The Rabbit Hole of Naming

Alice Down the Rabbit Hole

Photo by Gibson Regester courtesy of Creative Commons

Some writers don’t worry much about naming.  They slap a label on a character and run with it.  Other writers dive down the rabbit hole and put excessive amounts of research, thought, planning and creativity into naming.  I’m in the latter camp, so thought I’d share with you some of the things I consider before attaching a moniker to a new character.  I don’t recommend you join me down in the rabbit warren—especially not during NaNo—because it’s far too easy to lose all sense of time and purpose while exploring the wonderland of names.  Instead I offer you a few categories, resources, and suggestions to help you quickly choose the names you need and get on with the business of the story.

WARNING:  once you go down the Rabbit Hole of Naming, it can be hard to climb back out.  For safe exploring, always attach a lifeline — a kitchen timer or a trusted friend to rescue you at an appointed time should do the trick.

CONNOTATIONS

As far as I’m concerned, the primary consideration when selecting a name is the connotations that come with it.  Unfortunately connotations are for the most part an individual thing.  Take the name Charlie, for example.  If that’s the name of your favorite grandpa, your best friend, or the family dog, you will have a much different feeling about that name than if Charlie was the bully who beat you up in the third grade.

So how do you get a handle on connotations if it’s such a personal thing?

Donald Trump

Photo by Gage Skidmore courtesy of Creative Commons

Try to weed out the truly personal associations and look at the more general, cultural connotations.  Take “Trump” for instance.  Because of “The Donald,” most adults Americans immediately think things like tycoon, businessman, wealthy, powerful, mogul.  The cultural connotations of Donald Trump are bolstered by the definition of the word trump:  a card of a suit that outranks the other suits; to excel, surpass, outdo.  Note that I didn’t put a “good” or “bad” value on it because not everyone likes Donald Trump.  The good/bad connotation will differ from person to person (along with various other associations, like crazy hair), but the impressions relating to Trump being a business tycoon are fairly consistent.

With most names it’s not that clear cut.  I chose “Trump” as an example because it’s a fairly unique name – there’s one primary cultural figure attached to it.  I didn’t choose “Donald” because there are multiple popular cultural references that don’t relate to each other:  Donald Sutherland, Donald Glover, Donald Maass, Donald Driver, Donald Duck.  Even though “Donald” is not exactly a popular name in North America these days, there are enough varied cultural references to make it nearly impossible to identify a connotation that’s consistent across the board.

This is where boiling it down to a general good/bad connotation can be helpful.  When I was having a hard time naming a villain, I emailed some friends for their first impressions of the name “Jorden.”  When I received their responses, the first thing I did was discard the highly personal ones like “The annoying blonde-haired boy that used to pull your hair in third grade, but grew up to be a very handsome, cool fellow.”  Then I took the culture-based answers (like Michael Jordan) and set those aside.  What was left was a handful of general impressions:  progressive, educated, cool, steadfast, funny, rich.  Does that sound like a villain to you?  Not to me either.  Jorden was moved to my list of “possible hero names.”  I ended up going with the name “Alexander” for my villain based on these impressions from my focus group:  formal, comes from money, strong, fighter, warrior, knight, upperclass, snobby, Alexander the Great.  Note that these are not necessarily negative connotations, but they were amazingly consistent (at least within my focus group – your mileage may vary), and they fit well with my image of my villain.

The one “sure thing” when it comes to connotations is YOUR OWN.  If your father is named Alexander and he is a gentle, kind, upstanding, loyal soul, you’ll have a hard time writing a villain named Alexander.  Not to mention all the familial ramifications – when your book is published, your father might never speak to you again because all his friends assume the villain in the book is based on him!  So always factor in your own personal connections to a name, and don’t underestimate the potential fallout from family and friends.

VISUAL CONSIDERATIONS

CarrieCoyoteBlackSince your story will be READ, it’s important to think about how a name will look on the page.  If two names are similar visually, a reader may confuse one for the other.  For example, I had a protagonist named Carrie and an antagonist named Coyote.  Carrie and Coyote both start with “C,” end with “e,” and have the same number of letters.  Even *I* confused one for the other when reading my own work, so I decided I had to change one.

Even when two names are not the same length, if they begin with the same letter it can be a problem because readers often skip over names, especially if they’re long, complex, and/or “foreign.”  Often readers refer (in their minds) to them as “the C character” rather than reading/thinking the whole name.  This doesn’t just apply to fantasy novels where the characters have long, strange names.  Look at some of the names in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment:

RODION ROMANOVITCH RASKOLNIKOV, a student.

PULCHERIA ALEXANDROVNA, his mother.

AVDOTYA ROMANOVNA (DOUNIA), his sister.

DMITRI PROKOFITCH RAZUMIHIN, his friend.

PRASKOVYA PAVLOVNA, his landlady.

It would be easy to skim over those names and think of them as “the R character” and “the P character,” if only they didn’t have so many Rs and Ps among them!

So consider selecting names with different first letters, at least for your main characters.  If your story has a lot of names, consider making an alphabetical list.  That way you can see if you are heavy in one letter or light in another.  I suggest including anything that’s capitalized and used frequently in the story:  city, country, planet, sports team, school, business, pet, title, honorific, clan, etc.

