Saturday, May 16, 2009

What's in a Name?

By Keith Fisher

Until recently, (long story), I did a lot of multitasking at work. I work in document preservation, digitizing records, and I kept facebook open in a small window on my desktop. Staying in touch with my world at 3 a.m. is not difficult. Most of my facebook friends sign off around midnight.

Occasionally a friend or two will be up because they can’t sleep, or they’re burning the midnight oil. I’ve been meeting writers who are part of my network but I didn’t know them very well.

I talked to Susan Corpany Curtis one night, because she lives in Hawaii and there’s a time difference. Anyway we chatted about our books, and she pointed out something I’d thought of, but never really paid attention to.

When you’re plotting a story, How do you come up with names? If you’re like me, you start at an arbitrary point in the alphabet, and begin listing names in your mind. When you come up with one, you compare it to what’s already been written. You determine if the name matches your character and you make changes if it doesn’t.

Character names are tricky. It’s almost as important as when you chose a name for your children. Someone read from a book of funny baby names at work the other day, and I can’t believe some of the cruel jokes perpetrated by attention starved parents who probably shouldn’t have been given the keys to a new baby anyway.

Of course, you can write myriad situations, caused by an unusual name. Just like Johnny Cash did in his song A Boy Named Sue. Naming a boy, Sue, or a girl, Henry would help you write new plots.

Often, when we pick a name for a child we think about the generations who’ve passed and sometimes we honor them by giving our child a namesake, sometimes we give them pieces of our own names. My brother has the same first name as my father but we always called him by his middle name. It caused problems, though, whenever someone official, or legal, would call and ask for the name, we always assumed they wanted Dad.

When we pick names for our characters the considerations are different. If we name a son after the dad, it’s confusing for the reader. So, we think of vastly different names for each character, and we often try to find gallant or sexy names, something that stands out. We want the reader to fall in love with the name. We pick Trent, and violet. Brady, and Bambi. There are many websites with baby names that will help for the other genres, but writing fantasy is different. It’s not easier in fact it’s probably harder because you have to invent.

I have a problem with using names that almost rhyme. Like in my WIP (work in progress), I have characters named Debbie, Leslie, Jenny, Brady, and Ruthie. Just to name a few. Do you see the problem? They all end with the EE sound.

The thing that Susan pointed out, however, was when authors pick names they like, but they don’t consider the era. Would you give a name like Ethan, or Olivia, to a character born in 1908? You might, but while those names were ranked three and six in 2008, they didn’t make the top one hundred in 1908. These facts are from the social security website.

When Susan reminded me of the problem, I took all the names from my current work in progress and ran them through the website. First I had to determine how old I wanted them to be and I gave them birth years. Of course, because of the EE sound, I planned to change most of the names anyway, but I discovered from their birth dates, I’d misnamed some of them. I have the luxury of living for more than fifty years so I remember most of the eras I write about, but even with personal knowledge, I still falter.

As I said above, there are many websites that provide baby names, but I recommend the Social Security site. It’s easy to use, and the data is from government records. I would wait until you’ve written the book then go back and find the names that need to be changed. You might find a name that fits your character better than the one you chose originally and it will be from the right year.

Good luck with your writing—see you next week.

Oh! and don't forget today's the day for the Launch party of Tristi Pinkston's new book Agent in Old Lace. scroll down to my last post for time and place.


Karlene said...

I absolutely agree. I usually know what era my character lives in and how old they are. It's easy to find something in the top 100 baby names for that year.

Karen Hoover said...

I hadn't thought to do that with age. I've done it with different countries but not the SS Index. Thanks for the idea. Oh, and about those horrible names for babies? My brother's friend once knew a guy who had been born Ham Burger. We also had a gentleman live with us for a while whose name was Beverly.

Good blog.

LexiconLuvr said...

I had a friend in high school whose parents gave them all corresponding middle names. Her name was seriously Fawn Dew. Fondue. Nice huh?

I write fantasy but I still try to stick with some more reigional names of time periods that I'm thinking of. Another great post, Keith!