Saturday, April 26, 2014

What's in a Name? Advice on naming and a Rabbit Trail

But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.  To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.  When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.  A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.”
~John 10:2-5~

Recently I've been seeing a lot of people asking for advice on naming their fantasy or sci-fi cities or countries, or characters.  So I decided to write a quick blog post (we'll see how long this takes).  Edit:  I went back and started reading this again to find it starts out very practical... then gets creative... then I got lost on a rabbit trail.  But I hope you find it entertaining!  And tell me your thoughts about it all.


Character names can be so creative and beautiful.  It is normally hard to find the right one.  Either that or you find the right name right away and it clicks perfectly.

First, I'll start with the don'ts for choosing character names. (you don't have to follow any of these "rules".  But it would probably be good to at least consider them)
1.  Don't choose a name if you don't think it would fit in your story.  If all the names in your story are oldish, medieval names, don't all of a sudden name a character something that sounds very modern, like "Jazz".  Unless there's jazz music in your fantasy/sci-fi world and it makes sense to the rules of your world, be it historical fiction, fantasy, science fiction, or contemporary.

2.  Don't use a name that is very common.  Like the name Josh.  I know at least ten boys who have that name.  Two of them are my cousins (one on my mom's side, another on my dad's side). 
The name Mary used to be a very popular name, and if this was being written long ago, people would criticize you for using that name in your story, but now it's a rarer-used name, so I suppose if it fits one of your characters, you could use it.  Find a list of the top one hundred names that have been used the most for the past thirty years, and avoid those names. 

3.  Don't use a name that is so rare (in books) that everyone knows which story that name belongs to.  Like Wendy, for instance.  Everyone knows she belongs in the story Peter Pan.  I don't know of any other stories that have a character who has that name.  Although it probably wouldn't be wrong for you to choose the name Wendy for your story. 
A side-don't that goes under this one: if you are writing a romance and do have familiar names we have all heard before, try not to use name combinations that are already used in other stories.  Like Jacob and Bella and Edward, for instance.  You already know what story they're from, even if you haven't even read the books!  For some people, even hearing one of those names will make them think of that story.  But everyone's different, and you are writing to please yourself, not your audience.

4.  Still, remember: you don't want just any name for your character.  Names bring life or dullness to your story, and you want your story to shine and sound beautiful.  You want to love every detail about your story.  Don't settle for anything you're just /okay/ with.  Kind of like how you choose whether to buy something or not.  If you don't love it, don't buy it.

Keep a consistent theme in the world of your story.  Remember, your world is fictional so you can do whatever you want.  You can make things realistic in an unrealistic way.  You /can/ do anything at all.  Stream of consciousness, a tragedy, comedy (though I must admit, comedy is hard for many people, but it might not be the case with you), or even create your own genre.  You can tell us everything you want to tell us in your story, whenever you want to tell us it.  And on the flip-side: you can keep everything you don't want your readers to know, to yourself, till the very end, or even not at all and make us readers figure it out on our own like a riddle.  Not that you should do any of these. It really depends on your style, if you have developed your writing voice, and if you have already written a lot and are ready to start experimenting.  

If you are a beginning writer though, it's a safe thing to say that you should stick to the usual advice of advanced writers (I'm not an advanced writer yet by the way).  That is, show don't tell (except sometimes), use correct grammar (learn your English, or whichever language you wish to master to write in, and cherish it), never get satisfied with how much you know about your writing craft because there. is. still. so. much. to. learn.

The masters say to read a lot, and think about the writing techniques used as you read.  We forget this one.  How much do you read?  One book a week?  One book a month?  Or do you check out so many books and barely get to read them before you have to take them back to the library (like me)?  Read nonfiction too, not just fiction.  Don't be prejudiced against nonfiction.  There's a LOT of really fascinating nonfiction out there!  There's a lot of dull stuff too but I'm currently reading more nonfiction books than fictional ones, and I don't feel like I'm missing out.  (Through a Screen Darkly by Jeffrey Overstreet, which is fascinating and about movies and art and Christianity, Walking on Water by Madeleine L'Engle, the one who wrote A Wrinkle in Time, and a few others)

Write every day is another one the professionals say.  This one will test you and reveal how far you're willing to go to be a great writer.  Writers write a lot of words, a lot.  And some of us are procrastinators who grow very very slowly in our skill of writing.  And some only write for a hobby.  But that's okay either way.  
Try to figure out what sort of writer you want to be now:
A writer that is very very good and maybe get published or self-published (I'll probably have to write another post about that in the future cuz I have a lot to say on both sides).
Or a writer who writes for themselves, sort of like how we sometimes write journals for ourselves only, or how I like to dance at home but not so much for other people anymore.  This sort of writer may show their finished story to a few friends and family, but not seek publication.  That's okay too.
Or a writer who posts all their work online for others to read and see what happens (there are quite a few websites where you can put your writing up and many people can read and critique your writing and review it and give it stars, plus fanfic.com if you write fan fiction).
 Oops.  I got off on a rabbit trail.
Back to my main topic!

