Thursday, September 17, 2009

What's In a Name?

People (especially kids) often ask me where I get the names for my characters. Names are important. They can indicate age, background, nationality, gender ... they can also work for or against character. It used to be that if you wanted to give a wussy male character a wussy name, you might call him Cyril or Cecil. On the other hand, you can create humour by calling a big, tough bruiser Cecil. With kids' names in stories, especially historical ones, I use the internet sites that tell you what were the most popular names in a given year or decade. Very handy!

But what about your villains? You want to make them as horrible and nasty as possible, and that can mean using a name that helps your depiction. In my Tracey Binns novels, the villain is Justin Zit-face - basically I chose Justin because that was the name of a kid who used to bully my daughter years ago! The Zit-face is part of his physical description. Another option is to give them a nasty nickname, such as Bullet or Hammerhead. However, a problem arises when you have given your villain a normal kind of name (like Justin) and you do an author visit to a school, and a kid comes up to you and says his name is Justin. And then stands there, waiting for you to tell him why your villain has the same name as him!

That's the point at which I tell the truth about why I chose the name, and then say, "Of course, you're nothing like that. What would you call a villain in your story?" And often they give you some really good suggestions. I advise writing students to include a baby name book in their resource library. These kinds of books provide the meaning of the name too, which can be quite handy to help you match a name to a particular kind of character. For surnames, I head for the phone book and try to pick one that is fairly common.

Another option is one that famous writers sometimes use - they "auction" a character name, or give it as a prize at one of their book events. By this, I mean that whoever wins the prize gets to have a character named after them in the author's next book. A writer friend of mine won this "privilege" at an event with crime writer Val McDermid a few years ago. Bronwen Scott now appears in Val's novels as a tough, sharp, nasty lawyer who turns up every now and then to defend murderers and rapists! That's the thing - when you win, you don't get to say what your character will be like. (Hi, B.)

It definitely doesn't pay to name your characters after friends or relatives. It's a sure way to cause great conflict and rellies are bound to take umbrage unless the character is gorgeous or handsome. So the next time you need to name a character, think long and hard about who you might offend. And then go ahead and pick the best name to suit your villainous character anyway!


Snail said...

Don't forget the Dolce & Gabbana that I habitually wear! Mine is such a naff name that I suspect no one would use it voluntarily for a character.

Character names are tricky. Not only do they have to do all the things that you mention, but they have to be distinctive. I get confused when characters have similar names. (Mind you, confusion is my natural state nowadays.)

Ian Rankin is particularly good at ensuring that all the names are distinct from one another, bless 'im. Don't know whether that's deliberate, but it is very helpful.

Sherryl said...

Forgot about the Armani and D&G! Of course she is a RICH lawyer!
And features quite a bit in the latest - "Fever of the Bone". Appears towards the end, when the villain has been caught.