Monday, July 14, 2008

Naming Characters

I recently was e-mailed a question by a young writer: I have a lot of trouble naming my characters. Is there any technique you use?

Naming characters isn't an issue I hear discussed often -- but it's very important. The name of a character is often the first clue the reader gets about him, and if it doesn't fit with the rest of his personality, something feels "off." For example, right now I'm reading Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl (a marvelous book, by the way, that I would highly recommend to every writer and word-lover out there!) and one of the main characters is named Hannah, which does not fit at all with her brazen, magnetically unique character. However, Pessl does this on purpose, in a way that further characterizes Hannah. The narrator remarks: "Whoever had named her -- mother, father, I didn't know -- was a person harrowingly out of touch with reality, because ... if she had to have a common name, she was Edith or Nadia or Ingrid, at the very least, Elizabeth or Catherine; but her glass-slipper name, the one that really fit, was something along the lines of Countess Saskia Lepinska. 'Hannah Schneider' fit her like stonewashed Jordache jeans six sizes too big. And once, oddly enough, when Nigel said her name during dinner, I could have sworn I noticed a funny delay in her response, as if, for a split second, she had no idea he was talking to her." In this way, Pessl brilliantly uses Hannah's unfitting moniker to shed light on her character; indeed, often those things that are not "us" tell the world just as much about who we are as those things that do reflect how we see ourselves.

Here's what I usually do when naming my characters:
in the heat of writing everything down, give the character the first name that comes to mind, or even just a letter of the alphabet, and focus on the story. Later, during the revision process, you can go back and change the name to something that feels right. If you're really stuck for names, go to the library and check out a baby names book -- it's like a dictionary full of names for potential characters! I'm sure there will be something in there that feels right to you.

No comments: