Monday, October 19, 2009

Naming Your Characters

During my I-have-no-future-as-a-writer despair yesterday, I recalled something my friend B. (he of "your detectives are dumb" fame) said, namely, that I had given a too-obviously evil name to the main villain. What he didn't know is that I picked the villain's surname more or less randomly from a frozen food product.

I recall reading many years ago Kurt Vonnegut saying that he found the names for his characters from the phone book. That's more or less what I do too, though I also look at book jackets. Because my novel takes place mostly in L.A., I gave it some polyglot texture -- some Hispanics, a couple of Asians, one Iranian. I try not to get all politically correct about it or anything, but I don't want everyone to have a WASPy name. Not everyone's last name can be Cavendish or Wilson or whatever.

So -- how do you choose your characters' names? Do you try to assign them names with a symbolic purpose or something that sounds cool or are you just tossing darts at the phone book?


  1. I do all of the above. Lame, right? Sometimes I look at a prominent characteristic of said character and look it up in several languages to see if anything sounds like a last name. First names are almost always just names I really like.

  2. Your villians name is Birdseye??? Or VandeKamp? Sounds OK to me. :)

    I work for a preschool and a hospital, and I have long, long lists of names at each of those places. If I'm looking for a name that is new and fresh, I scan the preschool roster. Otherwise, I stick to hospital types. I needed a name for a very minor character, so I chose Yousef, after one of the cool hospital assistants I work with. My Yousef is a bassist in a band who breaks his wrist while trying to play a show drunk, and it seemed like the type of thing my Yousef would do. He's cool like that.

  3. haha... I was also trying to think of frozen foods you might've used: Oreida came to mind. I went to my freezer and found that it is two words: Ore Ida. And then I wanted french fries, thouh it is 8:15 in the morning.

    I chose character's names a little bit thoughtfully. I chose Laurel for my mc because I like the phrase about "not resting on laurels." However, one of my character's currently reads David LAST NAME, because I can't decide what to call him. And I think Laurel's fiance is going to be called Owen Omega, like aplha and omega. He's not her beginning, he's her end. Or something. It's earrrly.

  4. I do all of the above too, and in a couple of instances did precisely what Tina Lynn describes - looking at different languages and the etymology of words for the characteristic I am interested in. Occasionally I also go by sound. Do I want a hard-sounding name or a soft-sounding one? An alliterative name or a dissonant one? Etc. etc. It's fun. I figure if I name a character and quickly find myself no longer dwelling on it, then it's good enough.

  5. It depends. With my first novel, I wrote nearly half of it with GIRL and GUY as the main characters. It took me a long time to name them. Most of the times though, I tend to name them upfront. I also tend to use blander names that don't mean anything and won't sway a reader in any way.

  6. Oh yeah, last names are a different story. I have a really hard time with those!