Wednesday, December 29, 2010

What's With Those Names?

What I'm reading: Chasing Shadows, by C.J. Lyons.

Since the rights to my second published novel, What's in a Name? revert to me on Dec. 31st, I've been working on preparing it for digital release.

Of course, I wanted to read it for typos—no matter what, a few always sneak by. And I also wanted to update the technology. When I wrote it, pagers were the norm, and the basic backup for computer files was via CD ROMs. What I didn't realize was that when I wrote this book, I hadn't started using my name-tracking system. Considering the title, I decided to 'retro-fit' one, and made my basic spreadsheet using Excel. It takes no special skill – I just list every letter of the alphabet in two columns, one for first names, and one for last. I space them a number of columns apart, and then simply fill in the names as I create them. Note: This page of the spreadsheet doesn't keep first and last names together; it's simply a way to track the names appearing in the story.

Imagine my shock to find that not only was I terribly uncreative with names, but that my editors didn't seem to notice—not even when I had three characters named Henry! Some larger publishers have editors who actually write down every named character, and on what page they first appear, but I've never had that "luxury."

I think if you click on the images, they'll open in an enlarged format. If not, you can email me or leave your email in a comment, and I'll send them to you.

I decided to apply what I've learned about naming characters to the edits. This was a little more complicated that usual, because the book's heroine has undergone 3 name changes before the book starts, and there are references to them. The hero also assumes an alias during several scenes. In this case, I didn't think it was wrong to reuse his "B."

How do readers react when they come across names? I can't speak for everyone, but I tend to zero in on the initial letters. (Which is probably why Horace Blackthorne showed up as Horace Blackstone in the galley copy of When Danger Calls—neither I nor 2 different editors noticed it.)

Author Jeremiah Healy once said that you should avoid re-using the initials of your protagonist for the entire book. Sometimes that's not possible, and things get complicated when you're writing more than one book; I find I have 'go to' names and in this case, although I didn't have too many D names, one of them was David, who was an important character in another book, so I changed him to Doug for this one.

Another thing I'll look at is how many times does the character appear, and is the name really necessary at all? Once you name a character, you're telling the reader "this is important." On the flip side, people tend to think of other people by name, so if your hero knows Miss Walk On, he's likely to think of her as "Mary." I had a short elevator encounter in the hero's building, but although he knew two of the other characters, in the revisions, they referred to each other as "Mr." and "Mrs." That meant I could get rid of two first names!

Compare this to my "before" spreadsheet.

If a character appeared only once or twice, or was mentioned in passing, I didn't mind doubling (or tripling) up on letters. In my "after" spreadsheet, Amanda and Angela, for example are two young children, sisters (and are simply made up as part of the heroine's cover story!) However, in most cases, I tried to make them look different—different number of syllables, and not all starting the same. So, my revised "M" people, for example, are now Margaret, Melina & McGregor, and none is a major character.

I also did a lot of Google searching for popular first names of the decades my characters would have been born in, and also for ethnic and regional surnames to add some variety for my characters.

Another writing tip I gleaned from a workshop was to make your character names sound as if the characters' parents named them, not the author. I failed, I think, to deal with that the first time around.

The result? I now have a much broader use of the alphabet, and the only time I used the same letter for more than 2 or 3 characters was when they were "throwaway" names—they didn't appear more than once, and weren't ever in the same scenes.

Now, before I release the book, I'll be going through it once more to make sure I haven't left any of the old names.

Hint: When doing Find/Replace, make sure you click the "find whole words" and "match case" boxes so you don't get strange new words!

What's your take on character names, as a reader or a writer?


Kathy said...

I did that very thing I have mother in law as Lisa and mother as Linda. I needed the moms to have names and I was writing along and was like uhm Lisa then used the same name again for the mom and went wait that is mother in law name. I did it with two other characters I couldn't remember what name I had used and I was on a roll so I grabbed the name that came to mind. Oops a man and a woman with same last name. Might happen in real life but not usually good in a book. It was hero's boss and heroine's boss not the same person or anything. SO yeah with this story I am going to have to use your chart to go through and fix the names. I wrote a historical and started with Foster then changed it to Forester. I liked the flow better for some reason. I used Devon and Tara in the historical and they might not have been common names in late 1800's I just could not change them it just wouldn't fit. I never finished that story I got bogged down fixing things at the beginning and never went beyond. I did move ahead in story but was episodic plot with no real ending. I know better now. I refuse to do a lot of editing and fixing on this until I get it done. I will then figure out what is weak and where to add descriptions and stuff. I just realized I was so bogged down with details I wasn't working on the story's forward progress.

Kathy said...

Curious to know if either of you ever had that when you first started. The details of how to write it just so and things bogging you down from getting the story down?

Terry Odell said...

Kathy, thanks for stopping by. Character names are important. I, for one, don't know much about when certain names first appeared, but I do check the popular names of the decades when seeking one for my characters.

As for getting bogged down -- I don't like to leave a task unfinished, so I'll get to the end, but I like to have things 'fixed' along the way. I'm trying to wrap up a new WIP, and I am finding that I have to commit to some basic plot points that I'd left open-ended as I wrote.

Marsha A. Moore said...

Good to see another system for keeping details straight. Looks simple enough to do and useful. I now use Liquid Story Binder and create character dossiers, after trying to mentally keep it all straight during my first book overwhelmed me. Thanks!

