Adventures in Writing: Name That Character

What’s in a character name anyway? To some people, everything. To others, it’s just something to call the character and there’s no meaning whatsoever.

Adventures in Writing

One of the most controversial things I’ve ever researched happens to be about naming your characters. The name has to mean something! If your character is an evil villain you’ve got to name them something to strike fear into the heart of the reader! If you’re writing romance, you want the Love Interest‘s name to make the reader tingle with anticipation whenever they read it!

Let’s talk about character names a little shall we? And yes, sorry, I’ll be referring to television shows again. I know, I know… it’s easier than remembering character names in books more often than not for me. There are some characters I’ll always adore, such as Joscelin Verreuil from the Kushiel Legacy by Jacqueline Carey and I think my favorite character in the Anita Blake saga by Laurell K. Hamilton has got to be Nathaniel Graison. And yes, he is a Nathaniel, not Nathan, not Nate, always Nathaniel. At least, from where I left off in the series, he’s never been referred to as anything other than Nathaniel and it would probably feel awkward to me if he were and I had forgotten.

If you watch Supernatural – spoiler alert – you learn that Sam and Dean are named for Mary’s parents. Which never fails to make me smile. It’s like saying, “sorry mom and dad, I’m going to attempt to be a housewife and leave this hunter-life behind”. Ahh, those were the days. My daughter recently finished all of Gilmore Girls and I had to shake my head when she kept saying Dean because Jared plays Dean in Gilmore Girls. But now I’d have difficulty as seeing him any other way than Sam. Short and simple names, sure, but they strike the fear in anyone being hunted by them.

Damon in a bubble bath I wouldn’t mind joining in…

And then you have both books and a tv show – The Vampire Diaries. You won’t meet another Damon or Stefan that have such caliber. Damon makes you think sexy, psycho, grab life by the throat and drink it. Whereas Stefan has to control his every move or become a monster. So who is the true monster? You have to decide as you see their lives unfold in words or moving images, or both.

Ahh, character names. They can make your heart pound or squirm in your seat.

Did you know there are authors that put a ton of work into naming their characters? And then you have the other side that slap whatever name they happen to see first and if it fits it fits, but if not, it may fall flat.

One name that always made me kind of roll my eyes is probably Kilgrave from Jessica Jones. Now don’t get me wrong, the character scares the bejeebus out of me to be sure. David Tennant is such an amazing actor that I almost hate him for playing that role. Knowing him as The Doctor will always be the highlight of my life. I can’t wait to see him in Bad Samaritan despite the fact that it’ll probably scare the bejeebus out of me and make Kilgrave look like a puppy with powers.

Why am I writing about character names? Well, I’ve been having difficulty naming the characters in the novella I’m working on. In fact, it’s gotten that I’ve used he/she/they until I’ve gotten fed up with myself and either slap in a name or put {Fe/Male Character Name} as a placeholder. Then when I go reread a little before continuing writing, the names make me groan or roll my eyes. Sure, they don’t have to stay those names. I’m not clinging to them like a toddler to their mom or anything. It still drives me a touch batty though.

Some authors don’t even name their characters until they finish the first draft.

I know, how crazy is that!? I couldn’t imagine writing anything longer than a short story without naming the characters. I mean, what do you do if you’re writing a foursome – how do you keep track of all those hands and mouths and who’s doing what? XX1 and XY1 just doesn’t cut it in my smutty world. On top of that, who wants to read a first draft for editing purposes and see “Oh yes, Male1, that’s the spot.” Or “Yes, Lover2, pinch my nipples.” It really just doesn’t get me all hot and bothered.

See, even if the names aren’t going to stick, I need to have names. My biggest issue is when I change a name and forget to change all the names. Sure, CTRL+H is great for find/replace, but what happens if you chose a long name like Alexander and you forget that there’s one character who calls him Alex for one silly scene and you changed his name to George. Oops.

By the way, if you have good people in your writer tribe or beta readers, they’re going to ask ‘Uh, hey, who the fuck is this Alex guy? And why are people mistaking George for him?”

Ever read a story and the character names just don’t ring true? Like reading about a Tiffany and knowing a Tiffany who has a completely different personality can just cause you to disassociate. Or knowing a character named Tiffany in another book or a movie (or yes, tv show) that you adore and the Tiffany in the story is just ruining your fictional mojo with the one you love?

What’s in a name?

Just like with the name Damon, I always think Salvatore. I always think sexy, psychopathic (possibly with his emotional switch turned off), and hell yes, I would climb into a bubble bath with him so fast there’d be a flood on the floor.

The name Dean tells me gruff, tough, and when he’s angry shit is going to get broken. But his name also embodies trying to live every day like it’s the last so bring on the beers and ladies.

Sam tells me sure, I’ll be your computer and research king, I’ll sympathize with you, but hey if I lose my soul, you’re toast. You’re not even good toast, your the burnt toast that people don’t bother trying to scrape the char off in an attempt to salvage it.

The name Joscelin made me think at first of its feminine form when I first read it in the Kushiel Legacy. I didn’t give much thought to the character. But let me tell you, it is a smoke screen. Sure, the name in this spelling is masculine, but how many men do you know these days in the United States named Joscelin? As you read the books, you learn to realize that Joscelin is not one to be trifled with. He’s given up everything for love. He’s chosen over and over again to follow his love into the darkest, most evil of places and they come out even stronger than going in, albeit a little broken.

So what’s really going on here? Why am I writing this post?

I’m just having trouble with names. Names for a character can mean everything or nothing. It’s like naming a child. It’s like saying you’ll be known by this for as long as you exist and after I’m gone. So, everything and nothing. I used to dig deep and search forever using baby name websites. The meaning had to grab me, but if I hated the name? Forget it, I wouldn’t use it. And what happens if somehow the meaning of a name has changed? It’s been known to happen. I’ve seen it. I remember some of my favorite names meaning one thing ages ago that mean something different now.

And sure, I do still go through baby name websites, but mostly because I really don’t want to name characters after people I work with or people I’ve had a relationship with. It’s so difficult to avoid the most common names in the world. Baby name websites are the best thing ever. You can use the age of your characters to go back and find out what the top names of their birth year were and go from there. It’s fantastic. Anyway, I better get back to writing the smutty goodness.

How do you name your characters? Do you pick out a name when you think of them? Plop one in when you start writing? Do their names have meaning to you?

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  1. Great post, Mischa! I love naming characters, too, and have to do it right away, sometimes even before I start the story itself. When I came up with Horatio, his first name just flew into my head. It took a while to figure out a last name, but I knew it had to be a “rock star” name and also be one syllable to roll off the tongue properly.

    Not sure about you, but once I name a character, it sticks and I can never change it.

    Love reading about your writer mind!

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