compared to writing a whole novel, that’s not a tall order. So pick a name and move on. You’ve got a story to write!

November 05, 2009 00:20 UTC

Tags: character, names, backstory, J.K. Rowling, Neal Stephenson, Dan Brown, NaNoWriMo

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