Thursday, February 12, 2015

Naming my characters – the bane of my existence ... by Donnell Ann Bell

One of the hardest things I’ve found as a writer is not writer’s block, although it has occurred. I don’t stress over sales, I have no control over that. It also doesn’t bother me to work with my editor. She bluntly lays out her comments; I say, yes, ma’am (97.9 percent of the time) and get the job done.

My problem is naming my characters. Characters are very important. Number one, not only does the reader have to relate to the name, he should remember it. That makes sense, right? If I name a character Bob Jones, that’s not particularly memorable or exciting. So I work, and I work hard to bring my characters to life and give them names I like, the reader likes and that people remember.

Names also are binding I’ve found. Since I struggle with character names, I’m always changing them. Critique partners have no patience with this. Last week her name was Sarah; what do you mean you’ve changed it to Imogene?

It’s enough to give a writer a complex. So, here’s the newest conundrum that hit me. When I come up with a name I like and think voila, I’ve got it. This name so fits this character, I Google it. And guess what? There’s somebody out there with that name.

Nothing brings me down faster than to worry I’m going to be contacted by an irate reader who says, why did you make me a killer? I’m a nice guy.

Gulp.

Here’s my latest fiasco. My protagonist is a Special Agent for the FBI. I wanted to name him Brian Di Pietro. I really like the ring of it. It says a lot about him. He’s of Italian heritage. Brian, in my opinion, is a strong character name. Brian means high and noble. What’s more, I’ve never used it in any of my published books for one of my protagonists.

Decision made, I Google Brian Di Pietro. He’s a hockey player! A very cute hockey player. There’s also one out there who’s a criminal lawyer. Do I really want to tangle with him? By now my character likes that name. He doesn’t get what my problem is. Since there’s several out there, he insists, “If anyone gives you flack, tell them I’m the one who likes mountain climbing. I’m also the one that carries a badge as well as a gun.” (He’s so smug.)

So my question for all of you is, am I alone? Am I the only one on this planet of authors who frets over character names ad nauseum? I suspect not. How often do we read a book where in the first part of the novel the protagonist’s name is Fred and 200 pages later he’s turned into Bill? Copy editor anyone?

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Donnell Ann Bell grew up in New Mexico and today lives in Colorado. A homebody at heart, she concentrates on suspense that might happen in her neck of the woods – writing SUSPENSE TOO CLOSE TO HOME. She is the author of The Past Came Hunting, Deadly Recall and Betrayed, all of which have been e-book best sellers. Buried Agendas is her newest release. Along with veteran police officer Wally Lind, Donnell co-owns Crimescenewriters, a Yahoo group putting law enforcement experts together with writers. Like her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter, or contact her via her website. You can also find her on Goodreads.  If she’s not arguing with her characters, she’d love to hear from you.

37 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I guess I'm lucky. With science fiction names, I usually don't have to worry someone else has the same name.

Donnell Ann Bell said...

Alex, that settles it! I'm switching genres to Science Fiction. :)

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I fuss about names too but like Alex, I write speculative fiction and don't worry about the names I use being associated with real people. Googling the character name is a great idea.

Donnell Ann Bell said...

Susan Gourley/Kelley. Congratulations on possessing security that I do not. Thanks for stopping by :)

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

The WORST! And I always end up with everyone's names beginning with the same letter. Or being like: Elliot, and Ellie and Elle and Kelly and Kendra and Sandra and Cindy.

ANd I think--WHY??

But it's fun, right, when you get the perfect one!

Patricia Stoltey said...

I desperately wanted to keep one despicable character from ever being compared to a real life person, so I kind of went over the top and named him Sammy Grick, aka Fat Ass Sammy Grick. I've had a lot of fun with that. So far, no real life Sammy Gricks have shown up to complain.

April Moore said...

I admit, I've never spent much time thinking about character names. I've certainly never Googled them, but now you've got me worried ;-) but like Hank, I tend to come up with names that start with the same letter too.

justinedaredavis said...

Love the name, Donnell! I keep a list, adding every name I see that I like or that intrigues me. (Movie credits are great for that.) Then I mix up the first and last names so I hopefully avoid embarrassing/ticking off anyone real. But to spin off Hank, I seem to have an affinity for certain initials. I once had an editor very gently ask me if I realized I had six characters whose names started with R. Even the walk-ons started with R. Sigh.

And there are also names I can never, ever use because they are permanently and completely linked in my mind to a real person. Sometimes good, sometimes bad. ;-)

Elizabeth Sinclair said...

My manic problem is the heroine's name. Will her first name work with the hero's last name after they get married? Crazy I know. My secondary problem is, like you, the name has to say who this person is. In my current WIP, the hero's name is Mark, and he's been telling me for pages that it's not him. So far, I haven't come up with a name that IS him. ::sigh::

Donnell Ann Bell said...

Hank, it is SOOOO much fun! Either that or we are sadists. The same initial, I hope that doesn't stick in my head some where! Thanks for stopping by to let me know I'm not alone!

