Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Naming the world

Something that amazes me about the Harry Potter books: where did Rowling get all those names? Everything and everyone is named; all the kids, teachers, parents, house elves, familiars, and even muggles.

I have two ways of naming my characters. For my main characters, I need to spend days, even weeks, brainstorming different names, trying them out, searching for the perfect match. This strategy works well, though of course it's time-consuming. For my more minor characters, I frequently just grab a name from somewhere around me. The next door neighbor in my stories is frequently named after my real next door neighbor. The principal after my high school principal. The main characters' friends are often named after my own friends, or children I've taught. This strategy also works well. It's fast and mindless.

However, it's also prone to enormous problems. What if Project Sparkle actually sells? What if people actually read it? It's okay, I suppose, if in the novel the principal is real nice and a real minor character. But what if he's not?

I've known for months that I need to change some of the characters' names in Project Sparkle. But I've had so many other important and time-consuming things to do, like writing the book. So I've just stuck with the names I've had. And worse, these names have become cemented in my head as I've developed my characters. Now it's hard to imagine the principal named anything else.

But I guess getting sued would be even harder. So back to the drawing board.

My friends on the Blueboards have been tremendously helpful this past week as I've struggled with this. One person suggested the website Nymbler, a name generator.

How do you name your characters, especially the minor ones?


  1. I keep a notebook of names—for characters, streets, towns, etc.—and start by dipping into it. Sometimes I find what fits, sometimes it sparks another choice.

    The trouble I have with names is that once I settle on what I feel is the right one, it gets cemented into my head.

    What I never do is use names of family, friends, or neighbors. It's not worth it.

    Finally, if I can't come up with a name right away, I'll use 'the main character' or 'the boy' or whatever as a place holder until I find the right name.

  2. What's strange is that if you need to change a character's name, you know immediately when you've found the right one. In my first book I had to change a Katie to Claire - Katie is the name of a very good friend of mine and I hadn't realised when I used her name how important the character would be.Using her name felt weirder and weirder, and I'm so happy I chnaged it. In the second I had to change the name of an Edward, because I mention Twilight..I tried Charles, Louis, Alexander..Then realised that Patrick was perfect, much better than Edward!

  3. I think not using any friend, family or neighbor names will become my rule, too. The character I'm particularly worried about started out quite minor, so it didn't really matter, but unfortunately, as happened to Keren, he became quite major.

    I think I grab names, any names, rather than using place holders because they have a bit more character, and really I just want to get on with telling the story. But maybe I really just need to follow your example or get myself a baby name book or something.

    You're absolutely right about finding the perfect name, Keren. And to me, Claire seems to fit Claire better than Katie ever could! I know what type of name I'm searching for, but I haven't quite found it yet. Ran some by Phil last night, but he stuck his tongue out at the best one, so I guess it's back to the name lists.


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