Author Topic: Characters names, and how to use them,  (Read 1678 times)

Gyppo

  • Global Moderator
  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 12843
  • Kudos: 36
  • I've been writing ever since I realised I could.
    • View Profile
Characters names, and how to use them,
« on: December 10, 2020, 03:16:08 PM »
Characters names and how to use them.

On the Internet you can find huge repositories of names for those who are stuck finding a suitable name for their characters.  Very useful.    Some are interactive and work like games, where you can get lost for hours instead of getting on and writing your story ;-)

But it's important to remember a name is more than just a label.  When well-chosen it becomes 'a skin for dancing in'.  An ill chosen skin interferes with your character's dance.

If this idea interests you feel free to read on and comment if you wish.  Around 1000 words, so give yourself time.

=====

Just a few thoughts on this subject.  I used to spend half a lesson on this as creative writing tutor and it was something which really engaged the class, producing all kinds of wild names and linkages.

A character's name is usually your first introduction to them, and first impressions really do count. 

===== 

Basically you have two choices.  A name which seems appropriate or a name which is wildly inappropriate.  Both have their uses.

A mechanic named Tom, Bert, or Joe sounds perfectly correct.  Even if their 'Sunday name is Thomas/Tomas, Bertram/Bertrand, or Joseph/Josef.  Note that the two different spellings of the same name in the latter create a very different image.  The first draws from the vast pool of biblical names, most of which have a diminutive everyday form, Such as Zachariah becoming Zak to his friends, whereas Josef has a slight touch of the foreign and exotic about it.  Except of course to people who always spell it that way, in which case the 'ph' ending may look and sound slightly exotic.

In fiction you'll see most tradesmen/craftsmen have single syllable names, except when they're young apprentices in which case a 'y' is added to show their youth.  Billy, Tommy, Joey.  This is almost inevitable if there is an older man with the same name working with them.

Inappropriate names, which also serve to grab the reader's attention hint at an unusual background.  A Bank Manager called Rainbow, Kundalini, or Tamarind probably has Hippy parents.  Their office nameplate probably just has the initial letter, but the simple fact they haven't changed it completely tells us something about them.  If he/she was brought up on casual Hippy values but has now turned ultra-straight there has to be a hidden back story.  You may not want or indeed need to explore this part in any depth, but it adds a light touch of seasoning to the mix.

You can use inappropriate names to create a deliberately misleading impression in the reader's mind.  Stories which rely on a unisex name to set up the surprise twist to the opposite gender at the end rely heavily on this trick.  Done really well it works, otherwise it can fail badly. There will always be some readers who see Sam as female right from the start, so the twist will fall flat when Sam's infatuation with a male colleague suddenly seems perfectly normal.)

Contrasting names can also work well.  A simple forename with an exotic surname, or vice versa.  Esme Smith.  Francesca Brown.  Sally Misericorde.  Jill Petulengro, or perhaps spelt Petulengra as a subtle twist.  Maureen Beauregarde, who may be just Mo to her friends..

Place names can be useful if stuck for a surname.   Charles Manchester sounds  quite grand, doesn't it?  But Manchester Charlie creates an entirely different image.  Manchester Charlie Ford creates an even more specific linkage, and you can probably infer he has an accent and a reputation based just on the locational nickname preceding his full name.  Americans do this with state names, such as Kentucky Bob, or Arizona Slim.

Nicknames are usually based on a habit or attribute.  Chopper could be named thus because he rides one, or because he's particularly well-hung.  Nosy, Twitcher, and Leggy are named in the Seven Dwarves tradition.  Then you get big black men called Snowflake or Chalky by their close friends.

Infinite possibilities.  But, despite the infinite possibilities offered by naming, your characters must live up to their name and the impression it creates.  It has to fit them, either like a baggy clown suit (Snowflake would be a good example of this) or like a surgeon's glove.  Mack The Knife is an example of the latter.)

