Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Guest blogger: Melinda Szymanik - What did you call me?

What did you call me?…

Names. Like naming children, naming our characters can be a daunting prospect. Get it right and our characters and their names are a seamless whole, with appellations that trip off the tongue and stick in people’s minds – Harry Potter, Voldemort, Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, Verruca Salt, Lyra Belacqua and Thursday Next.

A good name fits the character like a glove, suits them and can provide an additional clue to who they are or be an extra riddle to challenge the reader.

Sometimes characters turn up with their names already attached. The result of a sort of writer’s intuition, that name is often the best choice. Trust your instincts.

However sometimes I find when naming multiple characters in a longer piece of fiction that I have subconsciously made many of the names start with the same letter and changes are necessary to avoid confusion. A book of baby names (or two) is a good resource.

If you are writing historical fiction, try the internet. I also check out Births, Deaths and Marriages columns for names and sit through movie credits with pen and paper at the ready. Movie credits can be a fantastic place to find interesting and unusual names and I’m not just talking about the actors. Sometimes the foley artists, the special effects guys and the grips have the best names. It is a good idea if you are getting into this writing gig for the long haul to collect names that you like or that have a strong connection for you. Like screenwriters who write scripts with particular actors in mind I have several names I am keen to write stories around.

However liking a name is not always enough on its own to make the name right for your character. It still has to fit with who they are, how they behave and when and where they lived.

Names must suit the tone and setting of your story. Names are era, socio-economically and of course gender sensitive. For example, think of the names Nigel, Rupert, Bruce and Matt. Or Charlotte and Tiffany, Kylie and Lisa. What about Mabel or Myrtle and Agnes or Jeremiah. Paddy and Duncan could have a Scottish background while Marcelle and Dominique are most likely French. And what about Inga, Olga and Hans? It can be tempting to use unusual names and this can work really well, but it can also fail miserably. Standing out is not always the right thing for your character.

If you are writing for children, everyday names can make it easier for the reader to connect with your character. Of course while unusual names can be a curse in a novel or short story they can be the whole point in a picture book, for example Hubert Horatio Bartle Bobton Trent, Mog, or Hairy McLairy and Bottomley Potts. In picture books, rhythmic and rhyming qualities may be the deciding factor.

In my picture book The Were-Nana, while rhyming wasn’t an issue, choosing the name Simon for the brother gave me the opportunity to echo the Simon Say’s children’s game in several places. This name also helped with the rhythm of the story. The name Nana Lupin from the same book is a play on the root word for wolf.

Phew – there is a lot to take into consideration when naming your character. It can be one of the hardest decisions but ultimately you want it to look like it was no trouble at all. And like naming your own children, if your character makes it in to print the book will have to live with that name for the rest of its life. If you think the names will stand this test then you’ve done your job.

Melinda's previous posts on tall tales & short stories - 

Melinda's publisher
Scholastic NZ
Publishing Manager – Diana Murray


Nick Cross said...

I find naming characters immensely hard - along with titles, it is the most difficult part of writing for me.

I had to rename one of my characters the day before submission (to make an alphabetical plot contrivance work) and spent about an hour with the baby names book, desparately trying to find something that was both dull enough and started with the right letter of the alphabet.

Keren David said...

The difference between naming patterns in the UK and the US can be a problem - I was going to call a key male character Jamie, but someone told me it was almost always a girls' name in the US. And I've seen quite a few YA books where the names are too old for today's teenagers.

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