Donnell Ann Bell said...

Patricia Stoltey, Sammy Grick speaks volumes about a character. What a great choice. Now imagine making him the hero and having to make him rise above the name. Character names may be problematic, but they also are helpful in many respects, right?

Donnell Ann Bell said...

April Moore, if I've made you worry, my job is done here. I love adding yet another insecurity layer to authors :) Ha! Or maybe that doesn't apply to you. I believe everyone should possess a paranoia gene like me. Thanks for commenting.

Donnell Ann Bell said...

Justine Dare Davis, I have two characters named Rodrigo and Rafa. Oh no, Rs are habit forming! Thanks for the tip on movie credits. I really want to stick with the name Brian.... T'will be interesting if I change it at the last minute, then I'll end up with a character change that a copy editor doesn't catch, my career will be in the toilet and that will be the end of me. No! I'm going to keep it. Thanks for commenting!

Donnell Ann Bell said...

Elizabeth Sinclair, now I realize this post was a very bad idea :) In addition to my phobia about giving a character a real person's name, I am worried about characters with the same letter, characters starting with R, and now I have to make sure the heroine sounds okay with the hero's last name. Thanks a whole heck of a lot! Love it. Thank you for stopping by!

Skyewriter said...

I have to confess, I am torn when deciding on names. I've got three books on my shelf, one aimed at writers and two just for baby names and I pore over them constantly. Trying out the cadence of the whole name, first and last, first middle and last, nickname and last etc. Long names rarely get used consistently in real life so if you give a character a name like Montgomery or Benjamin, don't expect his fellow characters won't shorten it to something you don't like. I change in the middle of the book at times, too, but hopefully by the time it gets to my editor, it works, I like it, she likes it, there's no one out there who will sue me and it's memorable.

Donnell Ann Bell said...

Skye, I own Sherilyn Kenyon's Writers Digest book on Character names, and I still go into the baby names, etc. My friend suggested the Internal Revenue Service, too, but I'm too terrified to log on. For a suspense writer, I'm more like the cowardly lion. I'm one of those people who like to give a character a long name and then the other characters nickname them. Thanks for sharing your character naming process!

Loralee said...

Donnell, choosing names are my favorite thing to do during the early development of my books. Since my characters (so far) are from the South, I give them a middle name as well as a first name. Most of the time they tell me who they are and it usually works. Buddy Lee Walker in ALL THAT MATTERS is one of my favorite characters. He came to the story fully developed. It took me a very long time to find the right woman for him. I occasionally flip through an old baby name book, but for the most part I just wait for the characters to introduce themselves. I love surprises. :)

Kate Lansing said...

I once accidentally named a character Charlie Rose. It had such a nice ring to it, but for a very obvious reason! Lol! Despite the challenges, I still love choosing character names. Fun post, Donnell :-)

vicki batman said...

Oh Donnell, naming woes. I actually peruse the obits to come up with new names, but I've never googled any I've used. After all, I inherited the superhero name and that's funny on its own. I did write a short and named the guy Hugh and just before I hit send, did a select all and changed to Ethan. The character told me to! hugs

LD Masterson said...

I have a character, a claustrophobic female detective, who arrived in my head fully developed and bearing the name Andy Cooper. There are enough Andy Coopers floating around out there that no one of them can say I stole their name, so that's not my problem. My problem is I have four grandkids, and one is named Cooper. If I use his name for a character in a story, I have to come up with equally important characters for the rest of them. But Andy refuses to let me change her name.

Donnell Ann Bell said...

::Loralee :: I love the names of your characters. They're a hoot. You have an awesome gift. Good thing you love surprises!



LOL :: Kate Lansing.:: Hmmm. you could use it and do a spinoff that your character was named after or had it first .... ???? Too funny.


::Vicki Batman::, you had the Batman name first. You ARE a superhero! Those characters are so bossy!



::LD Masterson:: That is terrific! Lucky Cooper will love that his grandmother named him in a book! And so will the other grandkids. I have relatives who ask me to put them in my work -- My cousin was delighted she was my killer in Betrayed; my other cousin was a comedic-relief secondary character. So fun to have family involvement!

Donna Volkenannt said...

You are right that the right names are important for fictional characters.

Like others, I've researched baby names and, when I'm staying at an out-of-state city, I open the phone book and jot down unusual names. It's fun to scramble first and last names to come up with unusual character names. It also gives me a feel for the sense of place if I want to set one of my stories in that city or state.

Donnell Ann Bell said...

Donna, what an important comment that you mention regional. Names change with region. Massachusetts as opposed to New Mexico are markedly different. And you've given me a great idea. My husband and I will be taking a road trip very soon; I'll be jotting down names from the phone books. Thank you, and thanks for commenting!

Margot Kinberg said...

Pat - Thanks for hosting Donnell.
Donnell - You're not alone with having name- choice issues. I always find myself giving my characters names that are too similar to each other if I'm not careful. Wishing you much success.