If it doesn't fit because you just grabbed the first 'off the peg' name you came across then it will jar.  Not the planned jarring of a deliberately inappropriate name, but the sort of jarring which makes people throw the story aside.

If you really can't find a good name then choose a deliberately bland 'placeholder' name so you can get the story told and the first draft completed.  Do not use the lack of a brilliant name as an excuse for not writing.  Anything is better than just 'male character number one'.  You may find this nothing name begins to make sense after a while, in which case your subconscious has been guiding you.

Final Warning.  It's best to avoid the name of anyone you know really well, such as family or close friends.  Why?  Because the character of the real person will tend to intrude into your story and warp the fictional character's behaviour.  As an extreme example, if you have a whore called Geraldina in your story and a terribly staid Aunt of the same name your story may stall because you simply cannot, at a subconscious level, picture Aunt Geraldina behaving like a whore.

But this doesn't mean you can't borrow a useful trait, or habit, or behavioural pattern from a real life person.  Just don't link it in your mind with the original personality.

The best characters are usually, consciously or unconsciously, composites.  The mixture of traits will create a new personality.  These are the ones who come alive, dance off the page, and surprise you.  If they can surprise you they'll surprise your readers.

=====

It's not just the name, it's the way you use it.

=====

Some of you may feel these are just boring old conventions, and that you want to turn them all on their heads and create something totally new.  But bear in mind these are the conventions which readers know and recognise, which gently guide them the way you want them to go.

Feel free to overturn the traditional apple cart and trample it all underfoot, but bear in mind not all broken apples produce drinkable and pleasant cider.

===

Gyppo
« Last Edit: January 07, 2021, 10:39:51 AM by Gyppo »

Mark Hoffmann

  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 9283
  • Kudos: 19
    • View Profile
Re: Characters names, and how to use them,
« Reply #1 on: December 10, 2020, 06:11:18 PM »
I like to hide in-jokes in my character names; often IT related or use silly names.

The eight members of The Malevolent Seven were: Chuck Cabbage (supreme leader and the brains of the outfit); Sir Thomas Kramhole (Head of Sneaky); Lart Bofh (Head of Computers and Clever); Pinkie Johnson (Director of Un-marketing); Duncan Madman (Head of Beans and the counting thereof); Bishop Dickie Blarder (Head of Bad); Cordelia Starlight (King Whisperer) and last and least Jane-Jayne Jain.
Writing humour is the hardest thing since sliced bread.

The Severed Hands of Oliver Olivovich
UK - https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B087SLGLSL
US - https://www.amazon.com/dp/B087ZN6L6V

FB Author Page - https://www.facebook.com/Mark-Hoffmann-Writer-102573844786590

Jo Bannister

  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 2386
  • Kudos: 12
  • If this was easy, anyone could do it
    • View Profile
Re: Characters names, and how to use them,
« Reply #2 on: December 10, 2020, 07:15:40 PM »
I once used Detective Inspector Corner of the Metropolitan police - otherwise known as Corner of the Yard.  It amused me: I'm not sure anybody else noticed.

The idea of a warehouse of available names horrifies me.  If you can't even be bothered creating a suitable name for your own character, why the hell do you think of yourself as a writer?  Go and do something you can be bothered with instead.

I find names terribly important.  They have to feel right to me before I can work on the character at all.  And not just names: characteristics.  I was having difficulty connecting with a new character just recently, until I realised that - though only a young man - he always wore a tweed trilby.  That was the missing link: he's ready to work now.

Gyppo

  • Global Moderator
  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 12843
  • Kudos: 36
  • I've been writing ever since I realised I could.
    • View Profile
Re: Characters names, and how to use them,
« Reply #3 on: December 10, 2020, 08:17:30 PM »
That connection with the character is vital.  I could never write convincingly about a character I didn't believe in.  Whilst I'm writing about them they're very real to me.

