What’s in a Name? Choosing Character Names

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Thanks to bensound.com for the intro and outro music.

ASK THE AUTHOR: From James Earls via aarongansky.com: When is it too long in laying down your writing to the point you have lost a bit of it? Do you scrap it & start over, or try to pick up where you left off? Especially in the light of life’s happenings, potholes & boomerangs?

AARON: Another excellent question. I’m not sure there’s a specific answer for this. It’s really up to the individual. Stephen King says, if I may paraphrase, for every day you spend out of your project, it will take a day to get back to your stride. So if you take three days off, it will take you three days of writing to get back into your groove. For me, I’m able to take most weekends off (if I’m busy, otherwise, I’ll try to put a few words on page Saturday and/or Sunday). But I feel like you’re talking about a longer period of time here. If you put your book away for a week, you’re probably okay. A month? That’s tough. Really, it depends on the quality of work you have. For example, I haven’t touched my first novel in years, and if I ever went back to it, I’d have to start over from scratch. But if I look at something like The Bargain, though I wrote it years ago, and though I’ve learned a lot about writing since then, I wouldn’t start that book over. So, long story short, it depends, but you want to be as consistent in your writing regimen as possible. Also, avoid starting over, because I know far too many writers who are really just “re-writers.” They’ll do the first fifty pages, scrap it, start again, repeat. The thing is, you’ve got to finish first before you worry about restarting.

POPS: Aaron has makes some good points. First, you’re right about life’s potholes and boomerangs. No one can change that. Every serious writer knows that restarting can be, and usually is, more difficult the starting in the first place. Stephen King (since Aaron mentions him) had to set his work aside for sometime. I’m sure he never imagined he’d be hit by a van. For me, I treat my neglected manuscript like a first draft. I start at line one and begin reading. Not just reading. I edit it the same way I would any first draft. That forces me to look at the details and flow of the work. It also gives me ideas what to write next. It’s like immersion learning that used to be the big thing among those who taught foreign languages to diplomats and missionaries. Sometimes distance makes a project better. Also, even during busy times a writer can jot down notes, do a spot of research, make a list of ideas.

MJ: I think the answer depends on the project in question. If I go a month without blogging, I find that I’m able to draft several posts in one sitting. If I go a month without working on NOLA, it’s much harder to get back into it. I would never suggest scrapping a project, no matter how long it’s been. Even if it’s been years since you last looked at it, don’t just toss it. Take another look with your since-acquired writer’s knowledge, and see if it’s still worth working on. If you find that it isn’t up to standard, you may still glean ideas or quotes to use in other projects. I like Al’s suggestion of editing it as you read from the start. That helps me get back into the flow of writing, and helps me fall in love with my characters again and again.

Firsts in Fiction

What’s in a Name? Choosing Character Names

So you’ve got some characters in your novel. Maybe a lot of characters. You’re going to need names. Maybe you’re not great at naming people. That’s fine. Here are some things to consider and some tips and tricks for naming your characters:

  • How important are names to you? Do you want to pick names that mean something thematically?
    • Aaron did this in early drafts of The Bargain, even for place names, but the only name that lasted was “Aida,” which means helper. The reason I kept that name is because it fit the character (perhaps a little ironically). Also, it didn’t sound too pretentious. Otherwise, all the names sounded too forced, and didn’t end up matching the themes of the novel as anticipated. Aaron’s humble suggestion is that you avoid doing this for EVERY character, but it might be okay to do for your protagonist or antagonist.
      • If you choose to do this, spend some time looking at name meanings.
  • Consider the place of origin. Are they Irish? Indian? American? African? Etc. spend some time researching common names from these places.
    • Scrivener will do this for you automatically. It’s got a great name generator, which Pops told Aaron about shortly after Aaron had spent two days coming up with names for a very expansive novel. SIGH.
    • Al: Some baby name websites as well as some books will help with this.
    • I will often think up one name and research its origins and alternates. Sometimes this leads me to a distinctively different name, but with the same meaning. Google is a great tool to ask “What is the mean of (name)?” Or “What name means (this)?”
  • When was your character born?
    • You can check popular baby names by year online. This is a little harder if you’re trying to find international names, because not every country keeps records of those types of things.
  • Fantasy? Sci-Fi?
    • Try to find names that are easily pronounceable. Do you want to use a system of language for your races (Elves, dwarves, aliens, demons, angels, etc.)? If so, what are the rules? Paolini did this for Eragon, and I believe Tolkien did it for LOTR. Think about vowels and consonants and blends. Avoid having too many consonants, as words become difficult to pronounce. When in doubt, make sure you’re able to read it out loud easily (and others can, too).
  • Use a random name generator. They’re all over the web. You can find some that will do dwarf names, elf names, etc.
  • Try combining names. You can pull from your list of family, friends, students, favorite authors, etc.
  • For people who still have them, phone books are great name generators. Create a hybrid of several surnames that you like.
  • Use lists for surnames. For example, street names work well, or types of trees, flowers, animals, occupations, etc.
  • Al:  A great source for names in the masthead of a magazine. This is a page at the front of the publication that lists all the editors, designers, artists, writers, sales staff, etc. I like this because I know the names are real.
    • Don’t be afraid to mix and match first and last names from the list.
  • Consider nicknames. Do they have a shorter form of their name? Something outlandish and absurd they go by? I had a student who wanted me to call him “Optimus Prime.” By the end of the year, I simply called him “Prime.” I think his real name was Billy.
  • How to pick names. Avoid names that sound similar and/or begin with the same letter.
    • Al: This is very important. When I edit someone’s novel, I often find that they characters or place names that begin with the same letter. Timmy, Tammy, Tommy. Very difficult for the reader to keep things straight. Same thing goes for last names.
      • I recommend making a list as you go. Better yet, create a stylesheet for your work. I list all my characters in the stylesheet, which makes the editor’s life a lot easier. It also helps you see character names in list form.
      • I also make a list of potential names so I have a handy list for names for minor characters should I need one.
      • Story time: When my children were very young, my wife and I took them to the mall and were pushing them along in their stroller. We stopped at a bookstore where an author was doing a book signing. She didn’t have much of a crowd and so we struck up a conversation. She asked about my children’s names. When I told her she stopped and pulled out a notepad. “Chaundel? How do you spell that.” I told her. She wrote it down, then said, “I may use that in my next book.” She was on constant lookout for names.
    • A trick Aaron uses with his students for hard-to-pronounce names in literature is to simply call them “Mr. P” or “Mr. Q.” But if there are several Mr. Q’s, we’re lost.
    • Aaron had to change “Kara” to “Lauren” because Kara sounded too much like Erica.
    • Aaron has also changed several first names that all started with the same letter. Billy and Bobby and Bernardo and Barbara and Bartholomew and Beauford and Beau and Beverley and Benny and Beethoven and Bluetooth and on and on and on…
    • Name length: Letters and Syllables: I discovered I apparently like names with four or five letters, and typically two syllables. I had to rename a character or two in NOLA to avoid the rhythm.

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