Wednesday, September 8, 2010

So your character has...A Name

This is a series of posts that I'm writing leading up to my presentation covering Character Development at the Scribes of Lancaster meeting on Monday the 13th of September.

So your character has... A Name

Of course they do. Everything has a name, so it only makes sense that you would name a character unless you're writing some experimental stuff, or a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Consider the type of character and their personality before naming them.

Give the name some depth, and make sure that it fits them (unless the name is meant to purposely not fit them, for example a Boy Named Sue, or a body builder named Tiny). I personally like symbolism and drawing from unlikely sources.
I'm going to explain the convoluted method I used for naming my character Alistair. First, I wanted a character that would, on the surface, fit into an uppity, Romantic Gothic stereotype. I knew what he looked like in my mind before naming him. The catch though is that this guy is actually a demon, and was part of a noble 17th Century British family. I also wanted his name to be a little uncommon for his era, making him an outsider even when he was a normal human, and it had to have an unlikely meaning because he is an anti-hero.
I googled "demon names" and found a list--which I cannot find again, but oh well.
I gave a brief look over names from England in my copy of "The Best Baby Names in the World"(which are neatly sorted by country). Not listed in that book (under the name it says to see the meaning for Alexandros), but the meaning of the name Alistair is "defender of mankind." Which is kind of funny because my character is notoriously lazy, noncommittal and only really motivated by sex and money. I also checked a list of common names during Early 17th Century England, and found Alexander, which is similar.
I matched this up with the demon named Alastor. An interesting point to choosing this demonic entity to link my character with is that the demon is tied to suicide, which is a topic stereotypically associated with the Gothic subculture, and an act that my character romanticizes since he is immortal.
His last name is Wentworth, an old British name with a family crest featuring the phrase "En Dieu est tout," meaning "In God all things." Which ties into part of the religious commentary of the story that I'm working on.

Some other things to consider--

In a story don't use too many names that sound too similar unless that is the intention. Triplets named Nora, Flora and Zora? Okay, kind of cute. A hodgepodge of characters whose names all start with "A" because that's the first letter you come across when using the baby naming book method. Not so cool. I renamed one of my characters from Hedda to Hedia (both variations from the German name Hedwig meaning contention and strife) because on of my other secondary characters was named Emma.

A good source for historic names would be a cemetery. Read the dates and the names and you can determine a great many things from this information including life expectancy (along with the depressing instances of infant mortality), names found in that time period, ethnic origins, family size. Some old stones have the place the deceased was born, as well as where they died and sometimes a little personal message.

Try not to get cliche, especially when naming superheros or supernatural characters, unless you're using irony. Not every male vampire has to be named after Dracula, or Vlad, or Nosferatu... or Edward. Remember the SNL skit "Goth Talk"? Circe Nightshade and Azrael Abyss? Yes, those are chiche. Stage names can be as silly as they want though.

One odd, but should be obvious, resource for naming characters is plain old Google. Simple enough, right? I don't know what kind of names you're looking for, so why not look for all of them? Muslim names, Christian names, names that mean raven, element names, jewel names, evil names, flower names, etc.

Some more resources:

Medieval Name Guides

House of Names Family crests, old surname history

Saint Names

Think Baby Names

SSA Popular Baby NamesSocial Security Administration baby names listed by year, starting in 1879 Name GeneratorsJust for fun

The Best Baby Names in the World Sorted by country or region
The Very Best Baby Names in the Whole Wide World I like that it offers a lot of names and lists alternative spellings and their variations by country or language. So, for example, if you like the name Beatrice (meaning blessed or happy), but want it to sound more casual this book offers the names "Bea, Bee and Trixie" under the Americanized versions.

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