Flashback: Naming Characters

When you see “Flashback” in front of an article, it means it is an article that originally appeared on Word Museum in the beginning before it was sold and then regained by Lori. We have reposted these articles, because we feel they add great value to the site. Where possible we include the date of the original article.

by: Dawn Lesley Stewart
Date: May 19, 2001

Article

Your story idea is brilliant, the plot convoluted enough to keep any reader guessing, the setting real enough to visit. So why the hesitation? Ah, the characters lack names and memorable characteristics.

Picking names out of the air isn’t working, so where will you find those elusive names and the personality quirks to bring the characters alive?

NAME THESAURUS Baby name books contain the meanings and origins of names as well as pronunciation and a name’s various forms, such as Anne, Ann, Anna. If you’re like me, though, you enjoy unusual names that lend flavor to a story, particularly if the story is ethnic or “other-worldly” like a science fiction tale. One of my favorite books is “The New Age Baby Name Book” by Sue Browder, which lists over 3,000 names. One example is a girl’s name: Nunki

(NOO:N-kee), which refers to The Archer, a star in the constellation Sagittarius. Remember, just because the book suggests names as first names doesn’t mean they can’t be used as last names or even nicknames.

NUMBERS NAME GAME Perhaps your character has already chosen her name (as some fictional characters tend to do, whether you like the name or not!) and you can’t quite target her personality. “You Are Your First Name” by Ellin Dodge Young is a versatile book that uses numerology to analyze over 1,000 names; and if the name you need is not in the book, the author provides the formula for determining any name’s personality characteristics. It’s easy to develop an entire character from the lists of character traits available for each name.

For instance, the name Jasmine is of Persian/English origin. Upon first meeting, a person named Jasmine appears refined and modest. She is efficient, adaptable and uses good judgment and seems self-confident even when unsure.

Inwardly, Jasmine is strong-willed and desires a loving mate and respectability. These are just a few of Jasmine’s characteristics, and the book even lists possible careers.

THE STARS SPELL YOUR NAME Once when I had trouble fine-tuning a character in a novel, I sought the advice of an astrologer who worked a chart for the character. It’s amazing how many details surfaced that brought the character to life, but you don’t have to rely on an astrologer for personality analysis. Linda Goodman wrote two wonderful books, “Sun Signs” and “Love Signs,” which translate the movement of the stars into a universe of usable material for creating memorable characters.

In the book “Sun Signs,” Linda Goodman not only reveals the characteristics of the zodiac such as Aries, Libra and Virgo, she breaks these signs into groupings. Each astrological sign includes subheadings: How to Recognize Scorpio, The Scorpio Woman, The Scorpio Man, The Scorpio Child, The Scorpio Boss, The Scorpio Employee. These different ways of interpreting each astrological sign offer character nuances the writer might not normally think to include in a story.

“Love Signs,” as the title suggests, pairs all the astrological signs to determine the dynamics of each love match. For instance, what do a Capricorn and a Pisces bring to a relationship? The book confides all the details complete with bits of imagined dialogue between the two lovers. Linda Goodman explains the Capricorn/Pisces relationship and then approaches the relationship from both the male and female viewpoint. Interesting, insightful reading to add depth to character associations.

WALK THOSE FINGERS The telephone book is a vast source of names. Not only does it list first, last and sometimes middle names; it includes street and town names. I have used street names as character names, especially when the story demands an unusual twist to how a character is viewed. The name Greensleeve Johnson is a street name combined with a last name, both from the telephone book. When looking for a career for your character, don’t forget the business section of the telephone directory. Careers galore splatter the pages. Perhaps Greensleeve Johnson is a florist or a professional carpet cleaner. Mix and match proper nouns to create the perfect name combination.

DON’T FORGET THE INTERNET The internet is one of my favorite research tools where helpful information awaits the persistent searcher. My favorite name site is:

http://www.babycenter.com/babyname/index.html

Among the traditional list of girl’s and boy’s names are lists of the most popular names from 1930 to 1990, 1996 and 1997. You can search for specific name origins such as Egyptian, Hawaiian or Teutonic names. To locate names with a specific meaning, enter the definition, for example “morning light,”and a list of candidates appear such as Aaron, which means enlightened or Danica, meaning the morning star. The reverse also works by entering a name, such as Kira, and a list of name meanings will appear-Kira means light. Just in case you still can’t decide which name to use, this site also contains a reference list of naming books; or if you feel in need of a brainstorming session, join the online chat group at this site.

NAME THAT CHARACTER Now that you have the resources you need to select character names, here are few points to consider while pondering the perfect moniker.

