Wednesday, July 20, 2016

By Any Other Name

By: Darby Karchut

What’s in a character’s name? Well, a heck of a lot, really. The perfect name expands your imaginary universe and helps establish the character’s personality. It can be obvious or subtle. For many writers, including myself, characters do not become “alive” until they bear the perfect handle. That holds true for readers, too.

Here are some things to think about when choosing names for your characters:

Respect Your Genre

This is especially important in fantasy and sci-fi and historical fiction. Culturally-inspired names add another layer to your world building and helps ground your work in a real place and time, even if your book is fantastical in nature. And just as period costumes, manners, and vocabulary set the tone for your historical novel, so, too, can the proper name.

If your novel is inspired by legends from other cultures, this is fairly easy to do. Since my middle grade series, The Adventures of Finn MacCullen, is based on the Irish legend of The Boyhood Deeds of Finn McCool, I took the Gaelic spelling of Finn McCool (Fionn mac Cumhail) and Anglicized it to Finn MacCullen. A tried-and-true practice within the fantasy genre, but it is still an effective technique, especially for younger readers who are coming across this stuff for the first time.

Another tip: Use the name to reveal about the character’s essence. In my YA series, Griffin Rising, the hero is a teen guardian angel named Griffin. I gave him that name for two reasons: One, it means “Strong in Faith.” Two, it begins with a hard consonant (more on the actual sounds of names later). The challenge for you as the writer is to find a clever way to weave background tidbits about the name(s) into the story. Some readers will skip over this kind of geekery. Others will eat it up. Sprinkle it in judiciously.

J.K. Rowling, in her Harry Potter series, did a wonderful job taking roots words (many which had a Latin or Greek origin – just screams English boarding school, does it not?) and creating spot on names. For example: Serverus (severe), Albus (white), Draco (dragon). She also used alliteration (Rowena Ravenclaw, Salazar Slytherin, Helga Hufflepuff, etc.) but beware—too much of a clever thing is too clever by half.

Age Appropriate

Is the name appropriate for the age of your character? Check the baby names lists for the year your character was born, not the time period they are living through in your story. For most part, a woman born in the 1950s would have a different name than a teen girl born in the early 2000s.

A New Twist

That said, you might want to make your character stand out by giving them an unusual name (perhaps an old family name). In Stone’s Heart, Stonewall Wheeler is a modern-day farrier living in western Colorado. His son is Beau. Good, solid cowboy-ish monikers, and a tip of the hat to Civil War aficionados, to boot.   

Music to the Ears

Say your characters’ names aloud. How do they “feel” when you say them aloud? A hard consonant (B, D, G, T, etc.) can project strength or power. Softer vowels (A, M, N, O, etc.) might indicate a gentler personality. Sibilant sounds (S, Z, sometimes P or Th) can go either way. One of my characters from The Stag Lord is Shay Doyle. She is a shield maiden, as well as her clan’s healer. So, I chose the softer-sounding ‘ay’ in Shay and paired it with the hard consonant of ‘d’ in Doyle to show both her sides: healer and warrior. Soft and hard.

Ready for something subtle? Take Game of Thrones’ Ned Stark. The name starts off with a softer sound of ‘n’ (a family man, Ol’ Ned was), then it ends in a hard, clipped consonant. The ‘k’ sounds like the snap of a dire wolf’s jaws. Yeah, yeah. I’m stretching it, but you get my point.

Mind Your ABCs

Make sure none of your characters have similar names: Ken/Ben. Mac/Max. Casey/Kaci/Cassie/Kelsey. Olive/Olivia. Jim/Jem. Readers will get frustrated having to pause to figure out who’s who, especially at the beginning of the story.

One way to avoid this is to make sure your main characters’ names start with a different first letter. A lot of readers only skim the first few letters of a name. You want your readers turning pages, not slowing to remember if Mike was the romantic lead or was it Mitch?

I admit that the geek in me takes great joy in researching and selecting just the right name for my characters. It helps me understand who they are, why they are the way they are, and what they want out of life. I hope these thoughts help you, too, in your writing adventure.

Now, if folks would just stop calling me Darcy instead of Darby…

About the Author: Darby Karchut is an award-winning author, dreamer, and compulsive dawn greeter.  A native of New Mexico, she now lives in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, where she runs in blizzards and bikes in lightning storms. When not dodging death by Colorado, Darby is busy writing for children, teens, and adults. She is represented by Amanda Rutter at Red Sofa Literary.




2 comments:

  1. Thanks for such a great article Darby! I have been agonizing over several character names and this helps me to find what fits my character and feel good about it to boot.

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  2. I agree, this is one terrific article! I've been sweating over my character name, particularly my protagonist's. I've had people suggest I change it because the last name is Shannon, which can also be construed as female. But she likes it and doesn't want to change it ;) I know, Darby, you should start a side business and be a character name reviewer!

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