Sunday, January 20, 2008

You Name It

Scarlett O'Hara, Huckleberry Finn, and Stephanie Plum all have something in common.

As do Boo Radley, Ebenezer Scrooge, and Hannibal Lector.

Ok, Captain Obvious, I know they are fictional character but beyond that the share something else as well. Their very names hint at their character. And that is what a character name should do if possible.

Let's say you have a protagonist that is the privileged son of a U.S. Senator. Go ahead name him John Smith. It might work, but he dang sure have some extraordinary characteristics or I'm gonna forget him as soon as I close your novel. And you as a writer are going to have to paint a much more vivid picture of him than you would had you named him Spencer Throckmorton.

Throckmorton sounds senatorial and aristocratic to me whereas a generic name like Smith conjured nothing.

Sometimes authors go over board. Depends on the type of book(seems like comedies, mysteries and detective books can get away with a bit of cartoonish names) but if you throw in an auto mechanic named Axle Wheelie and cop named Justice Law I'm not going to take your words very serious.

All I'm saying is make the name, fit the personality.

What's that you say? What about Harry Potter? He had a plain-jane name and look how memorable he was.

You are correct, but didn't J.K Rowling go to great pains to show us the very thing Harry wanted most was to be a normal boy. In his case the generic name played right into that set up. Who expects a young boy living under a staircase with a name like Harry Potter to be an entire society's lone hope of survival? Ms. Rowling did a great job of using names. Lupin, Nymphador Tonks, Sirius Black. Her names did an excellent job of giving the reader an image and a clue about each character.

I know a few writers who give no thought to naming a character. They grab the phone book and pick put a name with no more regard than to make certain it doesn't start with the same letter as one of their other characters. LAZY!

Think about it ponder your names. I'm not saying it has to be unorthodox. Sometimes a common name can conjure an image. Or so I think. Maybe I'm way off in this name thing. To find out let's try an experiment. I'm going to throw out a few names from my own stories. If you have time chime in with the briefest of things the name conjures. Age, occupation, physical attributes, demeanor, whatever comes to your mind. And don't cheat. Those of you who have read the work that the character is in do not respond. Some will be easier than other and not all or POV characters. Feel free to comment on one, or all, or none and simply tell me what you think about my name theory.

Hank Petty Zybeck
Fiona Meese
Betty Raintree
Rex Austin

Sergei Ochoa
Blue Riggins
Donnie Yates
Ruby Riggins

Royce McEwan
Rose Devine
Luann Pearson
Joe-Ray Pearson


CamiKaos said...


Thank you for this really inspirational post.

Erica Orloff said...

I agonize over my names. Right now I have a Nicholai Rostov, Julian Shaw . . . Damian Kirov . . . I agonize and agonize and research. And let me tell you, editors do, too. I've had one editor tell me that naming my main character Jamie for a man was too "boyish" so she insisted I pick a tougher name. They think about it.

All right:

Hank Petty Zybeck--think of a good ol' boy race car driver
Fiona Meese--I don't react to this one
Betty Raintree--older, sweet, good character
Rex Austin--leading man type but a jackass

Sergei Ochoa--mysterious
Blue Riggins--professional marlin fisherman
Donnie Yates--country boy
Ruby Riggins--Blue's wife . . . LOL!

Royce McEwan--Texas lawyer
Rose Devine--matriarch of rich Texas family
Luann Pearson--runs the local convenience store, town gossip
Joe-Ray Pearson--good ol' boy

All right . . . am I even CLOSE. Have pity on me. I'm a Manhattanite.


Travis Erwin said...

Camikaos- Inspirational? is that code for dull and uninspired? that is how i felt after reading this post.

Erica - There are no wrong answers, but I will post my visions of these people later when more have had a chance to weigh in.

Therese Fowler said...

Betty Raintree is a woman I trust right away. Late middle-aged, Native American heritage but not reservation-bred, hard-lived but kind and wise.

Oh--I see Erica and I agree that Betty is a very positive character.

Very good observations in this post!

Jess said...

Hank Petty Zybeck: Redneck. Asshole. Perhaps lawyer. Now, HENRY Petty Zybeck? A stable guy. Maybe a judge.
Fiona Meese: Businesswoman, short skirt, long legs, local women hate her.
Betty Raintree: Mom next door
Rex Austin: A romance novel hero

Sergei Ochoa: The spy
Blue Riggins: The local fisherman
Donnie Yates: Too many bad memories of Andrea Yates
Ruby Riggins: Former dancehall saloon girl

Royce McEwan: Again, a romance novel hero
Rose Devine: ehh
Luann Pearson: town gossip
Joe-Ray Pearson:cop
Harry Potter works because of the syllables. I agree- J.K.'s use of names was impressive.

I think it's important to make your names age-appropriate. If you are writing about someone who is forty, don't name her "Emma", a name that only recently became popular again (and was not so 40 years ago).

As someone with a generic first and last name, I think perhaps I'm jaded, but simple names are the ones I'm more inclined to endear myself to. Names like Royce and Rex, names that no child I know has, immediately invoke an impression- which if you are going for it, works- but if you WANT your character to have more stability or to be somewhat anonymous, I would go for the top 50 names.

IMHO, of course.

Sherry said...

Good post -- very astute of you!!