Dean K Miller said...

I worried, and then I didn't. They have names (once or twice changed) and then decided to leave them for now. Still not sure if they fit. I've picked first names and used last names of people I know, but didn't Google them. Some of my characters don't even have last names. Is that necessary? Thankfully they all have different names, but why do they all "rummage" for something and tussle their blonde hair?

Dean K Miller said...

Oh, and I deleted my first comment just so I could read the message that the comment was removed by "THE AUTHOR." HEY LOOK....I'M AN AUTHOR!!!!!

Patricia Stoltey said...

Oops, I went in there and deleted your deletion. Sorry about that. :D

Sara Hoklotubbe said...

Choosing names has always been hard for me, too. I've been known to find a phone book from the area I'm writing about and picking a first name here and a last name there. However, before long there will be no more phone books because everyone is dropping their land lines. So far it has helped me a lot.

Polly Iyer said...

Once I get a name in my head, it's there. I see him/her, and no other name will do. Years ago, I woke up with a name for a character in my then WIP. I didn't particularly like that first name, but that's who he was, and I never changed it. My WIP's name is Zoe Swan. This is a book I wrote some time back, and she's still Zoe Swan. I'd keep Brian Di Pietro. It's a great name, and I can see him. If you don't use it, I will. :-)

Donnell Ann Bell said...

::Margot Kinberg :: I'm very grateful to Pat hosting me as well!!

It appears the number one problem (me playing Survey says)is naming characters to close together :) We all do it. Next question is how many keep a spreadsheet :) Thank you for sharing and stopping by.

Donnell Ann Bell said...

::Dean K Miller :: Great great comment. Here's the deal in my opinion. It's all what your POV character sees. If he only knows a character by his first name or the mailman or the guy behind the counter, that's his name. If he knows someone by Russell but they've never been formerly introduced, he'd only know him by his first name, right?

Now if you go into the head of a person, he probably knows his full name. I have never been a fan of the anonymous plot device "He," That takes a real talent to keep me invested in a "he" throughout a book.

Thank you for commenting and stopping by!

Donnell Ann Bell said...

:: Sara Hoklotubbe :: I feel your pain on landlines and phonebooks. Argggh, a author's worst nightmare. Well, besides missing a deadline or a computer crash or pitching your book and ya got nothing :) You understand good luck naming your characters!

Thanks for commenting and stopping by.

Donnell Ann Bell said...

::Polly Iyer:: Once again you make so much sense and I love Zoe Swan. So unique and says so much about a character. That's what we want, right? We want a character to speak to us and our reader.

You've convinced me, well, actually Brian did. His name is unusual enough but it's not! Thank you for stopping by, my friend!

Hope Clark said...

No matter how hard I try, one or two names become impossible about halfway into the book. Or like the last book, two names get changed at the publisher. I work so hard to get the syllables, first letter, name ending, and the flow right but something always goes wrong. Then I speak to a book club and call the character by the old name - LOL.

But I locate names primarily by going to cemeteries in the area and studying the town council/city employees names for the area so that I connect with old family names. I accidentally named an 80-year-old character in Palmetto Poison after the mayor's mother!

Guess that means there's always a risk.

Donnell Ann Bell said...

Ha! Hope Clark, you don't know how this relieves me. If character names are beyond you, there is hope for me :) So.... was the mayor's mother pleased? Thanks for commenting and stopping by!

Carrie-Anne said...

It always feels weird when I run across a real person with the same name as one of my characters. My taste tends towards classical eccentric and classical unusual (e.g., Justine, Wolfgang, Felix, Octavia, Leopold, Beatrice), and I tend to use more common or popular names for secondary and minor characters. For my characters who aren't from an English-speaking milieu, I still like lesser-used names. I've found some awesome Russian-language name sites for this purpose, as well as a great Belarusian-language names site.

One of the worst pieces of writing advice I've ever seen was the suggestion to give all your characters currently popular/trendy names. One, that assumes you're writing a contemporary set in the English-speaking world, and two, that's a surefire way to quickly date your book. Fewer things turn me off to a book faster than obviously predated naming trends, like a 30-year-old Aidan or teenage girl named Addison. When the entire book is gut-loaded with current Top 100 names, I'm even more inclined to give it a pass.

Donnell Ann Bell said...

Interesting feedback Carrie-Anne. Thank you for sharing. I agree with you up to a point. I'm working hard to do both, give characters fictional names but give them based in reality as I do write contemporary stories. If everyone has an unusual name I think that might yank me out of a story unless the author is talented enough to give them such individual character traits they're unforgettable.

But look at some common names used in TV today. Jethro Leroy Gibbs, Olivia Benson, Elliot Stabler. You raise a very good point.

Yesterday, at a Pikes Peak Writers meeting a man talked about a critique partner using such unusual names he had to stop and look them up. That's not what an author is going for when he writes in my opinion. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and commenting.