Monday, July 26, 2010

What's in a Name?

I'm working on a new book and I'm having a hard time naming a key character. I've tried out a bunch of names, but nothing sticks. Something will, I just don't know what or when.  I once heard Sue Grafton say, "Trust the process."  Wise advice.  When in doubt, keep at it. Something will come.  

I can't speak for other fiction writers, but naming characters is a critical step for me when crafting a story. I strive for each character's name to evoke an image of or a feeling about the character.  How perfect a name is "Hannibal Lecter" for a cannibalistic, erudite serial killer?   

While I'm struggling with getting this one important character's name just right, I thought it might be of interest to describe my process for coming up with names.  "Process" sounds so formal and orderly. In reality, my method has few rules and mostly flies on instinct.

As a place to begin, names reflect a character's era and background. I think about the character's age, social class, and where and how she or he was raised.  I imagine the character's parents and think about where their heads were when their bouncing baby came along.  In my most recent book, Love Kills, I had fun naming two sets of girlfriends from different generations and upbringings.  One set included Patsy, Catherine ("Tink"), and Vicki.  The other had Cheyenne, Fallon, and Trendi.  Any ideas about the ages of the friends and which had the more stable backgrounds?

There are some Hollywood types in Love Kills and naming them was a kick. There's an A-list celebrity couple and I wanted to give them a catchy shorthand nickname along the lines of Brangelina.  I named the husband, a vaguely creepy funnyman, Gig Towne and named his younger and troubled wife Sinclair LeFleur.  They're known in the tabloids as "LeTowne."  Gig is as snappy and phony as his name.  Sinclair is like a bruised flower. 

I chose Georgia Berryhill for the name of my motherly, nurturing guru to the stars who owns Berryhill, a Malibu Canyon healing ground for the well-heeled.  "Georgia" to me sounds homey and comforting, like peach pie. "Berryhill" conjures a wonderful image.  It was a blast to lift the kimono and reveal what really goes on at the Berryhill compound. Sometimes I choose names that deceive the reader about the character's true nature.

Sometimes, a name comes easily.  That was the case when I named the protagonist of my current series, Detective Nan Vining.  There's a town in California's eastern Sierra Nevada mountains that's called Lee Vining.  That name had always stuck in my head. I wasn't crazy about "Lee" or "Leigh" as a first name, though. Names with a lot of vowels and soft consonants sound soft to me.  I wanted my protagonist to have solid, old-fashioned first name and settled on Nan, short for Nanette, her grandmother's name.  Nan Vining's name is apt because she's like a vine--tenacious, slowly creeping, deceptively strong. Her name also inspired her nickname at the station: Poison Ivy.  

To me, names with hard consonants, like Nan Vining, sound sharp and forceful.  Nan's homicide detective partner is Jim Kissick. Sounds decisive and he is.   

I can start writing without having my characters' names finalized, but they don't feel whole until they're properly named. I feel like I don't completely know them. I often change names when I'm well into a manuscript. I'll be writing along with the great name I've picked and one day, it'll just go "clunk" in my head. Back to the drawing board. 

What comprises my drawing board?  I do have a sort of process for naming and keeping track of characters.  Of course I consult the Internet.  It's great for researching names by any parameters imaginable. I like to see words in print, so I also use books and such. 

I bought Character Naming Sourcebook years ago and use it often. I have baby name books. I have a spiral pad full of names I've jotted down over the years. I keep alumni directories and high school yearbooks.  I'll look through my local newspaper's obituaries.  I'll scan the phone book. Sometimes I'll describe a character to my husband and ask him for a name off the top of his head. I've used names I've overheard.  

I avoid names that are hard to pronounce.  When I'm reading and come across a name I don't know how to pronounce, it takes me out of the story because I stop to try to figure it out. 

I avoid names that can make for awkward reading. "Fred," for example. "Fred said" would take me right out of any story I'm reading. I don't want readers to focus on individual words.  I want them to be lulled into the canvas I'm painting with words and to forget they're reading.

While I'm immersing myself into a world of names via these myriad sources, I jot down names on blue index cards with a Sharpie pen.  I like blue cards for names and white cards for plot points.  No reason.  The white index cards I thumbtack to a big bulletin board to the left of my desk.  I'll write about how I plot in a future blog post.     

I look for memorable rather than unusual names. Sometimes the names are unusual.  Sometimes they're common.  The one thing they have in common is that they fit the character.  Once I come up with a name I like, I tape the index card with it onto one of two large white boards that sit on the floor behind my desk, within easy reach. I'll also write brief facts about the character--age, background, etc. If I have longer descriptions, those go up too. Sometimes I'll put up photos I've found of people who look like how I've imagined a character.  

Through all this, the characters begin to live and breathe and I'm slowly building the skeleton upon which I'll drape the story.  I put index cards up and take them down as names change, new characters appear or ones I thought I needed drop away  The index cards on the whiteboards also help me see if I have too many names that start with the same letter or that sound the same.  

I save the final index cards that I've created for all my books.  Part of saving them is sentimental, but they have a practical use too. I can quickly look through them to make sure I haven't already used a character's first or last name in another book in my Nan Vining series.

Here's a shot of one of my white boards as it looked when I finished the final revisions to Love Kills. After a book is finished, which for me is after I've gone through the printed page proofs and there's no further writing to do, I take everything down, leaving my white boards clean and bare, waiting for a new family of characters to move in. I again begin the process of getting to know them and their stories.

As far as the ongoing characters in my Detective Nan Vining series, I'm well beyond the blue index card phase with them. I have to keep track of their entire lives and make sure the basic facts about them stay consistent from book to book.  I've set up a Word document for each character. I type into it physical characteristics, background information, family and educational history, types and names of their pets, even descriptions of their homes and workplaces if we've been there.  I record anything about the character that has appeared in any of the Nan Vining books.  With each book, I add to each character's encyclopedia page.  I print the pages and put them into a three-ring binder that sits to the right of my computer.  Then if I forget the color of Jim Kissick's eyes (hazel) or the number of times Nan's mother has been married (four), the information is at my fingertips.      

Speaking of changing names, you might have noticed that I've changed the name of this blog. I used to call it "I Write Therefore I Am," which I meant as a fun poke at my undergraduate philosophy studies.  "Plot Points" is pithier, I think, and speaks more to my goals with this blog.  I've also used one of the new templates supplied by Blogger. What do you think?


  1. Thanks for a peek behind the curtain at a part of your process. :-)

  2. I enjoyed this post, Dianne. I don't know how many writers take this kind of trouble with names, but I believe it's important. Characters serve functions in stories. Words serve the story. Everything you put into the book serves the story, why shouldn't the name serve the story, too?

  3. Glad you enjoyed it, Elizabeth, and that it didn't make you want to drop the curtain and flee!

    Petrea, I agree. I sweat the small stuff in my books while some other successful authors I know just start writing. There are no hard rules. Whatever works.

  4. I appreciate your story board & this post! Also, it's good to change up the theme - like it, DE.

  5. Thanks, Cafe! I like it too. :-)

  6. And, I just noticed you changed your name! I preferred the original. It probably would've shown up in "google" type searches better also.