Friday, October 14, 2005

You Can Call Me Al

I've talked before about naming characters. I both love and hate the process.

Sometimes names just come attached to the character, no second thoughts necessary (I've just recently met a Cole that seems to want to hang around). Other times, I go through round after round trying to find the right name. I have a stable of favorite names, names that I think sound heroic or heroine-ish. I confess that, often, they fall into the stereotype of what constitutes a good hero/heroine name. You know, the Rafes and Isabellas and Paytons and Skylers. I'm not one for using the names people actually encounter in real life, those that normal people really have like Barbara and Nancy or Dan and Steve.

Except when it comes to secondary characters. Then it's all about the quick and easy names. The names I don't like well enough to reserve for the big guns.

It's amazing how many secondaries and throw away characters there are who don't really have any significant part in the story but still need a name so key characters don't say things like "You can use that guy's office. He's out of town." or "The blonde sitting at the front desk can help you. She's our receptionist." These aren't people with backstory or motivation, they're the extras. Even so, they deserve a name to give the flow of dialogue a sense of reality and the story texture and detail.

Too, as I develop histories for my key players I find myself with a whole pack of people needing names. Is the hero named after his father or his father's favorite uncle? If the heroine has three sisters, did their parents use one of those naming trends where all four girls' names start with the same letter? Heaven forbid one of the characters came from a large and very close-knit family, where they all show up every Sunday for big family dinners.

Coming up with these names is tough. I flip through baby books looking for interesting names, except if anything draws my attention because I find it unique, I then want to save it for some future hero or heroine. I'd hate to name some grocery store bagboy Christian and then decide three books later that my knight in shining armor needs to be named Christian.

So I try to use those generic, real people names. Do you realize how few names are used over and over again? How many Michaels and Jameses and Vickis there are in the world? And is it okay if my books reflect reality this way, with many Michaels and Jameses and Vickis walking the streets?

As for last names, I head to my local white pages. Except, again, you fall into that trap of wanting something unique but not too much so. I mean, Smith or Brown or Jones is always a safe bet for a minor character's last name, but how original is that? On the opposite end of the spectrum, you don't want readers struggling over the proper pronunciation of Klowskowski when Mr. Klowskowski, the heroine's grouchy super, is only going to be on screen for two paragraphs.

As I've developed story idea after story idea, my list of secondary and walk-ons has grown at an alarming rate. So fast, in fact, that I have trouble keeping track of all of them. I've started a cheat sheet of sorts, and every time I invent a new person, he or she goes onto the log. I have names sorted both alphabetically and by book where they first appear. If the character is dead, I make note of it (and I seem to have a lot of dead parents for some reason). I'm hoping this goes a long way in helping me keep things straight.

Meanwhile, I suppose I have to accept that fact that books, like life, contain some measure of repetition if you hope to be more than a one hit wonder.

1 comment:

meljean brook said...

I hate choosing names -- I like the results, but the process is terrible. I'm not so bad for secondaries, but main characters and the close circle of secondaries? Gah. Half the time (particularly if I want the name to reflect something regional or cultural) I'll just be writing along and put [name] in brackets and I'll go back and fill it in when I know who it is.