The Name Game

I have two younger siblings. When my parents were picking out their names, they looked at our family tree, they considered names they just liked, and the they took note of the popular names at the time so they could stay away from them. My brother’s name comes directly from a distant relative. Outside of my family, I’d never heard it before. The second he’s born though, boom! there were all these other kids named Cole popping up (although he’s the only Coleman I know–he just goes by Cole). Same thing with my sister. Madison and Sydney were all the rage when she was born. Then my parents named her Emily and suddenly there were Emilys all over the place.

I’ve noticed this trend in literature too. In my current WIP, I originally named one of my characters Warner, thinking it was a name I liked but hadn’t heard much. Then I found out there are several books out, like “Shatter Me” by Taherah Mafi, with a Warner. So I switched the name to Warren. Not long after the switch, I got a new story from a critique partner with a Warren. I then realized I’d named my character’s best friend Jessa, and my CP’s character’s best friend in an earlier story was Tessa. I’d already changed my character’s name because it didn’t feel right, but I think it didn’t feel right because it wasn’t my name.

It got me thinking, where do we derive our names? There’s a good chance my CP’s Tessa subconsciously spawned Jessa in my head. Possibly the same for her and Warren. But I never read the books with Warner. Like my parents, I thought I’d come up with an original name.

Recently, I’ve seen a lot of tweets from agents regarding names; asking for new and different names. Not wacky names, but they’ve seen a ton of Cassie and Bree and Ally. I noticed this myself during the Writer’s Voice contest. Trust me, when you read 200 queries in a row you start to notice the similarities, especially with character names. Where are they coming from though? Homages to friends? Names the writer just likes? Other literature or blog posts and what-not seeping into the subconscious?

Some of mine come to me already formed. With my last ms, I was trying to go to sleep and the characters appeared in my head, already named. Most of my characters require more thought, though. I make a mental note when I come across a name I like and store it away for later. Then, when I’m writing, I think about what name best fits the character’s personality. I usually research the name meanings and try to make the meaning fit the character. The hardest part is steering clear of people I know. Maybe I shouldn’t worry, but I don’t want someone seeing the name and thinking I got the character from them, especially if it’s a villain. (Caveat: of course I’m inspired by people I know, but no one person is ever entirely a character. I would hate it if I named a character Hannah and pointed out all her flaws and problems and my real friend Hannah thought it was all her, you know?) I kind of did this in my first ms. It was a fantasy story, so I took the names of family and altered them. Of course then I started feeling bad for not including everyone; then I worried about how those people would think they were being portrayed. From then on I’ve just steered clear, although the MC in my current WIP is derived from a sweet old lady I went to church with growing up–I just liked the name, though, and it was something I hadn’t seen before (although I fully expect it to start cropping up now, haha!).

I don’t want kids, so instead of dreaming of what I would name my children one day, I dream of what to name my characters. Coming up with names in stories is easier for me than naming things in real life. My husband and I pondered for days on what to name our pets. I got a new car last night and struggled with a suitable name (she’s a white Honda CR-V). Previous vehicles were Ol’ Smokey (1992 Pontiac Sunbird that burned oil like a freight train), The Gray Ghost (1989 Jeep Cherokee that was four or five different colors gray), and The Who Ride (1996 Nissan Sentra with pimp tints–it came that way, not my doing). I couldn’t figure out what to call the new one though. Eventually, I let go and pretended I was writing it in a story and bam! I had her name. Pearl. Hubby added Minnie to it since she’s a small SUV, so she’s now Minnie Pearl. (Side note, I had a cat named Minnie when I was a kid. My dad helped me come up with her name. I thought Minnie was ironic because she was a cat named after a mouse, which was part of Daddy’s thinking as well, but we had different concepts for the middle name. I wanted Mae, after my best friend; he wanted Paws. I thought he was saying she had little paws because he was a kitten, and I thought it was stupid because she was going to grow. So I held my ground and she became Minnie Mae. Only when I got older did I put Daddy’s names together and get what he was going for. Minnie Paws…if you haven’t gotten it, say it out loud, ha!).

Where do you get your character names? Are they derivative from something else you’ve read? Inspired by friends/family? Or do they have a deeper meaning?

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9 thoughts on “The Name Game

  1. I’m with you on looking up the meaning of names – I love babynames.com because they let you do an advanced search where you can write the meaning you want and they will show you names that have that meaning. I’m scared though the day someone goes through my history they will think I’m obsessed with having children! I find choosing names hard though. I write fantasy in a medieval type setting so can’t go for to modern names but don’t want to go to complicated/old fashioned either!

    • I love that site! I search by meaning all the time. Fantasy seems hard to get the right names for. There are a lot of fantasy names I’ve been unable to pronounce with all the emphasis marks and apostrophes and funky spellings, so when I’m reading, I usually just end up calling them by a letter, haha. Good luck with your names!

  2. I got the inspiration for the names of the characters in my current WIP from the same place my daughter’s name came from: my favorite author, Anne Rice. The characters in question are Mayfair (Maye) and Rowan (Rowe), and my daughter is Claudia. I think that naming kids and naming characters are one in the same for me. Trendy names are my pet peeve (yes, even those that are classics coming back into popularity with a vengeance. I’m talking to you, Sophie, Isabella, Lucy,and Violet), but I am also not a fan of “youneek” names, whether they be completely out of left field, or just spellings that deviate from the norm. I’m kind of a bitch about names, so I tend not to share my opinions on the subject all that often, lol.

    • I feel you on the speshul snowflake names. It bugs me that the classic names have been so overused recently. I’ve loved Lucy since the Chronicles of Narnia when I was a kid.

  3. i think names are the hardest part of my characters. they never seem to come easy. i always want to be really creative and come up with something unusual but then my character is like, really? i’m from a small town and my parents are so conservative, why would they name me that? and then i can’t do it. i have to take their background and history into account. i hate trendy names as well, but sometimes, that’s exactly what a character would be named and it fits their personality.

    • i have the hardest time with last names. For some reason they just never come to me. I actually kept a graduation program from a local high school graduation I attended this spring to use for surname ideas, haha.

      • oh, i have used a reference search for most popular names by region to help me find last names from time to time. you can even find some that help you look for names by era as well as location.

  4. Great post! I agree, it’s sometimes really difficult thinking of names. My WIP is a 1st-person book, (I’m usually more into 3rd) and I have to admit I’m getting fed up with my MC’s name. I went for ‘individual’ but not speshul snowflake, but I don’t think it worked. It doesn’t help that I’m a teenager so all the popular early ’90s names I could use for characters have already been used by my classmates’ parents!

  5. Pingback: THE NAMING OF THINGS. « tryingtowriteit

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