Monday, July 03, 2006

Naming Characters

Trifles go to make perfection, and perfection is no trifle.
Michelangelo BuonarrotiItalian architect, painter, & sculptor (1475 - 1564)

I’m a perfectionist. When a reader takes in my work, I want them to see flawlessness. While fiction is a collection of description, action and dialogue, names are an element, a detail, a common thread that crosses all phases of one’s work. Over the years I’ve worked out some logistics on getting good names to where they need to be.

My need for names began in High School, with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. I’d create likeable characters, outfit them with sharp blades and flasks of oil, then stare off into space with only one blank space on my character sheet: NAME:. Of course a week later I’d come up with the perfect name, but Jonathan Doe had already set out on his quest, and the moment was lost. I was stuck in the that’s-what-I-shoulda’-said mindset. So I began writing down the names I-shoulda-said, and tucked that paper inside the cover of my Players Handbook.

A fellow gamer was inspired by my growing names list, and for our College-Prep class’ weekly journal assignment, filled one whole side of notebook paper, three columns wide, with NAMES! Scott Krebec’s Journal assignment is the oldest of my dozen sheets of notebook paper, three to four columns wide, filled with names.

As my writing became more important than gaming, I kept gathering names in my writing notebooks. Names of places, company names, first names, last names, nick-names; I keep two three-ring binders, labeled Fantasy and Sci-Fi. When I have a need, I flip to the genre ‘names’ file and start scanning. Even if I can’t find exactly what I want, the least I’ve come away with are syllables that sound appropriate to the character I’m writing.

Apart from my nagging about keeping a writer’s notebook, here are four more name tips:
Suitability – Have you ever met someone whose name fit them so well, that every time you’ve heard their name, your mind’s eye sees them? Seek that level on naming intimacy in your character creation.

Connotation – Here’s a trick for when you need a name that carries an idea. Select a word archetypical to the personality that you wish to convey to your reader. Now, stuff the word into a pillowcase, and beat it until it’s beyond recognition. Poke a funnel into the top of your computer, and empty the pillowcase into aforementioned funnel. Shake pillowcase to get every drop. Burn pillowcase to destroy forensic evidence. Now then, the word you see on you monitor is totally unique, but still has enough phonetic similarity to the-word-you-just-bludgeoned, that the connotation of its meaning still carries over to your reader.

EXAMPLE: In my Fantasy Novella White Iron, I needed a name for a primitive group of Orq barbarians. I landed on the word Neanderthal, and one pillowcase later, Clann Nintrithaal was born. There’s more. I informed my first two critiquers of my naming strategy, then asked them to guess the connotation word. Twice, the word Neanderthal was Bach to my ears!

Aesthetics – Be a word-smith. While selecting a name suitable to your character, craft syllables that are pleasing to both the eye and ear.

Simplicity – Don’t get so carried away making nice syllables that your reader trips over the name every time he sees it. An example of my own: Zuielmann. I thought the reader would easily pronounce this, Zool-men. I was wrong.

The moral of this non-fiction story is that names are an author’s fingerprint on their work. Story details last on a reader. I read Terry Brooks’ Sword Of Shannara when I was sixteen. I’m nearly forty now, yet the exotic name Panamon Creel still lingers in my memory. Do that!

His Will be done, Frank Creed


Anonymous said...

Very interesting ideas for naming characters. Do you think that it is necessary for readers to be able to pronounce names the way you intend them? or is it a matter of pride for the author?


Frank Creed said...

Both. As a reader I hate stumbling over unpronouncable names. My pride as an author is about glorifying Him through the gifts he’s given me. This is what makes me a perfectionist.
To God be the glory.

Anonymous said...

Well, if it makes you feel any better, I pronounced it Zool-men. But, I immediately thought of Ghostbusters which perhaps helped. “Oh Zuely, you ol’ nut.”


cj said...

I SO remember that same character. I also can't shake the name Paramore? Paramor? I believe it was the place that the druid Walker Boh (another great name) was from. Par and Col! Great names. Oh man, you have brought back so many memories. Funny also that I feel as though we know one another based on nothing more than having this book in common. Books are great. Writing is magical. Thanks for this.