This month’s IWSG Question: What’s harder for you to come up with, book titles or character names?
Before I get talking about book titles and character names, allow me a moment to give a shout out to this month’s most excellent hosts: Beverly Stowe McClure, Tyrean Martinson, and Ellen @ The Cynical Sailor. Thank you all for hosting this month’s IWSG blog hop. And if you haven’t heard of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, you should take a moment jump over to their website and check them out. In addition to being a fantastic community of writer’s focused on supporting each other, the IWSG website has compiled a tremendous library of resources (articles, websites, opportunities).
Shout out finished, let’s get back to the question at hand.
Okay, confession, I don’t put a lot of thought into either of these two processes. I know, I know. That’s terrible of me. I agree with you.
A Rose By Any Other Name
A book’s title is critically important. It’s on the cover. Part of the “hook.” It helps a potential reader make that all-important snap-judgment decision to investigate further or pass over a book on the shelf for something better. I know that. But, I also recognize that an agent and/or an editor will be far more skilled at coming up with a title than I ever will be. If I pick a stinker of a title for a great story, and that story gets scooped up by an agent and sold to a publishing house with editors and marketers and publicists, someone, somewhere is going to notice the terrible title. Someone (with far more skill and expertise that I) will almost certainly come up with a knock-my-socks-off dazzling replacement that I would never have thought of.
And, I’m fine with that. Better than fine. I feel relieved in my certainty of it. The pressure is off for me. Heck, I might as well title everything “This title is temporary,” because if the story is good enough, someone will help me come up with something better.
Culture and History
I’ve read countless articles about the importance of picking the right name for characters in a story. In my first semester of grad school, I used an online name generator to name my characters. Then, my mentor at the time– Tracy Baptiste–sat me down and gave me a heart to heart on how careful I needed to be when naming my characters. Unfortunately, many of the names I’d chosen carried various Judeo-Christian legacies and meanings of which I was unaware. Oops. I was writing a secondary world fantasy in which the Abrahamic religions weren’t even a thing. Yet, I’d populated it with people bearing Abrahamic names like Jordan and Goodman. Didn’t work so well, even if the names sounded “nice.”
So, that’s a thing to consider. Does a particular name have historical meaning, context? Is it the product of a culture with distinct identifiers? Maybe that’s something you can use. A shortcut strategy for characterization. Is your MC a self-entitled rich snot? Well, you could do what Mackenzie Lee did in The Gentlemen’s Guide to Vice and Virtue and name him Montague. Gail Carriger gives her high society ladies names like Sephronia and Primrose and Prudence. If you’re going for irony, you might call the shrinking violet in your story Maxwell Steele (a power name if ever I’ve heard one). Maybe you want your readers to sense the strength and moral conviction at the root of your leading heroine’s personality, so you name her Joan (as in Joan of Arc?).
There’s a danger in being too overt with this technique, though. Stephen King got a raft of criticism for naming his main character in The Green Mile John Coffey because the initials were J.C. ( as in Jesus Christ) and John Coffey was kind of a sacrificial Christ-like figure in the book. Now, King is huge. He’s well established in his career, so he basically told his critics to stop taking everything so seriously. One day, I hope to be in a similar position, but that might take a while.
Sibilance is also an important consideration when choosing a name for a character. Lyricism can’t be underestimated. It’s what I tend to focus most on. Does the name have a pleasing sound? The flow of consonants and vowels, soft or hard stops embedded within a name, which syllable carries the emphasis all affect the emotional centers of the brain.
I’ll give you an example. Consider these two names: Daphne, and Korinn. Physically, who is the taller, more athletic character? Who is more emotionally sensitive? Can you tell what gender the two characters are? With Daphne, that’s a classically female name, but what about Korinn? I made it up. It’s gender ambiguous but carries psychologically masculine overtones because of the hard “K” sound, and the long (powerful) ō, which also carries the syllabic emphasis, that rolls into that “r” sound. R’s sound animalistic. The sounds of the two names are already impacting your pre-conceived ideas about the characters.
Persons as Places or Things
Truth? This technique tends to rub me the wrong way if it isn’t done in an ironic or comedic capacity. Naming characters after actual places, objects, professions, or locations is just… in-artful. Judge, Everest, Nile (which, by the way, is my middle name, so I’m allowed to throw stones here). Neveah? [Rolls eyes]. I was SO disappointed when that one took off and became popular.
So, yeah, people do it. They’re usually trying to evoke emotion or invoke some spiritual quality inherent in the place or object. I know I’m making an assumption, but I don’t think parents name their daughters Rose or Lily or Summer because they want them to grow up to be hard-core, kick-ass, rule-breaking feminist. Nor do I think parents choose to call their son Hank or Don or President because they’re hoping the boy ends up with a high EQ score and decides to become a stay-at-home dad. More likely, they’re trying to invoke a legacy of athleticism and authority and traditionally masculine power and social status. If that’s all you’re trying to do when you name your characters after things or places or professions, your readers may get annoyed by the blunt force trauma of such a clunky and transparent technique. If, however, you’re doing it to characterize the people in the story who gave the character that name, or to showcase the the character is all the things their name might suggest they are not, then I think you’ve made an interesting and nuanced choice.
Do Your Homework, Then Trust Your Instincts
I guess I put more thought into my character’s names than I first realized. It isn’t a conscious effort, though. It’s instinctive. Which, before going through a Creative Writing MFA program, maybe wasn’t the best approach. Now, however, I have a better understanding of the underlying principles behind why names have such impact on readers.
Thanks to the advice I got in my first semester at Lesley University, I make up names (mostly) from scratch whenever I write fantasy stories, just to make sure I’m not accidentally tapping into any cultural or historical baggage.
If I someday choose to write a story that takes place in this world, with all the factual human history that comes with it, I’ll probably research geography and culture before settling on names. I mean, Ashika is a beautiful, feminine name. The sound if it is lovely. But it’s of Sanskrit origin and is a typical girl’s name in India. Maybe not what I’d go with for a female character of Irish descent living in Canada unless I had a specific and legitimate reason for it that was clearly conveyed in the narrative.
And, of course, if a name I pick doesn’t ring true or has some hidden meaning of which I’m unaware? Well… that’s what editors are for, right?
How do you select names for your characters? How do you settle on a title for your stories? Do you research intensively, or do you let your instincts guide you?