Syllables: Don’t use the same number of syllables in the first and last name. The ear prefers variety, and the tongue needs to wrap easily around the words. Combine a short first name with a long last name: Susan Nickerson. Pair a long first name with a short last name: Worthington Clark. If the character demands a long first name and last name, separate the two with a short middle name such as Nicholas Luke Shannahan (and after introducing the character, call him Nick Shannahan).

Pronunciation: Make sure the reader knows how to pronounce the character’s name. This dilemma has happened to more than one author, and if the character is a series character, the mispronounced name may haunt the author for a long time. One way to inform the reader about a character’s name is to write something like this, “Jun Ho stumbled through the long lines in the unemployment office and, for the fourth time that day, informed the clerk that Jun sounded like June. He didn’t tell the clerk his Chinese name meant ‘truth’ because he was about to lie.” This bit of narrative informs the reader of the character’s sex, name, the name’s pronunciation, origin and meaning. And by telling the reader the name means “truth” and then revealing the character is about to lie, sets up an interesting situation that has the reader asking, “Why is this man about to lie, and what brought him to this decision?”

Initials: When creating a character with a first, middle and last name, make sure the initials don’t spell an embarrassing word or acronym-unless the spelling is intentional. For instance, Douglas Ulyses Dolan spells DUD. Maybe the fellow is a dud, but unless you want to call attention to the fact, change the name. Review initials to make sure they don’t spell an acronym with unpleasant associations, such as the name Daisy Deerfield Tellings, which spells DDT, a harmful pesticide. I hope Daisy isn’t operating a garden center.

Rhyming & Alliteration: Avoid rhyming and alliteration when choosing a name. Cute names like these can quickly become annoying. Some examples: Sally MacNally and Betty Barbara Bruckley. An exception to this rule is to use rhyming names in children’s stories, which is acceptable and sometimes expected. Also in this category are the “playful” names that authors love to create but wouldn’t want to live with as their lifelong names. Some of these witticisms might include Stormy Night or Lily Padd or Nick L. Odeon. Of course, your story might need a character with a quirky name, but evaluate whether using a word-play name actually strengthens the character and/or the story.

Famous Names: Unless a well-known name is mandatory to the story’s development, choose original names for your characters. Abraham Lincoln, Davey Crockett, Amelia Earhart all served history and are fine names; however, let your character carve his own place in the reader’s mind through action and dialogue.

Many, Many Characters: When writing a story populated with a cast of characters, make sure the names differ. It will confuse the reader if several characters have names beginning with the same letter of the alphabet, or if character names begin with the same first and last letters, such as Jack Tyler and Jake Trask. Also, names that sound alike such as Molly and Holly may bewilder the reader. If similar names are used in a story, make sure strong character traits are assigned to each person so the reader can easily identify each character.

WHAT’S IN A NAME Character names are just as important as “real life” names. As a child, I didn’t know anyone with my name, Dawn. Like most children, I wanted to blend in, not stand out as different. Yet, had my parents named me other than Dawn, I believe my life would have changed in subtle ways. How did my name become Dawn? My mother christened me after her favorite part of the day, and that is how character begins. So choose your character’s name with the same care you would name your child, and watch your character grow into a “real” person.

Flashback: Excuses, Excuses, Excuses (or How do you find time to write?)

When you see “Flashback” in front of an article, it means it is an article that originally appeared on Word Museum in the beginning before it was sold and then regained by Lori. We have reposted these articles, because we feel they add great value to the site. Where possible we include the date of the original article.

Written By: Pamela S. Thibodeaux
Date: 11/15/2001

Article

We’ve heard them all, used a few. There aren’t enough hours in the day…I don’t have time to write…I have a job and a husband and children and…etc., etc., etc. Well, my answer is this: you can’t find time to write, you have to make time to write. My day usually starts out around 3:30 a.m. I read my Bible, exercise (no, not as disciplined as I should be in this area) then, if I have time, turn on the computer. If not, I get ready and go to work. Now that I’m working part time, it’s easier, but until last year, I worked full-time. And now, with the added duty of promoting my published work, I really have to make time to write!

