Book Titles and Character Names: An IWSG Post

Roses

This month’s IWSG Question: What’s harder for you to come up with, book titles or character names?

The Insecure Writer's Support Group

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

Wilting RosesA 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– World MapTracy 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.

 

Sounds like…

Sound wavesSibilance 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.

Brain DrawingI’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

Judge Dredd
Nothing subtle happening here.

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?

Comments

  1. Michelle Wallace (@mishy1727)

    Very interesting, Kathy.
    I have to say that the lyrical factor caught my attention.
    I love the ‘sound’ of words; and as wonderful as a name ‘sounds’, the aural appeal of a name should be secondary to the appropriateness of the name, which is dependent on factors such as geography, culture and era of the story, as you pointed out.
    Thanks for the wonderful tips.

  2. debscarey

    Kathy, your post has been eye opening. I tend to write general fiction in the current time so have been decidedly lacking in process when selecting names for characters. You’ve raised so many good points and things to consider. I did spend a bit more time recently when selecting a name for a character in a post-WWII story who had a particular cultural heritage, so I guess I *can* do it when in the right mind-set. I’ve bookmarked this post for future re-reading. Thank you 🙂

  3. mlouisebarbourfundyblue

    Hi, Kathy! Flukeworm Furls? That had me laughing. I really enjoyed reading your post which is full of helpful information. I generally write nonfiction, but when I choose character names for fiction, I’m a stickler for researching the time, place, and culture that the character comes from. I would have loved to do a Creative Writing MFA program, but my teaching career called for a Masters in Diverse Learners, a specialty I chose because of all the varied and amazing kiddos who were turning up in my classroom. Now that I’m retired, I’m enjoying writing. I am in awe of all the talent in the IWSG! Happy writing in June!

  4. Lynda R Young

    Great article. I am also careful (most of the time) when choosing character names. I go by name origins, ie, whether they are appropriate for the time and place; number of syllables, ie I try to keep it to no more than two syllables unless longer is something needed in the story for some reason; the sound and rhythm, ie soft or hard depending on the personality of the character; and sometimes the meaning of the name.

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      Kathy

      Interesting. Why two syllables or less? I’m thinking of Gail Carriger’s books and her character names (Sephronia, for example), which are a delight on my tongue even when I’m reading silently. Thanks for visiting, by the way. Happy writing. 🙂

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      Kathy

      I wish I could write science fiction well, but I just can’t manage the genre for whatever reason. And, yes. When naming aliens and alien planets, you probably have thrown off the shackles of traditional names and their variants. Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

  5. S.E. White

    I love putting this kind of thought into names. They have a lot of meaning, and they carry your expectations before you know anything else about the character. I’m actually glad I don’t write fantasy, making up names from scratch sounds difficult!

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      Kathy

      Thanks for visiting (and following)! Names really do have tremendous power, don’t they. We thin slice each person like they’re front facing books at a local bookshop. Our opinions are forming before they every open their mouths or lift a finger, all from the name they’re given.

  6. Lee

    Finally! Someone who gets my process. I’ve always been obsessed with those kinds of details. Don’t give a Jewish name to a Catholic. A MacKay probably has some strong Scottish roots. Even names like Heather and Tiffany need to be given to a decade-appropriate character. And I’m always looking for rhythm in the names. Thanks for a great post!

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      Kathy

      Glad you enjoyed it. It’s funny, as I started writing the post I fully believed I picked names like raffle tickets out of a goldfish bowl. The more I wrote, though, the more I realized how much consideration I actually put into the naming process. It made me feel a lot better. So, I guess this post was a bit of self-therapy! Haha. Thanks for stopping by, and happy writing to you.

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      Kathy

      Good thinking, Anna. I was mortified when my mentor had to break it to me that I was mixing and matching cultural names in an accidentally offensive way. 😳

      In any case, thanks for stopping by. Hope the writing is going well for you.

  7. Madeline Mora-Summonte

    I particularly liked the Sounds Like…. section. And I think Korinn is a great name! Although, at first glance, I did think it had more feminine overtones. Maybe because it was linked with Daphne in the sentence? Or maybe because it reminded me of Corinne?

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      Kathy

      Huh! I didn’t find it feminine at all until you pointed out that it sounds like “Corinne.” Now, I’m starting to wonder if the visual cues of rounded versus angled letters impacts readers’ perceptions of names as well. You’ve given me yet more to think about. Thank you, and thanks for dropping by. Happy writing to you! 🙂

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      Kathy

      So… does that mean you overthink naming your characters? Or think you overthink the process? Just curious. Thanks for stopping by.

  8. Crystal Collier

    I’m totally with you. In fact, I said the same thing about titles in my post, only in like one sentence. =) Having written historical fantasy, I too know the importance of finding names that fit within your story’s sphere. Thankfully I’ve never had trouble with naming characters, but that may be because I have an innate sense of the process rather than anything else.

    Great thoughts, and cheese to you!

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      Kathy

      Thanks for dropping by, Crystal. Historical fantasy is (in my mind) a daunting genre. I applaud you for writing it and enjoying it. I don’t have the chops for it, I suspect. Would love to hear more about that innate sense of process. Cheese to you as well! 😉

  9. DRShoultz

    Well-thought post! One of the best I’ve read this month. I, too, hadn’t put a lot of effort into character names and book titles until recently. I did ponder the name of the protagonist in my Miles Stevens series, since he would endure several books. I change the name of my books several times before deciding on a final moniker, whereas I tend to stick with my character names once I’ve made the decision.

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      Kathy

      I also tend to be a name loyalist with my characters, which was one reason why that heart-to-heart with my mentor was so painful. Do you self-publish? That makes everything much more difficult, in my opinion. Thank you for stopping by, and happy writing to you. 🙂

  10. Ellen Jacobson

    I didn’t put a lot of thought into the names for my characters in my first book and really regret some of the choices I made. Unfortunately, it’s too late now to change them. I’m going to try to be more thoughtful this time around. Thanks for the great tips – I’m sure they’ll help me out quite a bit.

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