Thursday, April 17, 2008

Names, Names, Names

What I'm reading: Forbidden and Freedom's Price, both by Suzanne Brockmann
(Finished reading all my contest entries.)

What I'm working on: Scoring my Daphne reads. Also, back to Fozzie's book. Feels good to be doing something 'new' after all the edits and revisions.

With all the books I've been reading lately, and especially, trying to read quickly but still give them the attention needed for scoring, I've been caught up in the Name Game. Naming characters is a challenge all writer's face. They've got to "fit" the character. However, readers bring their own expectations or inner visions. My mother in law's name is Lucy. She's going to be 90 in a couple of weeks. Somehow, a young, svelte, sexy character named Lucy means the author's going to have to work at getting a good description down from the get-go. And what do you 'see' when you read a character's name is Allenby? That was the name of our tour guide in South Africa, and believe me, he looked nothing like the man I envisioned. (His pictures is in this blog somewhere down in the South Africa travel posts from December)

Anyway, when I write, I create a spreadsheet of the letters of the alphabet. Two columns, with A-Z in each one. Then, as I come up with a name, I'll put the first name in one column and the last name in the other. This has nothing to do with who the characters are -- it's simply a way to track names to make sure they're not too similar. And, on the advice of author Jeremiah Healy, I do everything I can NOT to use the intials of my h/h -- first OR last -- for any other characters in the book. So, for Finding Sarah, Sarah Tucker, the heroine, would mean I wouldn't use any S or T names.

The importance of this came when I was writing a scene for Hidden Fire. I had three characters having lunch, talking about a 4th. As I started typing Langley, Lalone and Laughlin, I realized I needed to do some renaming.

In the books and manuscripts I've been reading, I came across one with an Alex, and Aaron and an Anna in the same book. Also a Sophie and a Sabrina. In another one, there were two major characters, one named Mike and one named Mack. One was a first name, one a last, but the frequent use of the last name kept stopping me to make sure I knew who I was reading about.

And I suppose that just like 'real' names go through popularity cycles, so do fictional ones. I've seen lots of "S" heroines lately. I had 2 Sophies, a Samantha and a Sarah in recent reads. And three Jacks (one was a Jackson, though, but nobody called him that).

How do you feel about character names when you read? Do you even have trouble remembering who's who? Do you care if you can't pronounce the name?


Katie Reus said...

Interesting questions. I don't generally have trouble remembering names, but only if the character is well-drawn, b/c then it doesn't matter if their names have similar syllables. However, I do care if I can't pronounce the name b/c it slows me down in reading, unless the character really latches on to me then I don't care.

As for my own characters, I'd never given it much thought until a couple contest judges pointed out that three of the main characters had first names that started with "D". I hadn't thought about it b/c I knew my characters so well, but after having a few people mention that it confused them, I kept the hero's name and changed the other two characters names. I want my readers to enjoy what they're reading so if there's a chance that something like that would confuse or annoy someone, I have no problem changing it.

Nancy said...

Terry, how ironic that you bring this up today. Just yesterday my daughter and I were trying to name the heroine of the new YA book we’re plotting! I say, trying, because we haven’t yet come to a meeting of the minds. We used a baby name book and as we were going through it, I’d kick out a name I liked and she’d pooh-pooh it, “Eww, no, that reminds me of…” and I had to ax certain names for the same reason. We just can’t help but associate certain names with people or situations that have come before. However, if we create a three-dimensional character, one that seems so real she takes on an identity of her own, we can overcome the baggage that people are bound to attach to our characters because of the names.

One of the funniest stories I’ve heard about the name game is when a friend of mine was pregnant with her first child, she and her husband were at a standoff on boy names. The husband wanted to name the child a variation of his name (I’m not going to say the name because I’m bound to offend people with loved ones who have that name), but my friend was dead-set against it because she’d known too many dogs with the same name! The husband envisioned it as a solid “manly man name,” but when my friend imagined naming her sweet baby boy that she was compelled to whistle and yell, “Here, ***! Here, boy!!”

Terry Odell said...

I'm a 'visual' reader, so I 'see' the names, I don't hear them. So when too many look similar, I'm easily confused, at least at the beginning.

Nancy, how funny. I know when I found out I was carrying twins, coming up with new names (I didn't find out until I started my 9th month) gave me some panic moments. My husband and I couldn't agree on boys names for the life of us, and the thought of needing TWO was scary. But, I had 2 girls, so that problem was more or less solved. I used the first and middle names we picked out (and no, girls, if you're reading this, you'll NEVER know which of you got which name!).

There's a website for a random name generator somewhere. I know that one of the 'perks' of managing membership for an international organization is that I have a database full of names to borrow from.

Lara Dien said...

Don't call the men with the white coats ... I hear names. When I'm reading them, I mean. So I HAVE to be able to pronounce them, or it throws me through the entire book.

I changed a minor character's name once because more than one early reader pointed out her 1st and last names sort of combined the h/h's first names (oops). I'm struggling right now because I have two "Mike" characters in the same story, and, well, they're both Mikes.

The only other thing that gives me fits in names is what you mentioned early on--except for me it's more an age-appropriate thing. Seeing a character with my mom's name doesn't bother me, unless the character is my age. Not for personal reasons, but because that would have been an almost unheard of name for my generation. Lots of Terri, Pam, Michelle and Kris's .... and frequently, writers who have older heroines get it right, writers with younger heroines (when said writer is 30-something or older) often seem to use names that are a generation off when writing older characters in the same book. As though the writer is remembering the name of a person a generation older than she is.

And don't get me started on "she remembered doing xyz when she was that age". I AM the reader who looks at the publication date of the book and wonders why you said that .....if your heroine remembers where she was when Kennedy was shot, I'd better not be asking "was Ted Kennedy shot?" (kicks soapbox away)


Nancy J. Cohen said...

I'm not crazy about names I can't pronounce. I also don't like character names that are ambigious as to gendre. When I read books that include this, I keep saying to myself: Remember, George (or whomever)is the heroine.

Dara Edmondson said...

Names are definitely important to me when I write and when I read. I hated every Russian novel I read in college because I couldn't pronounce the names in my head. My own character names come very easily to me and once I give a character a moniker, it totally throws me if I'm forced to change it.