Friday, July 6, 2012

Choosing character names

Ask any writer about the name of one of their characters and he or she will spend an hour talking your ear off about its genesis. It generally takes me a very long time to pick character names - sometimes I will have an idea but then I have to "vet" it:

- do I know anyone with that first or last name?
- what does the name mean in another language?
- is there a character from a more well-known book or person in popular culture that this will reference?
- and if so, is that a good or bad thing?
- how will this name fit in with the names of the character's family and friends?
- does the name begin with the same letter as any other character in the book?

That last consideration, believe it or not, is one of the most important things to me, personally.  I hate reading books in which many of the characters' names begin with the same letter and/or look similar on the page.  Even if they are pronounced very differently, names like Mary and Marie look an awful lot alike and when you're reading, your eyes may not make the distinction quickly.

When I chose to give my "Fat Girls in LA" characters names that began with the letter V, I knew that they all had to be different-looking on the page.  There's Veronica (also called Big Vee), Val, Virginia (called Ginny), and Vivian (called Reed). So Veronica is the longest name, Val the shortest and then the other two girls have nicknames that don't begin with V.  They are therefore very distinct on the page.

I also rarely choose to name characters after people I know very well (there will never be a Jay or a John or a Maurice or a Rosanne in my books unless there is a really important reason) and I rarely give someone an L name.  Inevitably, writers who name their characters something similar to their own names invite comparison to themselves.  Readers will want to know if that character is a stand-in for the writer herself.

Hint: ALL characters are stand-ins for the writer.

I recently read 2 books in which the character names were, in a word, lazy.  I could tell the writers did not put much effort into choosing the character names and as a result, I couldn't take the books seriously. Character names have to have their own backstory - you need to know what the character *is* called, what she *wants* to be called, what her nicknames might have been growing up, and so on.  All of that influences your character's personality and makes her a 3-dimensional person, someone we can believe is a real individual.