Non-writers say things like 'But they're not real.  You invented them'.  Other creative types, like painters and sculptors, 'kind of' understand how it works.

Like Jo's tweed trilby on her detective quite often there's one little signature possession or trait which anchors them to our version of reality.  The thought of John Coe without a knife is simply untenable.  It's in his DNA.

As an example...

=====

   Whilst Frances was busy doing the background checks John went into work at the gun shop.  The quietly deferential manager who knew the trade inside out greeted him as soon as he came in.

   "Sir, the knives from America have arrived."  Sparrow nodded toward a large cardboard box at one end of the counter, unopened.

   With a happy grin John took his little Opinel from his pocket and slit the tape.  Rummaging through the polystyrene beads he bought out knife after knife and spread them out on the counter.  Case, Schrade, Marble,  Moran, Loveless.  He was amused to see that Sparrow, despite a general dislike for things American, seemed genuinely interested in some of the folders.

   "Ah, here's the Gerber." 

   Like the perfect leaf of some deadly tree.  John felt the familiar visceral kick as he picked it up and dropped into a knifighter's crouch, feeling the way it settled into his palm as if it belonged there.

   Sparrow frowned.  There was something distinctly un-English about his employer's love for knives.  A good folder, strong enough to gralloch a deer, thin and sharp enough to gut a fish cleanly, that was all a gentleman needed.

   Although he would never have said it aloud, and definitely not to any of the lesser staff, he knew Mr Coe was no gentleman.  He was polite enough, and well mannered, but there was something under the surface which reminded Sparrow of some snipers and other specialists he'd met during his National Service.  Men who were a little too keen on the tools of their trade.

===

Dansinger

  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 5103
  • Kudos: 9
  • Home is where the cat is
    • View Profile
    • Daan Katz
Re: Characters names, and how to use them,
« Reply #4 on: January 02, 2021, 07:41:37 PM »
Non-writers say things like 'But they're not real.  You invented them'.  Other creative types, like painters and sculptors, 'kind of' understand how it works.

I'm in a fantasy writers group on FB, and even there, some people sometimes say 'but they're not real', and immediately, I start doubting these people. Are they even real writers?

They're not real? Of course they are real! I couldn't very well write about them if they weren't real. I created them, true. But I'm god, and I brought them to life. I even gave them free will. And yes, I know, that's a risky thing to do, but so far it has worked well.

Since I write fantasy, I can - and do - invent my own names. But I want names that I can pronounce. No W'khu-verb'hty or some nonsense name like that.

So I have Beldenka Nadinov and Neel Park. I have Yeleksim Bogrovik, Mikhandor Faylìnn, and Janæla Naqiraān. Neel doesn't need a nickname, but the others become Bel, Leks, Mig and Jana.

In my new WIP I have Alysia Hamilton (who is from a flooded Earth, and not at all happy to find herself on a world called Fer, where technology is still at our 19th-century level), Wingarth Walbrydge, and Lord Kenwald the younger of Aeldbury. They become Lyss, Garth, and Ken.

Their names - and esp. their nicknames - suit them. But also, they help shape them.

I'm toying with the idea of naming a very minor character maybe Bastian Dansinger. His current name, Ezron Smol, doesn't work for him, and seeing that so far all my MCs hate, or at least distrust him, I figured Bastian Dansinger might suit him better.  ;D
Daan Katz, Author - Where the Magic Happens
The Elven Curse - Kings, priests, elves, and a woman in a wheelchair

Gyppo

  • Global Moderator
  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 12843
  • Kudos: 36
  • I've been writing ever since I realised I could.
    • View Profile
Re: Characters names, and how to use them,
« Reply #5 on: January 02, 2021, 08:20:49 PM »
Yes...    Some 'fantasy' names look like a random collection of key-presses, stored as clip to be inserted where necessary ;-)

Any character's name which can't be spoken aloud, even if the reader's pronunciation is different from the author's is at a disadvantage.