My afternoons and evenings are the best for writing. That way I don’t have to “turn it off” and go to work (kind of hard to switch from right brain to left brain or what ever). I usually cook something for supper (or dinner – whichever you choose to call it) that doesn’t require a lot of watching…you know, rice and gravy type meals, just put it tocooking (or throw it in the oven or crock pot) and check every 10 min or so! After supper and dishes, it’s right back to work until around 8 or 9 o’clock p.m. Sometimes later. Unless hubby insists that I watch something with him – thankfully that’s not too often or makes me a better offer. 🙂

Another time-saving tip is to wash your dishes while you cook. You know, wash up the breakfast dishes and cooking utensils while supper cooks instead of letting them all pile up until after supper. Oh, and how about throwing on that load of laundry now while supper is cooking instead of letting it pile up until you have to spend hours or a whole day catching it up. Wash items that don’t need hanging or ironing (does anyone iron anymore?) After all, you can write while waiting for the washer or dryer to go off and you can always fold them later! (like tomorrow while you’re cooking supper or watching that favorite TV show or helping the children with their homework) Evaluate your day and see when you can squeeze in time to write. Do you watch TV? Listen to the radio? Exercise? We all need recreation but can you set some of that time aside to write or combine that with writing? Can you exercise for 30 min 6 days instead of 1-2 hrs 3 days or carry a tape recorder while walking?

What about writing during the commercials? Some people can’t focus on two things at a time, but you would be amazed at how easy it becomes once you get used to it. I can read an entire book while watching a movie on TV and not lose track of either! I usually only watch 3 hours of TV a week (Touched by an Angel-Sunday, 7th Heaven-Monday and Gilmore Girls-Thursday). On these days, I allow myself the privilege of taking a break. The other evenings and during re-runs I’m either writing, revising, editing or reading – for research of course. Have small children? How about their nap time or play time, can you squeeze in a sentence or two or a scene or a chapter? Can you afford a babysitter or day care 1 or 2 days a week? How about swapping babysitting with another stay-home mom a couple of days a week?

Have older children that can do the dishes or the laundry or help clean the house so that you will have time to write? Have a spouse or other family members that would enjoy taking the children out for pizza or a movie one or two evenings a week so you can write? Have children, husband, and a job? Carry around a notepad and pencil, (or one of those new-fangled word processors that are designed to save up to 100 pages of text and work with your computer, fit in a large purse, are sturdy enough for children to play with and run on AA batteries) that way you can jot down thoughts, ideas or a scene that’s giving you trouble. You never know when time will present you with a few moments…waiting in line at the bank or the grocery store, waiting at a doctor or dentist office, waiting at the car wash or mechanic for your car to be ready, or at a ball game waiting for your child to come up to bat or dance or perform with the band.

What about your lunch hour? I mean, do we really need an hour to eat? Can you combine other activities that will allow you time to write like; grocery shopping or getting your oil changed or hair cut on during your lunch hour? How about noon-time exercise followed by yogurt and fruit instead of that huge sit-down lunch? Think about it, a slimmer waist line (or hips) and a finished chapter or two! Have two jobs? Work shift work or grave yards? Can you write during slow times at work or during your 15 min. and/or lunch breaks? Go to church 2 or 3 times a week? Will your relationship with God really suffer if you spend some of that time writing? After all, writing is a talent, a gift from Him don’t you think He wants you to develop that talent and use that gift? Now don’t go getting all judgmental, it’s just a suggestion. 🙂

There are numerous opportunities to write, we just have to know what they are. For years (11 to be exact) I wrote in 5-subject notebooks. I always had a notebook handy. I even used a cassette recorder to record ideas while driving. Please be careful with this, it can be dangerous too. Kind of like the cell phone thing. Added bonus; people think you’re important when they pass you on the road and you’re talking into a tape recorder. 🙂 Writing doesn’t always mean sitting in front of the computer and pounding away on the keys. Writing is a state of mind. Even when I’m working, some part of my brain is writing. That too can be dangerous since I am a bookkeeper. 🙂

One of the best things a busy wife, mother, employee, writer, etc., etc. can invest in is a lesson on time management. Actually, you may not need to read a book or take a course. Just sit down and examine your day. Evaluate how you spend your time, where you can shave off a few minutes (or couple of hours) and use that time to write. Budget your time just like you budget your money. Be sure and allow for unexpected emergencies that will rob you of writing time…then again, that unexpected emergency my allow you time to write (while you wait of course) if you keep that notebook handy! A lot of people have been helped tremendously by the Book-in-a-week challenge. One writer even told how she (I think it was a she) picked out the week, cooked enough meals in advance and made arrangements with family members to help out. This can be done whether or not you participate in the BIAW challenge! Imagine, a whole week where you’ve prepared everything else in your life so that you can spend quality time writing. If not a whole week, how about one evening a week? Or one hour an evening? We make a point to spend quality time with our spouse and/or children or other family members, why not writing? People put a lot of store in exercising…and we should. But I’ve read that frequent 10 min walks are just as beneficial physically as longer walks two or three times a week. In the same sense, frequent 10 minute writing sprees can be just as beneficial as longer blocks of time two or three days a week.

