Friday, October 19, 2012

The Naming of Names

The Naming of Names

According to Old Possum T.S. Eliot, it's a difficult matter, not just one of your holiday games. And sometimes it's a struggle.

Coming up with names for your characters, that is. Ask fantasy novelists. Some of them apparently throw a dozen Scrabble tiles into a dice cup, give it a good shake, and then toss 'em and read 'em. And we get names like Wyzfhachtiz. Or Bazfazz. Or Mego.

But even if you're writing a realistic novel, sometimes the names come hard. Jim Dallas was pretty easy, though. Atlanta Bones was to feature a Florida adventurer/detective in the mold of the great John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee...who began life as Dallas McGee before the events in Dealey Plaza made JDM rethink the name.

Originally the protagonist of Atlanta Bones was going to be Dallas, no other name, but that got to feeling artificial. Jim is nice and short and fairly ordinary, so there you go.

Did you know that in the first draft of Gone With the Wind the heroine was Pansy O'Hara? Margaret Mitchell's editor hated the name and asked her to pick a more colorful one...hence Scarlett.

My rules for picking a name:

  • It ought to sound plausible.
  • Bad guys, especially, should have odd names so you won't offend too many people. So look for offbeat last names.
  • It ought to sound like a name someone actually would give his or her child. If the parents are Susie Mae and Jeb, the kid isn't likely to be Montmorency.
  • If you need to, you should be able to have a backstory. Sam Lyons is (or so he says) of Native American descent, and his name really is "Sam Two Lions." For business purposes, he made that Sam Lyons. However, I'm not sure Jim believes that. Not sure that I do, come right down to it.
  • Avoid the old-fashioned tag name (once all the rage), which is actually a kind of label, unless you're doing a funny bit or a period piece. Think of Charles Dickens's names for some of his characters: Mr. Gradgrind. Mr. M'Choakumchild. Mr. Smallweed. Or look at 18th-century plays: Mrs. Malaprop. Robert Acres (a landowner); Sir Lucius O'Trigger (he has a hair-trigger temper); Mrs. Squeamish...pace J.K. Rowling, it's not that funny a game any more.
  • Above all: If, in the process of writing, a better name occurs to you...change the original at once. Global search and replace is your friend.

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