What is it about names that I find so difficult?
There have been many occasions where I’ve sat myself down before a blank page, and pulled a character from thin air. Little titbits of information form the semi-recognisable shape of a person. Half the time, I find that their complete back-story doesn’t hit the page, but I know the truth. My readers may never be told that my protagonist was exceptionally close to her teacher, hence her adoration for canon literature, or that my villain lost his parents at a young age and bounced around foster homes. They may not know — they may not need to know — but I will, and with that information, my characters have the chance to spring from the page, in-depth and rounded and alive.
This is usually where I hit the proverbial brick wall.
Chances are good that I already adore this character, whom I’ve tried to pour heart and soul into. Now he needs a name — how hard could that be?
Unimaginably so, apparently.
Names have to be perfect, right? You don’t want to slam symbolism into your readers’ faces (there is little to like about a hero named “John Goodman”), but it isn’t very special to give all of your characters generic names like Jack, Mary, Mr Smith, and so forth.
Let’s think about J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series. She had many names that were unusual, but not unheard of (such as Ron, Hermione and Ginny). But then she had names that dripped with backstories. Remus Lupin, for example, references the term ”lupine” (i.e. “like a wolf”), as well as the Roman mythological twin, Remus, who was suckled by a wolf as an infant. Both of these inspirations are masterful when the reader discovers the character is, in fact, a werewolf.
Another example (of which there are many) is Melissa Marr, who wrote the Wicked Lovely series. This author even goes so far as to provide a glossary of sorts at the end of one of her books, which explains some of the sources from which she drew inspiration for her characters’ names. Two quick examples are Aislinn, her protagonist, whose nickname becomes “Ash”, which reflects nicely upon the book’s ideas of a Summer Court of faeries, within which the girl becomes entwined. The other example is a Dark Faerie named Irial – Marr appreciated the obscurity of this name’s uncertain etymology, and the fact that his nickname was “Iri” (pronounced, quite aptly, as “eerie”!).
There are too many examples of authors who have put great thought into the names in their books (feel free to share some of your favourites!), but we now return to my dilemma:
With so many great authors to compare myself to, how to I find a name for my character that works?
Well, it’s been pointed out to me recently that maybe I needn’t stress so much. After all, what would a reader appreciate more — a character whose name alludes to hidden, metaphorical origins, or a literary person who seems ready to leap from the book and sit beside you.
Silly question, really.
This week, a university lecturer supplied a task. He asked us to offer some street names from our town. He then combined these into character names. Some made sense; some were a little silly. But it didn’t matter. We just had to run with that name, and create that person’s story.
And you know what? This activity was so much fun! It didn’t matter what the character’s name was, not really. What mattered was the person we created.
Once upon a time, thinking up character names was one of the most entertaining part of my writing. Somewhere along the line, it became a stressful act, burdened by an unnecessary sense of gravity.
But I think I’m finally getting back to basics. And it feels good.
- Love The Bad Guy