Sorry to Anyone Named Sophy: a Post on Naming

There was a segment on the radio featuring a writer who was agonizing over naming the main character of her book.  When she got to the character's name, she just left an X.  (I know, I was like, "Whaaaaaat. You are so not ready to write that book if you don't even know the character's name.")  She was struggling to find the balance between a name that was not too obvious, not bizarre, and at the same time not so contemporary and down-to-earth that people essentially forgot it. 

I know some people (like this writer) struggle to name their characters, but personally, I've never had that problem.  I wait until the character comes to me with his name; sometimes, I don't even like their names (Margaret, Simon, Philip), but I like them in the end because they have become fused with their name.  Naming, for me, is a very intuitive, relaxed business.  It has less to do with hunting down The Perfect Name and just letting character and name emerge organically in my mind.  I am a very intuitive writer.  Sorry I can't be more concrete here.

My husband is reading The Grand Sophy (again! because, it's amazing! duh.), and we were cheerfully discussing the fact that the author, in a fit of genius, managed to cast Sophy perfectly.  She is deliberately stated as not being beautiful.  Striking, but not beautiful, certainly not in the social beauty of the time.  There are things too large about her, or not the right colour, not delicate enough, etc.  And yet, as you read the book, you get the impression that Sophy is gorgeous.  Why?  Because she has charisma.  She's got a dull little name (sorry to anyone named "Sophy," it's not bad, just not outrageously memorable), she's not physically beautiful, but you remember her because she's a force of nature.  The name isn't what carries her off, it's Sophy herself - in all her grandeur and glory.

Stop freaking out about the name, okay?  Yeah, sometimes it takes a little bit for the name to surface, but the whole world doesn't hinge upon it.  It's an amateur move to have your character's interest hang solely on his name.  The name can mean something, that's absolutely fine, but the character himself has to matter for the name to matter. 

Okay, generalizations over.  I love coming up with names, personally.  I don't write contemporary fiction so I'm not stuck with otherwise dull, everyday names.  I get to play with names like Dammerung and Aven-maz and Pan Aeneas and Mordecai Halfharemoon.  They just taste so good when you say them, don't they?  They sizzle and pop like soda.  This is where I enjoy the naming process.  I haven't tied my own shoelaces together with mental anguish, so I'm not tripping over myself when these characters emerge from my imagination.  Typically, they come with names; if not, I let my mind hover over the surface of the deep until it draws out the name I need.  (Again, NOT a lot of help in a writing workshop, I know, I know.) 

This is one part THIS IS WHAT YOU PROBABLY SHOULDN'T DO and another part THIS IS WHAT I DO and some other part THIS IS WHAT IS IMPORTANT, and now the hinder part of this is going to be WHAT DO YOU DO?  What is it like for you to come up with character names?  What are some of your favourites?  Spill the beans!

4 ripostes:

  1. Well said! I have never agonised over names. They always seem inherent in the story somehow, and I tend just to pick something appropriate and work with that. As you say, if you're any good with your characterisation, the character will own the name. No need to stress :).

    Most of my name choices are governed by my genre, because I'm writing historical fantasy in different cultures and need to choose names that fit within the cultures. So I've written a Michael, a Eudokia, a Preeti, a Sanjit, an Evrard, an Emelota... All ordinaryish names, in their respective languages!

  2. I definitely name my people with a mix: it's part research ("ancient greek names" has been typed into Google too. many. times.) and part intuition (Alara? No, how about Adara? Yes, that seems right. Yep, that's her.) I do like a name to have meaning - if it doesn't have historical or etymological meaning, it probably has certain connotation to me - but generally I'll find a name I like or that intrigues me, and the character develops from there.

    Titania, for instance, is a perfect example. What kind of a woman would Titania be? Strong. Unswerving. Sleek, classic, knows what she's about. Sees the idea of the thing rather than the people involved. And from there, her character unfolded.

  3. I agree, naming tends to be an intuitive thing...most of my protagonists seem to come into existence with their name attached. (With one notable exception who's on his fourth name—I'm willing to think it's because I was a rank amateur when I first started drafting the book and my intuition wasn't too well sharpened yet.)

    Honestly, I have fun with the naming process. For supporting characters, I'll often have a vague idea in my mind of what initial I want it to begin with or what syllables and sounds it ought to have, and then comb through a baby-name list or the telephone book and scribble a shortlist to choose from. I also keep a list in a notebook of Names I Want to Use Someday. Sometimes I don't even like the name for itself; it just seems to have some kind of fictional-character potential about it. And in writing historical fiction, the extra fun (equivalent to your inventing your own names) is in being able to use "old-fashioned" names that you don't hear every day now—say, Phoebe or Rosamond or Clementina—if I so choose!

  4. Names generally come to me with the character. So I have Alice ... fairly nondescript name, I guess (I haven't read Alice in Wonderland, so maybe it conjures that up to some people) but it fits her perfectly. That's the name she came with.
    Then of course there are the 'fantasy' names. Some of them just formed. Some I've altered from real names. One, I actually took a female name from Tolkien (Gilraen) and changed it into a male name (Gaelrin). One name I don't really like (I liked it at the time) is Tradian. I just took the word 'radiant' and put the t at the beginning.
    There have been one or two instances where, after writing a character with a certain name for a while I realized the name didn't fit and changed it ... but it's super confusing and seems to change the character at least a bit.