Monday, May 22, 2017

What's in a name?

It's a question worth visiting when it comes to storytelling and novel writing: what's in a name? Are some names better than others? Should some names be avoided?

First off, it's important to note that names are highly subjective; each reader will approach a name with different preconceptions. For example, a character named Jesus in a fictional novel would be strange–offensive, even–to readers coming from a native English background. For Spanish speakers, however, Jesús is a fairly common name. (It regularly ranks among the 100 most popular Spanish boy baby names each year.)

For that reason, it's a good idea to know your audience before naming your characters, especially the characters who will take center stage. What names will elicit the right kind of emotion? And just as important: what emotion or connotation are you trying to portray? What kind of a person is the protagonist? Is he/she courageous or timid? Forthright or subtle? Outgoing or introverted? Confident or shy? Certain names have an intrinsic strength to them–they may be associated closely with well known characters (real or fictitious) who did heroic things. (Of course, these types of names tend to be overused in modern literature, so I personally try to choose from the fringes of these more popular options when naming protagonists.)

Also important is how a name feels when you say it. Some names have an almost onomatopoeic or textural characteristic to them; they may sound similar to a word that evokes a sound, feeling, or even taste that is connected to an emotional response. An example of this was the antagonist of Critical Times, Agent Meade. I went through a lot of options when trying to find the right name for him, but in the end I settled on Meade because of the way it felt. There is something intrinsically sinister–even predatory–about this name. Perhaps it is the fact that it sounds similar to smear and mean while rhyming with greed, bleed, and feed. These were all mental images I wanted the character to evoke: a slippery, manipulative, double-crossing serpentine man with greasy, slicked back hair and gaunt features. (Hopefully this all came across! Also, hopefully this isn't your last name!)

Another rule that I adhere to when it comes to naming conventions is this: Don't double up on similar sounding names within the same story. That means being alphabetically impartial; I try to avoid multiple characters having first names that begin with the same letter, because having a book with a John, a Jack, a Jimmy, and a James is just plain confusing and is likely to get your book thrown at a wall by a some poor, frustrated reader. I also try to avoid similar sounding names (no John/Don, no Sam/Pam, no Trent/Brent). Again, this is for the sake of clarity.

To accommodate the above naming conventions, I often add foreign names (and characters) into my books. All Things New was the most obvious example (I literally wrote that novel with the goal of cramming in as much ethnicity and culture as possible to reflect our international brotherhood). Apart from allowing access to a larger naming pool, using foreign names helps to keep the characters neatly separated in the reader's mind (the reader comes across a foreign name and immediately assigns a corresponding mental image).

If I'm making it sound like it's hard to name characters, IT IS. It is frequently one of my most second-guessed elements in a story. I have, with each of my novels thus far, gone back and renamed characters after a good chunk of the story had been written, because I realized the name was evoking the wrong emotion, or was having some other sort of undesired effect on the story (or me). It is likely for this reason that the "Find" > "Replace All" function of modern word processors was invented, and I make good use of it!

Another great tool is the plethora of name generators found online. My favorite is this one, which allows you to search not just by gender, but by commonality, and even generates last names. (Some of the characters in my newest book have names that were generated completely by this wonderful tool)

Of course, in real life, names certainly aren't everything. But when it comes to fictional characters that exist only on the page and in the reader's mind, an effective name can make a big impact on the overall success of the story!

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