Monday, July 18, 2011

That Which We Call a Rose...

Names. Who is that character? You know...the tall one with the big nose and says things that make you laugh out loud. What's his name? is that the right name? Names. They'll get you every time.

I name my characters first, then I flesh them out. I discovered years ago that if the name is wrong, nothing else falls into place no matter how hard I try. If the name is right, I can hear the character's voice. The wrong name is like putting a rubber nose on the Mona Lisa. Amusing, yes; but ultimately not so good an idea.

I have changed characters' names as I've slogged through the editing process - usually because I've discovered that I've named characters with remarkably similar names or have six characters with names starting with the same letter. The advantage of naming at that point is that I know the character intimately as opposed to naming him/her at the beginning of the process when I have nothing more than a passing acquaintance.

There is also the situation of beginning your first draft with sweet Polly who makes tea and reads Jane Austen under her blanket every night who by the end of the draft has revealed her true Machiavellian nature and her propensity for high-stakes card games.

Do you change her name to give a hint of her true nature? Some writers will, some won't. Personally, I won't.

I admit I am somewhat sensitive about names - having spent a lifetime (and I'm really not exaggerating) explaining to people how to pronounce my own. There was an email that has made several rounds demonstrating that most people only read the beginning and end of a word and that the middle could be gobbledegook. This explains why I have answered to "Elizabeth" all my life. Nothing wrong with the name, it's just not mine. Mine is the Scottish version (which is interesting because I'm not Scottish).

Sorry, I seem to have digressed...

When do you name your characters?


  1. OK - going to try this - so far so good but I've been burnt (see today's post)
    Naming is the MOST important thing I do. Without a doubt. It takes me ages. Why I've had kittens wait until their mothers to be named. I'm like you - name them and then see. Main characters rarely get changed but I realized that I named someone in one book the SAME as another. Yikes. Then I had to change the first book (which is in a drawer so not a big deal) because the second one had to have that name for a variety of reasons. Sometimes I don't know until later why they have to have the name they do. And I get WAY cranky when beta readers comment on the names. None of their buisness I say. ha.
    Jan Morrison

  2. A character get names when they tell me what it is. Not long ago I met my character -- learned his whole life story and how he would fit into my story -- and he had no name. He was XXX in the ms. Finally, one day the name was there as I typed.
    I can only imagine what people do to your name because with all these *unique* spellings of names they screw mine up. Really Mary? What could be simpler? :(

  3. Elspeth - Names are so important! As a matter of fact, I start my stories with the victim, since I write mysteries. I usually start with something very vague and general about her or him (e.g. a man who gets pushed off a balcony). Then the name comes to me. Then that character takes shape. I usually don't flesh out my character until I know her or his name.

    Of course, the problem comes in when several of my characters have similar-enough names that they have to be changed. That changes the character and I don't like to do that. After all, it's not my fault, is it, if people have similar names. That's what their names are! Right? Right?

  4. Sometimes I don't name my characters until far into the book (when I get to know them better). I'll call them XXX or AAA or something. :)

  5. I do EXACTLY what you do. That in itself is a little freaky. Another freaky thing is that I spent most of last week naming all the characters that I know will be in my next manuscript. I'm happy with all of them. Now I only hope none of them were messing with me and giving me an alias.

  6. I try to name them as I go, but if I'm stuck, I use a placeholder. I also swear by my name spreadsheet so I don't end up with too many sound-alike names.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  7. Jan; The comment posted! HUZZAH! Thanks for sharing the story about the nameless kittens because mom was still unnamed. I feel better.

    Mary; I stopped being amazed at people mispronouncing, misspelling names years ago. It is to wonder, isn't it?

    Margot; I know *exactly* what you mean! I hate having to change characters' names, but I've done it.

    Elizabeth; I've certainly done that for one-off characters, but never anyone who keeps showing up.

    Carol; Obviously we're both geniuses! I'd almost guarantee someone is masking their real name - almost.

    Terry; Your name spreadsheet sounds like a magnificent idea.

  8. I can use a placeholder for a little while (usually something like NAME or PRINCE), but it starts to get on my nerves, so I usually make time to do some name research (if necessary) or brainstorming to get that character named in short order.

    I have a book I set aside in frustration back in the fall and I have been thinking lately that one of the characters is 1) too much like my ex and 2) got the wrong name. Something that tipped me off to the second point was rereading some old writing of mine and finding I'd used the name before for a character who was not likeable, and he's supposed to a good guy/possible boyfriend in my book. So I will have rename him, I guess.

  9. kit; See if the renaming helps; it just might.

  10. Naming a character is an absolute must before I can write a single word about them.

    I can change Elvira to Olivia afterwards; no problem there, but the new name has to have a similar feel to it - Elvira cannot turn into a Mildred or a Rhapsody, for example, she is just not like that.

    In cosy mysteries I like having a theme for the family names, e.g. Yorkshire villages (they have the most brilliant place names there). And once I have this common theme, it is pretty easy to figure out who is an Askwith and who is a Giggleswick.

  11. Dorte; Yorkshire villages for may have just thrown me a lifebelt. Thanks!

  12. Do tell me if you use the idea - it would be fun to hear which villages you pick :D


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