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Naming characters is always a headache. It's very easy to goof, to miss little mistakes.

Karen Cioffi said...

Hi, Terry, interesting post. Writing for children and non-fiction, coming up with names is easier. But, I came across a site a while ago that gives random first and last names for characters:

Alchemist Name Generator

I hope it's helpful to you and your readers.

Terry Odell said...

Marsha - I keep the character details in a Word doc, but for names, this one works best for me. I might also jot down a few 'reminders' as to who the character is on my spreadsheet, but I agree, you need to keep the details about them straight--as I learned when I started writing series book.

Jacqueline - yep - that's why I use the spreadsheet system. And I'll check the older ones for previous books to avoid having a David in every book I write!

Karen - thanks for the link. When I started, I used names of people I knew, but always mixed up firsts and lasts so as not to have them think I was writing about them.

Ronnica said...

I definitely peruse the popular name lists for the appropriate time periods to help me find names that fit, but aren't necessarily the first one that come to mind. I also like your reminder to pick names that sound like the parent named them...that's definitely something you see many sitcoms fail at, as their characters often have the new hit names!

If names are too generic I have a hard time keeping them straight.

Terry Odell said...

Ronnica - yes, it's important that the names 'fit' in so many ways, the time, the ethnicity, the character, and yet the have to "look" different on the page so readers don't get confused. I changed a name, and then discovered I'll have to tweak a few lines, where the heroine commented that his name was "too common" when she was doing a Google search. His old name was, but not his new one!

Bob Sanchez said...

Following on your hint, I suggest that you not do an automatic, or global, search/replace. Look at every instance of a name to confirm that it's what you want. Otherwise if you change Sam to Bob and forget that your story has a good samaritan, you can wind up with nonsense like bobaritan. (I've done it.)

As for names, I like to try for the unusual, but avoid beginning several names with the first letter. There is a real-life person whose parents thought it would be cute to name him Chevy Pickup. It's dumb but memorable.

Terry Odell said...

Bob - good point, and that's why I mentioned selecting "match case" and "find whole words" whenever you have the urge to do a global search/replace.(Although yes, it's smart to replace them singly just to make sure.) But if you say "match case" then samaritan with a lower case S won't get a hit. Likewise, "whole words" means you won't find 'samaritan' when you search for Sam. However, I usually just do "match case" because that will find all matching words but won't cause problems with possessives. If you choose "whole words" then you won't find "Sam's" when looking for Sam.

And the spreadsheet helps avoid names starting with the same letters, although it's also good to watch for endings like "son", etc. so you don't have Peterson, Richardson, Nickelson, etc.

Neil Plakcy said...

I have a couple of baby name books that I use for making up character names. My favorite is a book of names by ethnic origina. I find that giving someone an unusual name leads me to discover interesting things about their background.

Terry Odell said...

Neil, finding the right ethnic name is important. You don't want it to sound like a stereotype, but you want something true to the character's parents as well.

Since I've been working on these revisions, I've started listening to more names and filing them away for future characters.

M. S. Spencer said...

I posted a comment at for you. I never thought of tracking names! Easier than going over & over the ms. to make sure you don't have alliterative or similar names. Good article.

Terry Odell said...

Thanks for commenting in both places, Meredith! I did my final run-through last night and STILL found names I wanted to change. The beauty of this being a re-release I'm doing myself is that I can!

Patricia Stoltey said...

The name game is always fun, and I admire the scientific way you go about selecting and keeping track of names. It's a good critique group has caught me more than once using names that sound too much alike.

Joyce Yarrow said...

Sometimes I'll use a real person's name as a placeholder -- for example, an officer in the Russian Criminal police who I met with in Moscow. He had a great personality and I created a character totally based on him. A few months before publication, I remembered I needed to fictionalize his name!

Terry Odell said...

Patricia - I didn't invent the system, but it works, scientific or not!

Joyce -- better a few months before than a few months AFTER! That's why I always flag things I need to come back to with ^^ in my ms.

Unknown said...

Hi Terry - This is a really great idea. I made one up for myself this afternoon after reading this, so thanks! Also, my apologies if anyone has asked this already (I didn't notice if someone did), but why are some of the names color coded?

Terry Odell said...

Laura, thanks. And a good question. I wondered if I should explain, but figured curious people would ask. I normally use a different font for hero and heroine so I don't re-use those initials for any other characters if at all possible. In the first speadsheet the red are my hero and heroine, but since Kelli has changed her name in the past, and then they pretend to be other people while they're on the run, I used blue to show that those were really the same characters (or I'd have gone nuts). Plus I didn't want to overuse those initials so readers might have a chance at keeping the who's who thing straight.

Sometimes, I'll also highlight or color code a character who appears only once in a throwaway line, so I know that letter can be reused if I need to.

Jessica Humphrey said...

Thank you for sharing your strategies. I realized after the fact that I had 8 "(" names in my manuscript. Naming characters is something that I struggle with anyway. I usually am invested in the hero/heroine's names, but the others don't come quite as easy. I had the same trouble when naming my son! :) now I have a friend who I can call on with a short description, she gives me a name, and most of the time it is perfect.

I never thought of not giving them names. Something to consider!

Terry Odell said...

Jessica - names are tough. I found out our second baby was going to be twins about 2 weeks before they were born (no routine ultrasounds in those days) and coming up with another name kept us busy for days.