I guess my point is, make the time. You may or may not have set times to write or set writing goals. I don’t always. But, I try. It takes discipline, dedication and hard work. I’m sure you exhibit these attributes in other areas of your life, why not in your writing? So c’mon, quit making excuses (or using the same old, tired, worn-out ones) and start writing!

Flashback: Naming Names

When you see “Flashback” in front of an article, it means it is an article that originally appeared on Word Museum in the beginning before it was sold and then regained by Lori. We have reposted these articles, because we feel they add great value to the site. Where possible we include the date of the original article.

by: Tim Waggoner
Date: May 19, 2001

In Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea books, magic is accomplished when wizards learn the true names of things. Discover the true name of fire, and it is yours to command. In fairy tales, if you learn Rumplestilskin’s name, the evil sprite is banished. Speak of the Devil, though, and he shall appear.

Names have power, especially in fiction. Use the right names, and the characters and places you write about assume added depth and resonance. Use the wrong ones, and your story at best will be forgettable, at worst, laughable.

While choosing the right names is never easy for writers of any stripe, authors of science fiction, fantasy (and to a lesser degree, horror) have an especially tough time of it. Mainstream writers can use the names of friends, relatives and co-workers. They can set their stories in their hometown and use the names of its diner, high school, laundromat, altered only slightly, if at all. But where can writers of speculative fiction go to find names for the characters and places which make up their more exotic dreamscapes?

You can start the same place many expectant parents do — baby name books. Sure, they’re full of ordinary names, but they also contain not-so-ordinary ones. A glance through one of my favorites, Beyond Jennifer and Jason by Linda Rosenkrantz and Pamela Redmond Satran, turned up the following: Adria, Amyas, Diantha, Doria, Garson, Kai, Merce, Sekka, Tamar and Zaraawar. All suitable for a science fiction or fantasy story.

There are other naming resources geared specifically for writers. The Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon contains, as the cover copy says, “20,000 first and last names and their meanings from around the world.” The name lists are separated into categories such as Anglo-Saxon, Dutch, German, etc. I often choose character names by scanning the corresponding meanings. Want your fantasy warrior’s name to mean brave? Try Cathasach. Want your villain’s name to mean dark? How does Duvessa sound? Horror author Yvonne Navarro has complied a volume called The First Name Reverse Dictionary which makes this process even easier.

Another resource that I sometimes use to come up with names is the phone book. Uncommon surnames, when used as first names, often have an archaic or fantastical feel to them. Choosing at random for this article, I found Hython, Krabill, Maddala, Norrod, Uffner . . . I could go on and on.

Of course, these names don’t work only for individual characters. They could just as easily be the names of alien races, or countries in a fantasy land.

Foreign language dictionaries can be of great help. If I’m writing a medieval fantasy and I don’t feel like using the tired term wizard for my magic workers, I might turn to my Latin dictionary and find magus and veneficus. Neither floats my boat, so I start free-associating. What do magicians do? They perform tricks. I look up trick and one of the words I find next to it is artificium. With a little tweak, that becomes Artificer. And now I have a term that not only sounds good, it’s more original.

A thesaurus works well for this too. For example, in my (as yet unpublished) novel, The Harmony Society, I wrote a sequence which took place in a nightmarish hospital. I went to my Roget’s, looked up hospital, and eventually came across the old-fashioned term fever house. Fever House — what better name could there be for a place of madness and death?.

And then there are those happy accidents when names just come to you. While I was in the process of plotting The Harmony Society, I was listening to the car radio and heard the singer refer to “Brother Nothing.” Hot damn, what a great name! I thought enviously. But the next time the refrain came around, I realized I had misheard. Brother Nothing wasn’t a name; the singer was actually saying, “Brother, nothing you can do will stop me,” or somesuch. Thanks to the perversity of my own subconscious, I had a name for my novel’s main antagonist.

Lest you become too self-conscious about choosing names, I’ll let you in on a secret. Even such inevitable-seeming names such as Sherlock Holmes and Luke Skywalker seem that way only after the fact. It’s a bit of folklore that children will grow to fit their names. It might not be true for real people, but it certainly is for fictional ones. As long as your characters’ names aren’t strings of unpronounceable consonants or inspired by Saturday morning cartoons — “Look out, Commander Galaxy! Hear come the Sinistars!” — you should be all right.

Besides, I thought Luke Skywalker sounded pretty stupid the first time I heard it. And I hear the kid’s gone on to do all right for himself.

The End

Tim Waggoner writes both fantasy and horror and has published over thirty stories in various anthologies and magazines. He has also worked as a newspaper reporter, magazine editor, copy editor, and currently teaches college writing courses.