Thursday, January 10, 2008

Naming Your Babies

A commenter on the last post (investment banker (??) Grant Munroe) mentioned using notebooks to collect potential character names and suggested a post on that topic. Hey, why not! Naming characters might be the most fun part of writing fiction.

One summer when I was a teenager I copied an entire Dictionary of Names into my notebook. It certainly ticked off my mother, who thought my time might be better spent studying for my SATs or maybe getting a job, and yeah, she was probably right. But I loved names, and still do. I love the way a name creates a person, but also how the person creates the name. I have a *wee* touch of synesthesia, if that's possible, and different letters and sounds create different color and sense impressions in me. My own name, Rhian, for example, makes me think of raw hamburger. Why? Well, R is red, for obvious reasons, and h is soft, light green on its own, but in combination with other letters whitish and streaky. The rest of the letters are just kind of squeezy, somehow. So: red, whitish and streaky, and squeezy = raw hamburger.

We named my oldest son "Owen," and the combination of the black O and the furry, gray W and the curled up "en" brings to mind a folded gray wool sweater. A son should be like a gray sweater, don't you think?

"Amy" makes me think of small pearl earrings, so Amy would be a good name for a small, well-dressed character -- or conversely, a large, messy character whose name would either stand in funny contrast to reality or would indicate a hidden side of her.

I named the character in my first novel "Naomi," because the letters are all black, blue, and purple, and the "Na" has a feeling of shyness, of turning away. My character has black hair and in an early draft wore blue dresses and black shoes, so it fit. Her last name was originally "Fry," which is a kind of funny name, I think, like the fried chicken I ate while writing the book. I can't remember why I changed it -- too funny? -- but eventually it became "Ash," which of course has connotations of fragility and death, and that worked.

Once I was driving to my in-laws in Pennsylvania and saw a funeral home called "Morninghoff and Sons." Wow, I liked the name "Morninghoff." I thought I could write a whole book about a person named Morninghoff. And her first name came to me out of the air: Mindy. Mindy Morninghoff. She's the person in the novel I'm working on now, and her name is the only thing I'm sure about.

Though I love bizarre names (my grandmother swore she had a friend named Ida Violet Bottom, and she used to chuckle whenever we passed her neighbor, P.Hart) and have spent hours looking for them in the phone book, I don't really use them in writing. The best character names, I think, are one degree away from bland. "Tim Miller" wouldn't make a great character name, because it's too forgettable, but "Tim Mix," a name in one of JRL's books, is good because it's just barely off-kilter, just as real names are. In fact, I think that one was straight out of the Missoula phone book. I could barely read The Crying of Lot 49 because the main character was named "Oedipa Maas" and it was too ridiculous, I didn't believe it.

What are your favorite methods of naming characters?


Anonymous said...

Rhian thought I should post on this topic, but then I reminded her of my "method"--write down the first name that pops into my head, then stick with it. Tim Mix was an exception--we used that name for a character-dossier exercise in a class we taught. (The other names were Daffodil Zyminsky (a real person I went to college with), Iris Puhl, and....can't recall the last one.)

Also, the guy in the novel I'm writing now is another exception. All the place and personal names in this book are etymologically connected to myths about memory and war. I thought that might be fun.

After this, though, it's back to off-the-cuff.

myles said...

Two favourite character names, just off the top of my head and from recently read books: Harry Joy ('Bliss', Peter Carey), Lorna Shoddy ('Love Without Hope', Rodney Hall). Because they reveal something about the character without being too contrived. Slightly off-kilter, but in the right way.
And, for different reasons, Humbert Humbert. An impossible name that carries all the pompous mendacity of the character.
(by the way, I have a neighbour called P. Hart, and his e-mail address is a scream....)

Dusty said...

Wow, Rhian. Will you hire out your services and name my characters for a modest fee?

Lila said...

I too am obsessed with names, both for fictional and real people. I was never one of those little girls who sat around planning my wedding, but I think I've been dreaming up names for my future children since I was about eight.

Here are a few excellent resources for generating character names:
1) Beyond Jennifer & Jason--the all-time greatest baby name book. It organizes names by the various personality types they evoke, so, for example, Sadie and Clem are listed under the heading "Honest."

2) The most popular baby names throughout history. Especially useful if you're writing something with a historical component. Also, this.

3) Nymbler uses a Netflix-esque suggestion tool to propose names based on the preferences you input. If you like Grover, you might also enjoy Elmer!

What drives this obsession, do you think? Is it in the DSM?

5 Red Pandas said...

Rhian, I think you're absolutely correct in thinking that a character name should be just shy of bland.

I think my husband's name would make a good character name:

James Dye.

I didn't take his last name when we got married. I figured that teaching is hard enough, without having a last name that's perfect for mean rhymes.

I recently had to come up with a name for a Taiwanese character and I came up with one that I thought sounded authentic, but I checked with my mother first. I had to get her to tell me what the name would mean depending on the pronunciation, and I finally determined that the name would do nicely. At least it's gender appropriate.

Mr. Saflo said...

Above all, I am particular about names. Character names, place names, company names, the name of the street a peripheral character grew up on, whatever. They have to be perfect. I collect surnames for future use and like to think I have an eye for them, but who knows. The hard part comes in matching them with the correct first name.

Myles mentioned Peter Carey above; among his many talents is an ability to conjure up delightful names. My favorites are in My Life as a Fake: Bob McCorkle, Christopher Chubb, and K.G. Chomley.

Anonymous said...

I liked that Carey book a lot. The one after it, too, Theft.

TIV: the individual voice said...

My character's names arrive out of the blue. There is never a question. Though at times the name is merely he or she. Either way, it is central to who that character becomes.

moonlight ambulette said...

Hey! My name is Amy and I am not a pair of pearl earrings! I *am* only five feet tall though. Maybe you are on to something. I don't know about well-dressed. Oh but I guess I'm a real person and not a character, so never mind.

Also 1) I fucking love you, I totally feel this same exact way about words and sounds and colors and feels and you have put it so perfectly.

And 2)lately I've been getting character names from junk mail that comes to our building for long-gone residents. They are so good! I also like the names of people that other people went to elementary school with -- those are always the best, with just the right touches of awkwardness.

Lila said...

M.A.--So true about other peoples' elementary school classmates!