Naming Characters – What’s in a Name?

Ann H Gabhart Ann's Posts, One Writer's Journal

I know this picture doesn’t have a thing to do with naming characters. Or then again maybe I need to look deeper. The open gate, the roads running together speak of possibilities. I took this picture last week at the Shaker village near me. My new characters might walk down these very roads in my story. They will be facing new vistas, new paths. But first they have to have names.
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In a little book I have called Craft & Technique by Paul Raymond Martin, he has a paragraph about “The Name Game.” He says some writers think they can’t proceed with a story until they name their main characters. His advice is to pick a name, any name, just so you can get started writing. I’m one of those writers who has to have her characters named. At least my lead characters. How can I know who they are until I know their names? And saying just any Tim, Jim or Sally isn’t going to work for me. I have to know what their names are. That’s not to say that a character I forced a wrong name on didn’t look me in the eye a few pages later and tell me emphatically that if I thought that was her name, I’d better think again.
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I’m thinking names now for my new book. I’ll have lots of names before I’m through. Many of them will be minor characters I’ll name on the spot when they make their entrance onto my story page. I want those names to be right too, so their names get changed more often than my main characters. I keep a running list of every character I name in a book and every dog, horse or cat plus all the place names. Saves a lot of grief a few pages on down the story road when I meet that character again and think “Oops! What was his or her name?”
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A list keeps me from using pet names I like over and over. Each book needs fresh names unless I’m letting an old character appear in a new book. I did that in The Seeker. Those of you who read The Outsider first know which characters I’m talking about. I haven’t decided yet if I’m going to let any of my former characters make a cameo appearance in my next book. That could happen or not.
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Before I can even consider that possibility, I have to come up with my names. And so I’m searching through name books and waiting for the right names to leap off the page into my imagination. Then I write the name down and try it out with a last name. It has to sound right. I usually end up with a whole page full of names and I keep trying them out in my imagination to see which one is going to fit my character.
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Sometimes when I come up with a name, the character pops up too like a jack-in-the box saying “Here I am. Here I am.” That’s how it was with Lacey, my main female character in my Shaker book, The Blessed that will be out next summer. Other times my character lingers back in the shadows of my mind and is reluctant to come out where I can see if the name fits and if she is going to let me get to know her well enough to tell her story.
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So I’m trying to get the possibilites for the new story to come into focus along with the names. I hope you are having a week where possibilities of good things are coming along and that the names of the characters you’re reading about or writing about fit them. I used to think my name didn’t fit me. But now I think Ann is a good name for me. I’m just who I am, and a simple name with no pretentions fits. But when I was a kid I wished for a glamorous name with more than one syllable. LOL