I like the character names you've given us to ponder...I already don't like Fiona Meese -- she sounds like she has an umbrella up her butt. Rex Austin just thinks he's too good for himself never mind anyone else. He's the guy at the bar trying to buy me a drink and I'm working my way out the door! Luann Pearson isn't very smart but she sure is purty -- blond too I'd wager.

Mom In Scrubs said...

Hank Petty Zybeck: 40's, perpetually dirty (mechanic?), likes to throw back a few with the boys at the bar.

Fiona Meese: Early 30's, formerly striking, now mourning her waning youth, "uppity"

Betty Raintree: Must be protagonist. Could be any age, probably older. Possibly native-american. Could be porn star.

Rex Austin: Could also be porn star. If not, Upper 30's. Dapper but southern-style (cowboy boots, bolo tie, expensive cowboy hat). Could even drive a car with the longhorn rack on the front...

Sergei Ochoa: Probably bad guy (why? never heard of a hero named Sergei). Probably brilliant but uses his brain for evil, not good. Small, dark, and wiry.

Blue Riggins: Child (age 10) of southern-based former flower-child couple.

Donnie Yates: Middle aged, Average height, average build, brown hair, brown eyes.

Ruby Riggins: Blue's twin sister, of course!

Royce McEwan: Same picture as Rex Austin. I'm thinking "Dallas" the soap opera here.

Rose Devine: Shirley MacLaine type.

Luann Pearson: Mid 30's with a heart of gold but a few fries short of a Happy Meal.

Joe-Ray Pearson: Luann's doting husband, but get a little Lone Star Beer in him and he gets meaner'n a rattlesnake in a room full of thumbtacks.

I agree, the name can pull me in or push me out of a story.

JM said...

Yes, I agree...names should describe the us images of what these character's look like and the core of their personality.

Stephen Parrish said...

Well, we all know what Rose Devine does for a living.

Adriann said...

Ok, Rex Austin sounds like a stud from Texas. Tall, red haired cowboy.

Thanks for the tip. One of these days, I'm going to go for it and write a short story or something.

Patti said...

names are important and i love driving through west texas and reading the billboards for insurance agents to swipe some interesting monikers.

i think joe-ray runs the local feed store. and betty raintree is a loan officer at the credit union. sergi is a musician...opens for los lonely boys...old friend of willie's. fiona is just like lyle lovett described her: "one-eyed."

Chick said...

Thanks for making me think about names like that...I hadn't thought of that before...but you're right, it's simply lazy for an author not to give their characters names with a hint of foreshadowing to them.

alex keto said...

Yeah, Harry Potter was a run-of-the-mill name, but, as you say, he wanted to be normal. But more importantly, maybe Rowling wanted to the reader to see him as normal. The series would have been seriously weakened with an outrageous name for the lead like Zincfreak Blubblewarts. Who can take that seriously?
Also, the more central the character is on the good side, the more common the name. Ron, Fred, George, Charlie, Ginny etc etc etc. The only exception is Hermione but the reader gets over it fast. besides she is a Granger, only one step up from Smith. Again, readers can identify with Fred faster than Draco.
But by the end of the series, I thought the names were getting a bit ham-handed and the whole thing went over the top with "Pius Thicknesse." Why not just call him Moron, say he is from a country where people go by just one name, and be done with?

Charles Gramlich said...

I check out cemeteries for cool names.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

Oh boy - I have to say I agonize over my names also. In fact, if I can't think of a good name, then I just leave a blank in order to keep writing - at least for my other characters. I must have my main character names before writing. I like Erica's take on the names. That was great!

alex keto said...

Oh yeah, others picked up on it but I also stumbled over Donnie Yates. The name Yates has a bit of baggage these days.

CamiKaos said...

no really. I struggle with names in writing so this post was great. I was glad to know I am not alone in putting thought into them.

B.E. Sanderson said...

Hank Petty Zybeck - Senator from Alabama
Fiona Meese - librarian
Betty Raintree - half-Indian grandmother of 13
Rex Austin - UT quarterback

Sergei Ochoa - Russian mafia hitman
Blue Riggins - owns a shrimpin' boat
Donnie Yates - sells used cars in Pawnee, SD
Ruby Riggins - mother of Blue's 8 kids

Royce McEwan - lawyer who writes romances under a pseudonym
Rose Devine - Royce's pseudonym
Luann Pearson - hairdresser in Louisiana
Joe-Ray Pearson - drives a tow-truck and writes lovesongs for his dear Luann

Lana Gramlich said...

Good point on the name theory. Betty Raintree sounds like a hippy, pagan or Native American to me...

Anonymous said...

Good column! Names are very important. Unfortunately, I think I already know these people from reading your work, so I can't "play" today. I usually know my main character's name and the rest sometimes change along the way as their characters develop throughout the story. Now then, what does the name "Travis" invoke? :-)

Design Goddess said...

Well, Rex Austin is definitely a cowboy. Tall, ruggedly handsome, and of course, a ladies' man!

As for your new character, how about Duncan Maximilian Gustafson?

I can tell you I don't like books that have such unusual names that you're not sure how to pronounce, so every time you see that name, you stumble and pay too much attention to the pronunciation than to the plot!

WordVixen said...

Hey, if you want to get really anal... My mother and I used to have long conversations about how different names made us think of certain colors and numbers.

For instance, my dad's name Richard. We agreed that Richard sounds like red and the #4. I think we agreed on the color for my brother's name and disagreed on the number.... we'd go through whole lists.

My protag's name is Zephia, but she doesn't have a last name yet.