Welcome to an “official” new thing I’m going to do here each Wednesday – I’ll have guests along with my own posts about all different aspects of writing as a craft and a business!
Today’s post comes to us from Stephanie Draven!
Hi, I’m Stephanie Draven and I write myth-inspired paranormal romance for Silhouette’s Nocturne line. I’d like to thank Lauren Dane (whose wickedly delicious prose has kept me up reading long after bedtime) for letting me stop by to share my methodology when picking names for a fictional character.
Names have power, so I choose them carefully and over time, I’ve developed a system and I’m happy to share it.
1. Compile a long list of ethnically appropriate names
The first thing I take into account when choosing a name is the ethnicity of the character. Cultural heritage comes with a lot of cues and expectations. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes that’s bad, but either way, it’s something to exploit as a writer. If I can give the impression that my hero is a hot-tempered Hispanic man simply by naming him Antonio, an impression is formed in the reader’s mind before I write another word. If my Russian hero is named Antonio–my readers aren’t likely to take that at face value. They’re going to want to know what the story is behind that name. Was his mother a fan of Spanish bullfighting? Did he grow up in South America? That’s because a name either tells a story or begs for one.
2. Weed out names that are too hard to spell or pronounce unless you have a good nickname in mind
My characters for my modern mythology series all share an ancient mediterranean heritage, so I’ve picked Greek, Latin or Egyptian names. But just snapping up a name from a certain culture isn’t as easy as it might sound. Because I write for a largely American audience, I try to pick ethnic names with cross-over appeal. For example, when choosing a name for the dryad in my novella, WILD TETHERED BOUND, Arethusa or Eiluned might have been more historically appropriate, but I went with Dessa because it’s easy to pronounce, easier to spell, and more familiar while still retaining its Greek Chic.
3. Whittle down list, using the emotions the name evokes for you
At this point, a lot of experts say to narrow down the choices based on the sound of the name. They say that hard consonants are for badass heroes, and so on. I’m certainly not saying that they’re wrong, but for me, how other people perceive a name isn’t as important as how I feel about it. After all, I’m the one who will have to live with this character longer than anyone else. So once I’ve made a long list of names that are appropriate to the ethnicity of my character, I start narrowing this list down by thinking about what these names evoke for me personally. If my character is snooty, I will search for names that sound snooty to me. If my character is ageless, I’ll search for names that have a timeless quality about them. Important in this step is also my emotional reaction to a name. That immediately rules out the names of jerky ex-boyfriends and high-school mean girls. I also shy away from the names of friends and family members, unless the name is so common that I have many associations with it.
4. Say the name out loud. A few times.
After I’ve narrowed down the list in this way, I say each name outloud and gauge my reaction to it. When it comes to heroines, I have to feel as if this could be the name of someone I’d want to be friends with. Does the name sound like something I could say into the phone when drunk dialing? When it comes to heroes, I have to feel as if this could be the name of a man I’d want to sleep with. Does the name sound like something I could scream during orgasm? And if it’s a villain, it has to be the name of someone I might be afraid of. Does the name sound like something I could utter with loathing and terror? My reactions to these names aren’t necessarily going to be the same as everyone else’s, but that’s where the magic of writing comes in. I have the unique opportunity to fashion a character so strong that he or she overcomes all preconceived notions.
5. Find out what your favorite names mean
Once I’ve narrowed down my list of names by emotional reaction, I’m usually still left with a few to pick from. That’s when the meaning of the names themselves become important. For my novella MIDNIGHT MEDUSA, I was torn between two names for my Bosnian heroin. In the end, I chose Renata because it meant “born again” and she had survived the tragedy of war to be reborn as a modern day gorgon. I like to think that readers appreciate those detailed touches, but even if they don’t ever know the meaning of the names I choose, I like to think that it helps to anchor a character in my mind as I write.
So that’s the method. Use it, love it, or leave it. Happy writing either way!
October 7th, 2009 at 7:24 am · Link
Nice things to keep in mine. Great tips!
October 7th, 2009 at 7:27 am · Link
Hi Stephanie, this is a great list of ways to name characters. I tend to go with a ‘names I’d love to name my future children, but they’d hate me for it if I did’ formula. For the most part, it’s worked out fine. However, if there’s a character I absolutely want to have a unique, meaningful name, I hit behind the name.com and browse, then I filter out the ones that are just wrong for the character until I’ve got one that works. That’s my method at least 🙂
October 7th, 2009 at 7:29 am · Link
Sounds like you and I share a methodology, Stephanie. I typically go with ethnicity first, then sound and meaning.
And don’t forget first letter confusion. If I already have a character with a name starting in M, then I can’t have other characters whose names start with M.
October 7th, 2009 at 7:39 am · Link
I like your methods, Stephanie. It has given me more to think on when I do select that special name. For me, if I need a unique name, I play around with a name I like, changing a few letters or dropping them until I get it just right.
October 7th, 2009 at 7:40 am · Link
You know, Sela, I totally forgot that step. I actually keep an A-Z list of names for each book to make sure I don’t overuse a certain sound or letter. I had to start doing this because in a former manuscript of mine, 6 characters had names starting with T.
October 7th, 2009 at 8:02 am · Link
Great suggestions Stephanie. I have a hard time with names. I have found recently I am started to reuse names from other stories! Ekk. That’s not good, so your article came at a great time.
October 7th, 2009 at 8:55 am · Link
Great tips Stephanie! Some names just pop up from the very beginning, but others I really have to think about and usually spend time flip-flopping between several (it’s usually the hero’s name I have issues with).
To add to your list, I also do a google search just to make sure there’s not a real person tied to the name. In this day and age, you never know!
October 7th, 2009 at 9:03 am · Link
This is actually kind of funny – I have a goofy name (december) and of course, I got picked on when I was a kid. So I name all my Heroines simple, plain names.
October 7th, 2009 at 10:24 am · Link
Well, if it’s any consolation to you, December, I think your name is fabulous. I could think of a whole fantasy world in which it would work perfectly. And now you bring a very nice connotation to mind!
October 7th, 2009 at 11:01 am · Link
When I pick a name the first thing I do is type it a dozen times. Does it have an awkward arrangement of letters that I’m going to hate typing by page 52?
October 7th, 2009 at 12:13 pm · Link
Oh, Jill, that’s a great point.
October 7th, 2009 at 4:06 pm · Link
Very interesting blog today. Congratulations!
October 7th, 2009 at 8:43 pm · Link
Hi Lauren 🙂
Thank you for having Stephanie Draven here today.
Thanks Stephanie for sharing. I liked the points you made about character names.
All the best,