Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Naming Characters

b23I usually have a good time naming characters, but I’ll admit that sometimes I have to go back and change names later. Or add them.

My editor for the quilting mysteries called me a couple of weeks ago. “Does your victim have a last name?” she asked.

I blinked. Did she? I told my editor I’d email her, then went through the manuscript, searching for it. Nope, she sure didn’t. The victim didn’t really need one at the time, but my editor needed a last name for the back cover copy. Oddly enough, I did have a last name in my brainstorming notes but it hadn’t come into play in the book…I guess I just used it to set the character in my brain when I was drafting.

This kind of last-minute change or addition of names has happened to me before.

One book I submitted needed a character name change in the 11th hour—the name was already taken by a real person…an actual author at another publishing house. We didn’t want to step on any toes or make it look like I had a vendetta against that poor author (I didn’t even know them, but it would have looked bad.)

Here are some things I’ve learned about naming:

Not everyone should be named. Bit characters can usually just remain unnamed and just tagged.

We should avoid naming characters names that start with the same letter. I’m editing a book I wrote a long time ago and I’m amazed that I have 3 characters whose names start with B. Really? I’m changing them.

Sometimes character names alone aren’t enough to place a character with a reader. A short reminder of who the character is when they come back onstage might be a good idea (especially if they have a smaller role). It’s helpful to have a ‘Jenny hopped in the car, still wearing her scrubs from work.’ Really, you don’t even have to be that vague with the reminders: sometimes a ‘Jenny, Cameron’s sister, got in the car’ is fine to slip in. I think this is becoming even more important with ereaders, since it’s a bit more of a pain to type in a name to search for it, instead of just flipping (or it is to me, anyway.)

Using nicknames as well as regular names can be tricky unless we make it clear or we’re fairly consistent with the nicknames (one character uses it all the time to refer to another character, etc.)

I try to find appropriate names for my characters. Right or wrong, there’s definitely baggage that comes along with certain names. If I were going to write a beauty queen, I probably wouldn’t choose the name ‘Gertrude’ unless I was trying to be funny. Trudy, though, might work out well. I wouldn’t name my intellectual Biff…again, unless I was trying to make a point. It would be too much work to try to undo the readers’ quick leap to stereotype.

Every book I seem to change a character name at least once. After eight chapters, they may not be the same person I thought they were in chapter two. By chapter eighteen, they might have changed again.

Do you enjoy naming characters? Do you always stick with a character name or have you changed them in the past?