Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Name Fail

In August 2010, as I was nearing a finished draft of Project Sparkle, I wrote a post lamenting all of the manuscript's problematic names. See, I spend days, if not months, generating my main characters' names. But in the midst of writing, I often feel I can't afford that same time to name my more minor characters. So I just pull a name out of thin air. Frequently, if I need a neighbor, I take my neighbor's name. A principal? I take my high school principal's name. You can see how this might become problematic quite quickly.

Anyway, after I wrote that post, and in the middle of scrambling to finish Project Sparkle, complete my MA on time, and rename half my characters, I promised myself never again. At least... until the next project.

Yes. Project Demo is full of high school teacher names, friends' names, my own middle name. I've even got a character with the last name Nadal. Guess what sport I was watching when I was writing this past summer?

Total name fail.

So I spent this past week trying to generate a whole new cast of names.

I think the problem is that I want to be a Dickens, when clearly I'm not. I love his characters' names. So evocative, yet not comical (unless the comedy is intentional!). Miss Flite. Mr. Guppy. Ebeneezer Scrooge. The Artful Dodger. Oliver Twist.

So I had this "genius" idea (notice the quotes!) to name all the characters in Project Demo something to do with water. See, my main character is afraid of water, and feels most of the world is out to get her. So a whole bunch of evocative, frightening, watery names... wouldn't that be too cool?

Unfortunately, as I've said a few times in this post, names really aren't my forte. Though, honestly, let's see you come up with 10-20 evocative watery character names! It's not as easy as I thought at first, even with my determination to use Mr. Guppy for a minor character! What else? Mr. Jaws? Dr. Teeth? Miss Flounder? Greg Weiss? Bob Kahuna?

And, I hate to shame him, but it must be said, I'm married to someone who studies fossil fish and their ecosystems for a living! You think he'd be helpful! Yet he only laughed when I suggested Mr. Benthic (Google it, I'll wait).

The names I came up with were either laughably obvious and not very frightening or evocative. Or they were so specialized that the average reader wouldn't have any idea it was a watery name. Then I realized I'd have to change my main characters' surnames, too, if this whole water scheme was going to work. Finally, after getting to Ms. Bathysphere, I gave up entirely.

Could it be done? Probably. But I am not the artist to do it.

Ultimately, I relied on my old standby, US Census data. This website is incredibly useful, though it relies on data from the 1990s. You can search last names alphabetically by most common, ethnicity, by US zip codes, etc.

By Friday night, I had done a search/replace on all of my problematic names. And I did keep two watery ones, just for fun, that I couldn't quite convince myself to get rid of (I'll save that trivia tidbit for when the book has made me a bestseller, okay?).

But next time, this will not happen. Next time I will systematically figure out every name before I write. Next time I will not name anyone in my novel after anyone I know or anyone famous.

Either that, or I'll use the 2012 White Sox roster. No one would notice, right?

Please, make me feel better, and share your own character name fails. Or maybe you could suggest some watery names? Good or bad, I'm open to either!

*The picture is mine, the deep, foreboding waters of Loch Ness*


  1. It's hard for me to change a character's name (major ones anyway) after living with it and writing with it for a while, so I try to nail them down before I start. Once I associate a name with a given character, even if I leave that project behind, I can't use it for another character, because now that character "inhabits" that name.

    It's taken me months to figure out the exact variation of the character names for my current WIP but I think I've finally got versions that will stick...

    I love the website Behindthename.com for name research

    You can search be meaning and it produced a bunch of names when I told it to search for names with water in the meaning.

  2. For minor surnames I work through my class at secondary school. For first names, I quite often look on Facebook - so if I need 15 year olds I look at a 15-year-old's friends list. But I end up changing quite a lot towards the end.

  3. Once I name a character, I can't undo it. Like fictionforge, the character now inhabits the name. I have to have the names set before I get to the first draft. I can work without a book title, but I can't work without a character's name.

  4. I was asked to change character names three times, each for a different reason. It is hard. I wish i could tell you how I managed it, and how the 'adjustment' went. (It is an adjustment for their parent, the writer) - I only learned what hasn't worked for me: letting others into the process. Other people's suggestions for names felt even lamer than my own initial attempts.
    On the technical side, I’m grateful for ‘Find’ and ‘Replace.’

  5. Elisabeth: Oh, I'm the same way. Once a name belongs to a character, it's so hard to change! Yet I really didn't want to have a character named Nadal, either, so I had to do something! Behindthename.com looks really useful, thanks! I really do need to emulate you and figure out those names FIRST!

    Keren: Hah, too funny! Glad to know I'm not the only one raiding my past or changing tons of names towards the end! Maybe I need to work a Keren David into my next book... ;)

    Andrea: It's interesting how we all have our own ways of working. I HAVE to have a title, it informs the whole book. Whereas character names are useful, and get pretty stuck in my head, but if I have to change them, obviously I can.

    Mirka: Ugh! But I guess we do what we have to do. Interesting that you've found other people's suggestions never work! And yes, definitely grateful for Find and Replace!

  6. Try http://babynamewizard.com/ :)

  7. One of my first manuscripts, I had a lot of rhyming names. I didn't even realize it until someone pointed it out to me. Sigh. So I had to change them (but I still thought of them with their original names).

  8. In my most recent WIP I realized in my revisions that I had a Rebecca and a Becky. Duh! Total name fail. I ended up changing Becky to another name. Of course I missed one and my beta reader left me a comment saying, "Who is Becky?" Thank goodness for beta readers.

  9. Linzey: Ohhh, looks good! Bookmarked! Thank you!

    Karen: Hah! That's pretty funny. At least I haven't... uh oh. *Anne runs to check that none of her names rhyme* Phew! ;) I call most of my characters by the original names, too. I changed one of the major character's names in Project Demo, and I can't even remember what I changed it to! Guess it didn't really stick!

    Kelly: Hah! So glad to know I'm not the only one with the occasional name fail! Where would we be without beta readers?!

  10. Gosh, I have name envy each time I pick up a book. I am terrible, terrible for coming up with names. I think it was brilliant to try to come up with watery names even though it turned out to net only two. (har. har.)

    I'm thinking I'd have pilfered Nemo, Dorrie.

    I am about to start naming names in my own wip, so I'm going to return to your link and some of the mentions in the comments. Thanks!

  11. Bridgette: Hah! I did have a look through Finding Nemo's names! ;) So glad to know I'm not the only one struggling with this name thing! Happy you can make use of some of the suggestions here!

  12. I struggle with names too. What works for me is to jot good names down as I find them. Sometimes someone will tell me their name and it'll be so perfect I want to write it down right away.

    In my WiP, I've got a minor character called Mr. Chatsworth, an old guy who nobody can shut up. I couldn't resist it: maybe I want to be Dickens too.

  13. Mary: Keeping a running name list is a great idea! And I LOVE Chatsworth. Very clever, and yet not in-your-face. I may have to put that one down on my list. ;)

  14. When I started my current story, I didn't take time to come up with names for some characters, so for a long time I ended up calling them by their jobs/purposes. There was Artist, Mastermind, Younger Guard. It worked great, but I still ended up getting partially attached. I ended up picking a name for the artist that started with the letter "A", and the Younger Guard's last name became "Young". ;) --Monica.

  15. Monica: I love this idea! It's basically what I'm doing already--naming the Teacher after my high school teacher--but wouldn't get me into trouble! I might have to try this, thanks! Also, I can totally see how these basic names ended getting cemented in your brain. So funny how that works. Good luck with your writing!