I used to make up my own names for the characters when reading English translations of Russian books, otherwise it was too easy to lose track.  I'm sure Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would have been horrified to find Peters, Lexies, and Georginas littering his books.

What would Bastian's nickname be?

Dansinger

  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 5103
  • Kudos: 9
  • Home is where the cat is
    • View Profile
    • Daan Katz
Re: Characters names, and how to use them,
« Reply #6 on: January 04, 2021, 06:11:50 PM »
I used to make up my own names for the characters when reading English translations of Russian books, otherwise it was too easy to lose track.  I'm sure Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would have been horrified to find Peters, Lexies, and Georginas littering his books.

That gave me a chuckle, Gyp.

I'm not even sure Bastian has a nickname, but if he had one, it might be God. Or Nosy.  ;D
Daan Katz, Author - Where the Magic Happens
The Elven Curse - Kings, priests, elves, and a woman in a wheelchair

Dansinger

  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 5103
  • Kudos: 9
  • Home is where the cat is
    • View Profile
    • Daan Katz
Re: Characters names, and how to use them,
« Reply #7 on: February 22, 2021, 11:00:20 PM »
Bastian Dansinger. The moment I gave him that name, he finally sprang to life. And he objected to being called Bastian. The man told me in no uncertain terms that it was Sebben. So Sebben it is. I'm quite happy to finally have found him the right name. He's much more fun to write now.
Daan Katz, Author - Where the Magic Happens
The Elven Curse - Kings, priests, elves, and a woman in a wheelchair

Gyppo

  • Global Moderator
  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 12843
  • Kudos: 36
  • I've been writing ever since I realised I could.
    • View Profile
Re: Characters names, and how to use them,
« Reply #8 on: February 22, 2021, 11:34:32 PM »
Sometimes a name just clicks and then writer and character are completely on the same page.   Dancing in lockstep. Frances was initially just Frances, she never had a surname until she  married John.  Not in my head anyway.

Then one day a subsidiary character who knew her from way back referred to her as Miss Trelawney, and that opened up a whole but still only half revealed Cornish background for her.  I think subconsciously I always knew where she was from, but I have to admit she's even easier to write about now I hear the accent in my head.

=====

I think it was Wolfe who said until your characters have a distinct voice, which you hear when writing their dialogue, they're not fully formed.  Characters who sound the same as each other are you, talking through them.

Once they have a voice in your head it's reversed.  They are talking through you.

You don't have to write in dialect, just throw in a few phrases which would come natural to them.  Or a slightly different word order.  "Where be you at?" is very different from "Where are you?" even if it's seeking the same information. As does "Where art thou/thee?" which can sound either religious or just old fashioned.

Gyppo
« Last Edit: February 24, 2021, 10:54:57 AM by Gyppo »

DGSquared

  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 5258
  • Kudos: 8
  • May the farce be with you.
    • View Profile
Re: Characters names, and how to use them,
« Reply #9 on: February 24, 2021, 10:45:58 AM »
I have to admit that my problem is that I am writing about real people and trying to change the names just enough to protect the guilty and make the innocent heroes.

I can't help but get as close as possible to the real names without flat-out naming people.
This is the life story conundrum.

I'm also working on a sit-com or limited series idea about me and my flight attendant buddies and the different paths our lives took from where we began as young whippersnappers, ready to rule the world to where we fictitiously(?) end up. There, I feel like I should use our own names because I can't make other names fit the molds of the characters they are built on.

I have struggled over the name of the protagonist in my children's book series. Do I call him and the books:

Not so Simple Sebastian
or
Not so Normal Norman
?
 In my book about the Marshmallow Moon, my characters are animals and insects. The experts warn not to use rhyming animal names or names like Ollie Owl, Timothy Tortoise, or Frangelica, the Firefly when they seem to suit my story.