When your story is published, chances are it will be read aloud.  But even if it’s not, please take pronunciation into consideration.  If a name appears unpronounceable to your reader, they are likely to skip over it, which puts a distance between your reader and your character.  It can also be annoying to readers, which can drop them out of the story.  We want our readers to identify with our characters and be engrossed in the story, so if you’re determined to name your villain Xqyrtikqo consider spelling it Exquartico.

SETTING CONSIDERATIONS

The setting includes the place, time, and culture in which your story occurs.  You want your names to be consistent with this setting, whether it’s contemporary New Mexico, New Amsterdam in 1630, New Delhi in 2077, New Vegas (a name I made up for a planet in the real Andromeda galaxy), New Phisedan (a planet in the fictitious Bach-5 galaxy), or New Aslidrian (a fantasy world I just named based on a typo).

If you’re writing a contemporary, historical, or near-future real-world setting, it’s incredibly easy to find real-world resources to mine for names.  For example, let’s say I’m writing a YA romance with main characters aged 15, set in Alabama in the year 2027.  To give my characters authentic names for this time period, I’d look at the most popular names for babies born in Alabama in 2012 here:  http://www.ssa.gov/cgi-bin/namesbystate.cgi and their names would be “Aiden” and “Emma,” the 7th most popular name for a boy, and the most popular name for a girl for that year.  Did you know you can do that?  Yep.  At the Social Securty Administration (www.ssa.gov) there’s a whole section on baby names.  You can sort by year (from 1960 to 2012) and by U.S. state.  How cool is that?

So do your research if you’re writing anything based on the real world, extrapolating when necessary.  If your setting exists only in your imagination, spend some time thinking about the culture, and make your naming consistent with that.  For example, one of your clans (or countries or planets) could have a Viking-type culture with Nordic SOUNDING names, and the other could have a Cherokee-type culture with names SOUNDING like those from the Iroquoian language group.  Even if your imaginary culture bears no resemblance to an actual one, a little effort on your part to make words/names internally consistent will be appreciated by your readers, even if only on a subconscious level.

NEXT STEPS

Whether you chose to dive down the Rabbit Hole of Naming or not, eventually you’ll need to choose names for your characters.  When you do, don’t be afraid to break the “rules” – you might turn the world on its ear by doing for the friendly, loyal Charlie what Friday The Thirteenth did for Jason or Jane Austen did for Mr. Darcy.  Or maybe “Xqyrtikqo” will be the next Cujo or Narnia.

Don’t be afraid to take the leap and make decisions – you can always change a name later!

SOME RESOURCES

Alice and the White Rabbit

Alice in Wonderland (Illustrator: Tarrant, 1916) image courtesy of Special Collections Toronto Public Library via Creative Commons

http://www.babynames.com/

http://www.babynames.co.uk/

http://www.20000-names.com/

http://www.behindthename.com/

http://www.namenerds.com/uucn/randname.html/

http://www.namator.com/names_people_a.php/

http://www.thinkbabynames.com/random/

http://www.babynamegenie.com/baby-name-generator/

http://fantasynamegenerators.com/

http://www.rinkworks.com/namegen/

http://www.namegenerator.biz/fantasy-name-generator.php

http://www.namegeneratorfun.com/

http://www.tor.com/blogs/2013/08/apostrophes-in-science-fiction-and-fantasy-names

http://www.seventhsanctum.com/generate.php?Genname=sfgovernment

http://www.scifiideas.com/alien-name-generator/

http://parallaxedjournal.wordpress.com/2013/05/07/world-building-author-tips-for-creating-a-new-scififantasy-culture/

http://www.sfwa.org/2009/08/fantasy-worldbuilding-questions/

http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~poindexterfamily/OldNames.html

http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Troy/4081/ShakespeareNames.html

http://nameisms.blogspot.com/search/label/Name%20Lists

I did warn you this was a rabbit hole.

5 thoughts on “The Rabbit Hole of Naming

  1. An excellent post with much practical advice. I too am purty persnickety about names, following nearly all your advice. I keep a folder of names with suggestions about usage for future use. One other thing to consider is to limit the oddest names for your main characters and use less unusual names for secondary characters. The 3 – 5 most important people in your book will stand out along with their names, the others will stand more quietly at the back of the line.
    Really enjoying your blog.

    • Sharon,
      I absolutely agree with limiting the most unusual names to a handful of your most important characters. That’s a terrific suggestion, and I appreciate you taking the time to share it!

  2. Great post, touching on so many of my peeves as a reader that I have determined to avoid as a writer. Yet I just re-read a story I wrote a year ago and found myself confused by gliding over characters I had given the same last name and only referred to by Mr. and Mrs. Bad Susan! Giving your readers only ONE LETTER to differentiate characters? Very bad.

  3. Holy Rabbit Hole Batman!
    True, naming characters is tricky.
    AT PPWC I did a first 16 lines session and 2 of the three editors/agents on the panel couldn’t “get past” the name of my character. WTF? There’s a story here, people!
    What? You don’t care? Fine.
    Thank you for the feedback.
    I’ll think about it.

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