Monday, February 28, 2011

Hundreds of little people living under his skin.*

Coming up with character names is, as the master Charles Dickens probably knew, one of the most fun aspects of writing. Unlike real life, where you're named long before your identity is formed, you have the chance to give someone a handle that reflects their personality. Villains can be named "Uriah Heep"; plucky young urchins can be "Pip" or "The Artful Dodger"; Doomed girls can be "Little Nell." For a current master of this sort of thing, check out the films of Larry Blamire (for example, in The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra his alien couple is named "Kro-Bar" and "Lattis.").

But sometimes naming gets...tricky. As I've said elsewhere, I first invented my Eddie LaCrosse character in high school, except back then I named him "Devaraux LaCrosse." It was my attempt to play the high-fantasy, high-falutin' name game so prevalent in the genre of the time. My villain, who ultimately bore the much more reasonable monicker "Andrew Reese," was then known as "Kakorian Shay." Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with these ten-dollar names, I suppose, and perhaps a better writer could've made them work. But my bad guy certainly benefitted from a more normal name, and my hero never truly came alive for me until he started answering to the much less grandiose "Eddie."

In another, so far unfinished work, I used a placeholder name for the heroine, simply because I didn't want to stop writing long enough to think of the right one. "Bailey Nichols" was a play off a character from WKRP in Cincinatti, Bailey Quarters (Quarters/Nichols, quarters/nickles, get it?). There was no reason for this association within my story, which is a Southern Grand Guignol set during the eighties; consciously at least, it was entirely arbitrary. But as I worked on it, the name "Bailey Nichols" suddenly seemed to fit. I can't say for sure if it was merely the familiarity of repetition, but I was no longer able to think of her under any other name. So Bailey Nichols she remains.

Sometimes names present themselves, and there's no question they're right. Fauvette, the heroine of Blood Groove, was named after the song of the same name by Duncan Browne, whose music accompanied my writing process. She never had another name. The same with Bronwyn, protagonist of my upcoming novel The Hum and the Shiver. However, the names of the vampire sisters in The Girls with Games of Blood, Prudence and Patience, were arrived at by a deliberate process of pairing up names in search of ones that looked, sounded and felt right.

I started thinking about these issues after reading about another writer, Chelsea Main, whose critique group recommended she change the name of her protagonist. It turns out my response to "Bailey Nichols" wasn't unique. Chelsea said, "To me, names are not arbitrary labels for my characters. Names carry meaning and symbolism. The feel of a name says a lot about a character's personality to me. Choosing the correct name is a big deal - and letting go of one I've become attached to is not easy."

So what are your favorite character names, both from other's work and, if applicable, your own? Everyone who replies here will have a shot at my last remaining ARC of Dark Jenny.

*Full quote: "Every human being has hundreds of little people living under his skin. The talent of a writer is his ability to give them their separate names.” (Mel Brooks)


chelsea said...

I finally found a new name for my character. I had to tweak her personality a bit to fit it, but her personality needed tweaking anyway. I love the new name, even after spending a year with her former name-weird how that can happen.

Fred Perry said...

So much of my name creation angst comes from role-playing games, and I imagine when I ever sit down to write that novel, I'll have the same kind of issue. I was an unabashed borrower--Issek got his name from Fritz Leiber and Bannor got his from Steven Donaldson. When I finally created my own, I got one that I was delighted with: Penumbra Jones, a fixer-type character in a cyberpunk setting.

But my favorite name in a book has to be Hiro Protagonist, from Snow Crash, just because I can't believe someone would try to get away with such a horrible pun...and yet it really works for the character.