Monday, January 26, 2015

A Rose by Any Other Name Can Be...a Heather: Naming Characters

     There are two things about writing that never get any easier for me. . .coming up with a good title and naming characters.  I still have a hard time with titles, but I have developed strategies to give my characters good names.

    I spent most of my pregnancy struggling to come up with just the right name for my daughter, a name that would be all her own. In writing, I do not have the luxury of spending eight months on one character name.

    I believe that name is the single most important aspect of a character. It is usually the first thing a reader learns about him.  The name should reflect the character's personality is some way, however subtle.  Sometimes that is a mysterious process that goes on in the author's head, unexplainable to anyone else.  I do not know how E.B. White decided on Charlotte and Wilbur, but can you imagine them named anything else?  A book called Barbara's Web?  A pig named Bob?  No, somehow Charlotte and Wilbur, along with Fern and Templeton and Mr. Zuckerman are so right, they could not be anything else.

    Since I write historical fiction, I have a second barrier to finding just the right name. My names need to fit the time period.  The characters in Yankee Girl were pretty easy.  The book was about my sixth grade class.  I used names that were popular in 1964, as well as names that were popular in the South.  Jimmy's Stars, which takes place in 1943, was a little more difficult.  I knew that my main character was born in 1932, and would have graduated from high school in 1950. I scoured libraries and second-hand stores for 1949-50 high school annuals. (There were an awful lot of girls named Betty.)

    Contemporary fiction isn't much easier.  Names change as quickly as any other fashion.  Some names scream a particular decade.  I am a baby boomer, and I was usually the only Mary Ann in a class full of Debbies, Karens, Cathys and Sharons.  When I was a middle school teacher in the late 80's, I taught more than a few Farrahs. My friends who had babies about then named them Ashley and Kate (not after the Olsen twins!)  When I had my daughter in 1994, I was the only one in my childbirth class who did not name their child Tyler or Taylor (regardless of sex).

   Then there are adult names. In children's books, they are usually not a central character but occasionally they are.  (Miss Gruen and Reverend Taylor in Yankee Girl come to mind.) How do you name adults?

   Here is a list of sources I have compiled that help me with The Naming Game.

   1.  Baby name books.  These often reflect the popularity (or lack of popularity) of a name, as well as give a cultural origin. (Warning:  I learned not to carry one of these in public unless I wanted to start rumors about a possible new addition to my family.)

   2.  School annuals.  These work for both contemporary and historical fiction.

   3.  School directories, websites, newsletters, newspapers, class lists.  Schools in my neck of the woods generate an enormous amount of student information. If you don't have access to your own personal student, read the school news pages online or in your neighborhood paper/website.

   4.  Obituaries.  Yeah, I know it's kind of morbid, but I have collected a number of "old-timey" names from them.  Around here, they usually include the person's nickname as well.

   5.  Observation.  I live a mile away from the fastest growing immigrant community in the country.  Call me nosy (or a writer), but I notice workers' name tags.  I ask the employee where they are from and how they pronounce their name.  No one has been insulted (yet), and I have collected names I would never have thought of on my own.

    6.  The Social Security Index of Popular Baby Names. This site is unbelievably cool.  It lists the top 200 names for boys and girls for each decade, from 1880 to 2010.  Not only is it searchable by decade, but by each state as well. (Apparently Mary and James were the hot names of my decade.)

   What do I do with all these names?  I list them in a notebook, separate from my regular journal. Right now, the 1910 Social Security list is getting a heavy workout from me.  My characters are named.

      Now if I could just think of a title...

     Don't forget about our current book giveaway.  For more information click here.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman



Carmela Martino said...

These are great resources, MA. I'm like you--I put lots of thought into naming my characters. I've used the Social Security website MANY times!

Patricia Toht said...

Thank you for the resources, Mary Ann. I just finished re-reading The Tale of Despereaux and marvel at Kate DiCamillo's name choices -- not only Despereaux, but Miggery Sow, Princess Pea, Roscuro. Like you with Charlotte's Web, I can't imagine this story with any other names.

mary ann rodman said...

Patricia--I think you have nailed one of the reasons I don't write fantasy. I have a hard enough time with real life names, let alone fanciful fantasy ones. Speaking of fantasy names, I'm pretty fond of the ones in the Hunger Games. I'm betting more than a few little girls have been named Katniss in the last couple years. Carmela--I didn't find the Social Security website myself. A playwright friend put me on to it.

Rosi said...

Thanks for a very rich post. I spend a lot of time on names and titles. Names aren't as hard for me as titles. I use pretty much the same resources as you, but appreciate the reminders of some.

Esther Hershenhorn said...

Thank you, Mary Ann, for this post.
A character's name is EVERYTHING!
A favorite writing activity with kids is to share the name of "the new student arriving tomorrow," then ask them to write just what kind of classmate they're expecting. :)
And MANY of my characters' names are courtesy of the Chicago Tribune Obituaries, including Howie Fingerhut.

jan godown annino said...

Mary Ann,
Appreciations for an energetic post.
Your post title is perfect. Maybe a book title is a name, to the nth power...
This is jammed with resources & also makes me think of Jellical Cats & the Naming of ..(Anyone who had too much of Cats can zone out for a sentence or 3. Reading the play has been a fun exercise for me, to remember all the names of my cats, beginning with Wacky & thinking of future cat names.)
I like how Patty recalls the names Kate DiCamillo gave us.
So, I feel a perfect kid name, matched to the story,is Harper Lee's Scout.
Esther's class challenge about the new kid's name & what it could represent is also a keeper, among all these eyedeer boosts.