If you want all your characters' names to be completely different, like one being Japanese, another being Irish, another being old English, for a special reason, then if it has to do with the story, or the characters' backgrounds, it may work.  

For instance, if your story was about five, say, teenagers who were thrown together from vastly different backgrounds, and the story was about them trying to communicate and relate to each-other while saving the world or something, it would make sense for them to have very different names, and it would then make your story more colorful.
 But if your story takes place in one particular place whose people are all the same nationality, your characters will probably all come from the same culture, unless a parent had a good reason for using a different name, or if it's modern day.  
Because nowdays, people use all sorts of names for their children, and are inventing new ones too.  Now, we don't care so much what nationality the name came from (unless it's something you really notice, like it being an Irish name or Spanish).

 
Try to find a sort of theme, the heart of your fantasy world, and build off of it.  Don't choose a name you don't like for a place that's supposed to be pretty. And for characters, just be on the look out for a name that just... clicks for your character/s. And sometimes the meaning of the name will directly relate to your character, or be ironic to the character's character, or be the opposite of their character for a certain reason.


Now the do's.  These are things you can do to find cool names.
1.  All the name websites.  They are time consuming but sometimes very helpful.  Babynames.com is one of them, and you can search for a name that starts with a certain letter, comes from a certain country, or has a certain meaning that you're looking for in the name for your character.
2.  Google translate.  Translate words into other languages and find something you like and maybe change it till you really like it.
Sometimes phonetics are the only way to tell if your name fits your character.
3.  The keyboard smash, in which you just randomly type letters and rearrange them to your liking. 
4.  Look in the Bible for random names and change them around.
5.  Take words you find beautiful, and change their spelling and pronunciation till you like it.
6.  Look for a name based on the meaning for the name.
7.  Figure out what sort of character your character is first, (ask them tons of questions -- I have a list of some of them on a separate page on my blog -- and see how they reply) then ask them what their name is.  Listen hard.  Take a walk.  Run.  Jog.  Drink water.  Be hydrated.  Get your mind off your character for a while.
8.  Listen to other people when you're at a park or coffee shop or anywhere.  Meet new people.  Pay attention to their names.

9.  Be a name collector.  Even if you can't find the right name for that particular character now, doesn't mean you can't find the names for other characters in the mean-time.  Bind a small book (it's very easy you don't even need to glue a cover on just stitch a few signatures together.  Google it or search on pintrest) and start listing all the names you love, what gender they're for, and the meaning of the name, and see if any of them fit a minor or major character if you need a name quick, or even a place-holder name.  Try to keep the names in alphabetical order but you don't have to.  Keep this pamphlet/homemade book nearby always.
Or just make a document on your electrical device.  But binding books is funnn... and it may be good for your brain to learn how to do it.  Here's a Scottish accented tutorial for a book. Quick explanation: a "signature" is a folded-in-half sheet of paper, and sometimes a folded-in-half sheet of paper inside one or more other folded-in-half sheets of paper.  Look at your books closely and try to figure out whether they were bound with thread, or if they were merely glued to the spine.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=937rWn0YHfo

10.  Hurt your brain by trying to solve a rubix cube after messing it up.  :P (this is optional)
 There are probably many other ways to find names that I haven't thought of.
Tell me what your favorite method is.  (I borrowed a few of these ideas from a discussion on a writer's group -- Knights of the Silver Ink -- and expanded upon them)

8 comments:

  1. Well written! How do I get these posts to my inbox?

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    1. You can follow my blog by either using Bloglov'n or Blogger. To the right of the post should be those options. Both "follow with Bloglovin" or "join this site" with google connect works.
      Thanks!

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  2. I totally have a notebook in which I would keep story ideas, including a page of name ideas! And I would also use names of people and places from the Bible! In fact that's the only way I was able to get through some of the long lists of genealogies in the Old Testament, was just by thinking of each name as a potential character :) Other ways I've found names I like- a. when someone else is talking and at first you misunderstand two regular words and it sounds like something completely different b. sometimes the kids I babysat would invent names for themselves/nameless book characters

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  3. I like #2 and #3 of your Don't list. Very true! While I think Wendy is a fair-game name, really, I reckon it's SUPER important to know what the "popular" names are for your genre. Like the name "Eden"...oh gosh, it's super popular for dystopian and apocalyptic books. I made the mistake of using it... ;) Which I will change soon! And if you were writing contemporary it would be a bad idea to use names like "Hazel" or "Gus" too. You have some fabulous tips here. :))

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    1. Thank you! Oh that's interesting. Yeah, pretty good to know. I don't normally read a lot of dystopian but Eden does sound like a cool name that would go nicely in that genre. I should read more YA... :p

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  4. Oh, I love the idea of looking in the Bible to find names! Just one glance at Jesus' genealogy is sure to set up a name-searcher for life. Great post.

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