Wednesday, January 25, 2012

What's in a Name

Think back to the scene from "When Harry Met Sally" when Harry and Sally are in the coffee shop.
Harry Burns: With whom did you have this great sex?
Sally Albright: I'm not going to tell you that.
Harry Burns: Fine, don't tell me.
Sally Albright: Shel Gordon.
Harry Burns: Shel? Sheldon? No, no, you did not have great sex with Sheldon.
Sally Albright: I did too.
Harry Burns: No you didn't. A Sheldon can do your income taxes, if you need a root canal, Sheldon's your man... but humpin' and pumpin' is not Sheldon's strong suit. It's the name. 'Do it to me Sheldon, you're an animal Sheldon, ride me big Shel-don.' Doesn't work.

When writing a book, you get to name your character. It takes me back to the hours, days, weeks, months of agonizing over what to name my child. The name needed to represent who he would become, who I wanted him to be. It had to be something I loved, that would not haunt him for future years....  I didn't want an accountant, so Sheldon was out of the question. .

Writing a book is very similar. You need to name your characters that represent who they are. For some people, like me, this can be agony. I often call them X, Y and Z while I go through names trying to find the perfect one. Then I go back in and fill in the name to see if it works.

Things to keep in mind:

*Your age group/audience. One of my pet peeves is when I see an overly complicated name in an Easy Reader. Unfortunately, I see this more then I want to admit when I volunteer in the classroom The kids are learning to read. They are doing great, then they come across a really hard name like Esmeralda or Iyanna. Names that this eager child has most likely never heard in their entire life. They get so confused because it breaks all phonic rules. Then they spend forever trying to sound it out. I usually cheat and tell them the name. Sometimes I'm even wrong on the pronunciation. Then every time they come to that they stumble. If you are writing for young independent readers, please, I beg you to use names that kids can easily sound out. Remember, you are growing readers here, not trying to kill them with extra hard words.

Now, if you are writing young adult, and you have an ethnic character, don't call them Anne. Come up with a great original name that relates to who they are.

*The character. I will actually do reverse definition look ups to find names that fit characteristics of my characters. Do I want them strong, independent, beautiful, spoiled, fast, a leader, religious, silly.... I take all that into consideration

*Names of other characters. Have you ever read a book with Christine and Christian? Helen and Elen. Or Anne and Anya. I'm sorry, these are too close together. I get the characters mixed up. Use different first consonants (unless there is a special reason you are doing that.) I hate reading books when I can't figure out who is who. Names choices can really help (or hinder) that. Especially for those of us who like to speed read the first time through because we are too impatient to wait to find what happens.

 One of my characters is named Harry. Why? Because I wanted him named after Harry Houdini. It ties into the book, his history, and the direction of the story. (No, he is not named after Harry Potter.)

Tips for picking out names;

*Look at baby name finders. There are books you can get, or use a website.
*Make sure the name is strong for a strong character.
*Read the name aloud, look at it's definition, study it before deciding on that name
*If you are looking to get creative, make sure others can pronounce it, especially if it's a great read aloud book.
*Keep in mind your audience
*Mix up your consonants on names, unless you are doing it on purpose.
*Mix up the syllables so characters are easier to remember
*Go visit a cemetery for ideas. JK Rowlings went to a nearby graveyard for name ideas, and that's where she found Voldemort.
*Don't be afraid to play on names to create more meaning. Like naming a city that has a high murder rate, REDRUM.

What do you think about names in a book? What tips do you use when naming your characters? Are there any pet peeves you've noticed in a book?


  1. Great post, Debbie! Most times I really struggle with names too. I do everything you say, and then I just have to pick the best I can, live with it for a while, and see if it fits. Other times, the minute I think of the character i already know their name. What's with that? :)

  2. Great tips. I struggle with names too - some days I wonder how my kids got named!! Sometimes a name just comes, and other times I have no idea.

    I hate it when there are names that are hard to pronounce, even in adult books. It interrupts the flow of the story.

  3. For some unknown reason, the name comes to me almost immediately, so I haven't had a problem, yet..... touch wood! As the others said, these are great tips though.