Or, is it that I've become too attached to these names and character ideas in my head?
"Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read." -Groucho Marx

A child’s life is like a piece of paper on which every passerby leaves a mark. -Chinese proverb

Blondesplosion! ~Deb

DGSquared

  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 5258
  • Kudos: 8
  • May the farce be with you.
    • View Profile
Re: Characters names, and how to use them,
« Reply #10 on: February 24, 2021, 10:48:07 AM »
Great topic, by the way. I  am appreciating everyone's input on this subject. Names perplex me when I'm told to change them.
"Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read." -Groucho Marx

A child’s life is like a piece of paper on which every passerby leaves a mark. -Chinese proverb

Blondesplosion! ~Deb

Gyppo

  • Global Moderator
  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 12843
  • Kudos: 36
  • I've been writing ever since I realised I could.
    • View Profile
Re: Characters names, and how to use them,
« Reply #11 on: February 24, 2021, 11:23:00 AM »

In my book about the Marshmallow Moon, my characters are animals and insects. The experts warn not to use rhyming animal names or names like Ollie Owl, Timothy Tortoise, or Frangelica, the Firefly when they seem to suit my story.
 

Animal Names:  Maybe you need to ask a different kind of expert ;-)  Ask any young children you know if they want to hear a story about Timothy Tortoise.  Children love alliterative names like the ones above.  They're the real experts, not some pedantic who lost his creative soul years ago and possibly resents those who still feel the magic.

Timothy, to me, sounds like an older and perhaps more cautious tortoise.  If he's a young tortoise, always getting into trouble through his curiosity, he'd probably be a Timmy.  If he's somewhere between the two extremes, a confident 'tortoise about town', he'd probably see himself as a Tim.  If you have a truly venerable old tortoise, at a zoo for example, he could even be Sir Timothy.

If you want a female tortoise name then Thea could be the old one,  then Teresa, with Tracey as the youngest one.

Just examples, riffing on a theme, but see how each little change creates different expectations for the reader?

Gyppo

Jo Bannister

  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 2386
  • Kudos: 12
  • If this was easy, anyone could do it
    • View Profile
Re: Characters names, and how to use them,
« Reply #12 on: February 24, 2021, 03:08:15 PM »
Just be aware, Deb, that you're treading a thin line that lots of writers have fallen off, many to their cost.  You're much safer choosing which you'll write: fiction, where anything goes, or fact, where you need to be able to justify everything you write, in court if need be.  You'd be amazed how perfectly reasonable people can take offence at an imagined slight and think you're good for a bit of money.

My strong advice would be to NOT faintly disguise your characters.  If you don't feel you can safely write about the actual people you knew, under their own names, invent a whole new cast and re-imagine the activities they got up to.  It won't make any difference at all to your readers, and it could save you a lot of grief.

There's a saying in the commercial fishery: Don't let the crew run the boat.  The same applies to writing.  If your characters are telling you what you can and can't do, threaten them with the recycling bin!  It's not them that'll get the solicitor's letter if you fall off the line, it's you.

DGSquared

  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 5258
  • Kudos: 8
  • May the farce be with you.
    • View Profile
Re: Characters names, and how to use them,
« Reply #13 on: February 24, 2021, 11:59:28 PM »
Good to know, Jo.

I wanted to do a memoir but because of the living people who don't want to be associated with the ugly family secrets, it will have to somehow be played out as fiction. I wonder if one can gauge just how sick the family is by how many people want nothing to do with the telling of family secrets?


The flight attendant mini-series or dramedy is loosely based on my three roommates and me. The names have to be changed here because one of us is still flying. Tony died, Quiggs retired this summer while I was in Montana with him, and I was fired on the last day of probation but the stories in between are too outrageous to go untold. I've only just started writing it but it's fun to write and will be a blast to collaborate with my friends on this. They are all in.
"Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read." -Groucho Marx

A child’s life is like a piece of paper on which every passerby leaves a mark. -Chinese proverb

Blondesplosion! ~Deb