Writing advice, Writing and Editing

What’s in a Name?

One of the hardest part of writing, in my humble opinion, is naming things. Characters, places, businesses, musical acts, it makes no difference, finding an acceptable name can be torture. I struggle. For some reason, titles are different. They can be difficult also, but they belong in a different category; they are added (in my case anyway) after the piece is completed and, unless you are working against a deadline, there is all sorts of time.

Characters are different. Place names are different.

I have been known to bring my writing to a skidding halt when the narrative calls for a name.

Why? Because each name, whether it’s that of a major character, or the street where the final shootout happens, or the nightclub the bad guy uses as a front is not only important. It has to be perfect. As perfect as I can make it.

Names are important. They are part of character.

Think about it. A man named Mark is going to have a different personality and life experience than a man named Elmer; a woman named Melissa will have a different experience than one named Gertrude. It’s why prospective parents spend so much time and energy discussing and deciding the new baby’s name. It’s important that the name be perfect.

I think it is the same with a name in fiction. Whether it’s a major character, a minor character, or the name of the street they live on, each name has to be perfect. It has to match the personality you’ve created (and enhance it) and each must be distinct enough that the reader will not get confused. (As in having characters named Jenny, Jeanie, and Janine in the same story).

Even more important, everything—absolutely everything—in our work, including the names, must serve a purpose. If your character’s name is Dan, ask yourself why? Why “Dan?” Why not Mark, or Tom? You may not have the answer to that question, but you should at least be thinking about it.

For instance, the protagonist in my first three novels, The Ni’il Trilogy, is named Dan. Why? Because I wanted him to be just an ordinary guy, strong, but flawed. I wanted him to be your next door neighbor. As a reader pointed out, “Daniel” is also my father’s name, though I didn’t consciously pick it for that reason.

Back to my problem with names bringing my creative narrative to a stop. What did I do about it? Two things: I created a database listing the top ten surnames of every nationality with a significant presence in the United States (since almost all my work involves Americans and is set somewhere in the country). Why surnames? Because otherwise I will end up with the same last names in all my fiction.

Second, I began using placeholders in my fiction when I come upon the need for a new name. I’ll just type in “XX” or “YY” and continue with the story. Later, when the first draft is completed, I can go back, database in hand, and decided on names.

It seems to work.

At some point, I would also like to compile a database of interesting business names, street names and other such things, but haven’t been able to get to it yet.

Other writers, such as Henry James and Charles Dickens were known to keep lists of names in their notebooks. Again, so they could reference them when needed. Dickens, especially, is famous for coining names that reflect the character’s personality, such as Ebenezer Scrooge.

However you decide to handle your characters’ names, take them seriously, as seriously as you would naming a child, because it is just as important. At least it’s important to your fiction.

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