Tuesday, August 2, 2011

On Character Naming

The assigned reading for the last semester of my Master's program was "Changes" by Jim Butcher. This was, I believe, book 12 in the Harry Dresden Series.
One of the things the students said they hated were the number of characters with a name that started with the same letter. For example M~ and how difficult it was to keep the characters apart. This probably isn't as obvious in the earlier books, but by the time we get to book 12, and many reoccurring characters show up, we start to see patterns in the author's mind.
I didn't really think about this until it was brought up in class. Now I am very conscious about how I pick character names.
I recently sold the first three books in a gluten-free bakery series. I'm currently working on a second completely different series and discovered in my first draft that I tended to use the same first names for secondary characters that I used in the GF series. I know I've done this before in different single title books. But now I'm conscious of the pattern to my brain's naming process. Having a pattern is not good. The last thing an author wants is the same character names in two separate series set in two very different places. So I got out my baby naming books and my copy of "The Writer's Digest Character Naming Sourcebook." I had invested money in these books early on in my career, but over time got lazy and simply picked what I thought were random names out of the air. Come to find out those names were not so random. (Sort of like when you think you are naming your children new and different names only to discover you named them the same as everyone else that year. For example, I was always one of at least three Nancy's in school. So I picked what I thought was a weird name-Ashley- for my daughter. Only to discover that she was always one of three Ashley's in school. Who knew?)
So how do you pick character names? Sometimes I will go through my resources and pick names that contain certain meanings-like little man, or wolf, or mythic hero name. Then I'll find a section based on ethic names and use the name will help me to build a character. Or I'll do a search of most popular baby names the year my character was born and choose one of those. Or I'll use the names of family or friends. I do this for all my main characters. Where I was falling down on the job were the side characters. It was the side characters with names that all started with the same letter that bothered the readers in Book 12 of the Dresden Files. I would be so lucky to have a book 12 in any series, so I figure it doesn't hurt to be prepared.
Now I have work to do- I am compiling a list of all character names I've used in my published books. Yep, there are patterns my friends. Next I will check the list and disregard any names that start with the same letter as a previous character in the same series. Then add the new name to my growing list for characters and side characters. It seems like a lot of work, but really if you do a few names with every book, you'll begin to see your own patterns and should you get to a 12th book in a series with reoccurring characters, your readers will be able to tell them apart- even if they start with book 12.
When you're reading, do you notice a pattern to the character names? Does it bother you? If you're a writer, please share the secrets to your character names.
Inquiring minds would love to know. Cheers~


Jessica Nelson said...

Yep, too many characters confuse me. I noticed I had some with the same letter too and had to rename.

Linda Kage said...

I had a main character named Reed and his best friend was named Nick in one of my stories. They didn't start with the same letter, but for some reason, they seemed too close to me (maybe it's because they both had 4 letters--don't know), so I ended up changing Nick to Nic.

I find myself putting the same name for minor characters into different books as well. Every time the hubby catches me flipping through the baby name book, he lifts a curious eyebrow.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Jessica, thanks for stopping by~ Funny how it's the little things that catch us as writers.

LOL, Linda, that really made me smile. All that name searching means you're prepared should you have another baby. But seriously, isn't it odd how much work goes into keeping characters fresh? Who would have thought about the impulse to use names with the same first letters- or the same number of letters?


lesleylsmith said...

I must admit I didn't see any similarities in Butcher's character's names. ?
I'm afraid I use the social security's website of popular baby names
by year to pick my names. :)

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Lesley,

Funny- that was the biggest complaint in our group. Thanks for the tip on the SS website. Great place for names.