Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Writer Tip #13 -- Naming Your Characters

The door opened and there stood Hezekiah, drenched with rain. “I had to come,” he gasped, puffing drops of water off his drooping mustache. “I had to see you.”

“Oh, Hezzy,” Tyhicialnea sighed. “That’s so romantic.”

Have you ever wondered where authors get their characters’ names? I can’t speak for everyone, but I’ll share some of my secrets with you.

1. Baby name books or websites. Every so often, I’ll check out a baby name book from the library. (Believe me, this always gets me curious looks. I’m just fat, okay? Not pregnant) Or I’ll hit a baby name website. I scroll through and jot down every name that appeals to me. Some names are pretty, for a heroine or beloved aunt. Some are simple, for that no-nonsense school teacher. Some are dashing, some are plain. Any name that strikes me goes on the list.

You can also find last names on the Internet, as well as names that were popular thirty or a hundred years ago, if you’re writing historical and want the names to be accurate. Just put “baby names 1976” and see what pops up.

2. Eavesdropping. You heard me right. When you overhear a conversation, you’ll hear names being spoken. Now, I’m not suggesting that you stand over people’s shoulders, but you know how it is – you’ll be in line at the supermarket and the person in front of you will get a call on their cell phone. “Oh, hi, Aggie,” she’ll say. Aggie! What a great name for the ailing aunt in your book! “No, I didn’t call Vivian,” she goes on. And there’s the heroine’s name.

In fact, this is how my son Ammon was named. Eight months pregnant and waddling around the church, I needed a drink and passed two young boys on the way down the hall. One called the other “Ammon.” It struck me and stuck.

3. Movie and TV show credits. Ever notice that really long list of names that follows every movie and TV show? Read through those credits and jot down any names that leap out at you.

4. The telephone book. A little obvious, but very accessible. I wouldn’t recommend using someone’s whole name in its entirety, however. Take the first name from page 100 and the second from page 134, for instance.

5. Family genealogy. Grab your pedigree charts and see what your ancestors were named. This is a great idea especially when writing historical and you need some good, old-fashioned names.

Okay, now you have a really long list of names you like. What is the best way to organize them? Again, I can’t speak for everyone, but this is what I did.

I started by dividing them into three groups: male, female, and last names. Then I put them into alphabetical order. That gave me one sheet with female names, one with male, and one with last names. I stapled them together and tucked them into the little file I keep right here by my desk. Any time I need a character name, I pull out the list, read it until I find a name that suits that character, and cross it off the list. Then I look for a last name that goes well with the first, and cross it off. Every so often I pull up the list on the computer and delete all the names I’ve crossed off and reprint the list. (I like things to look neat and tidy) This way I keep track of what I’ve used.

I do of course add new names to the list as I discover them. I also added a list for pet names, should the need arise.

You will find your own methods, I’m sure. But hopefully, these tips will help you get started in your quest for the perfect character name.

In summary, keep your eyes and ears open and jot down all the names that appeal to you. Keep the list handy and add to it regularly. And if you find that the name you’ve chosen doesn’t seem to fit, grab the list and try again.

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