What’s in a (character) Name?

March 3rd, 2015 | Posted by Steve in Fantasy | Fiction | Mystery

Interesting discussion on ancestry.com about English surnames:

There Are 7 Types of English Surnames — Which One Is Yours?
Many of us have surnames passed down to us from ancestors in England. Last names weren’t widely used until after the Norman conquest in 1066, but as the country’s population grew, people found it necessary to be more specific when they were talking about somebody else. Thus arose descriptions like Thomas the Baker, Norman son of Richard, Henry the Whitehead, Elizabeth of the Field, and Joan of York that, ultimately, led to many of our current surnames… (more)

Long post:

What to name your character in your novel? Several factors come into play:

Of what country/nation/tribe/whatever is this person a member.
English names (see the link above) are easy for Americans. Other racial/ethnic background names, not so much. A current trend in the African/American community is to give kids names more African-sounding. Seems reasonable, given that Asian/Americans have used Asian names forever. (It’s harder to have last names Africanized, as that requires a court order. So we end up with our young woman named Shasmecka Williams — combining a Nigerian given name (“princess”) with an American “slave” name. This is not bad — I don’t consider any name as bad — but it is an interesting historical comment in a way.

But if your character is from (or the story set in) an Asian country, or a Spanish-speaking South American country, then what? I ran up against this issue when I worked for Reuters many moons ago and had to track down Spanish-heritage people in the U.S. court system or elsewhere. Mr. Raul Herrara Gonzalez would likely call himself Raul Herrara to his U.S. friends but the government would list him as Raul Gonzalez because the U.S. government seemed to have no concept of patrilineal/matrilineal nomenclature. Confusing.

African names? Well, what’s ‘Africa’? Egypt? Nigeria? Tanzania? South Africa with English and Dutch influence? It’s not a country, it’s a continent. Choose names wisely.

In what time period is the story set?
As any expectant mother who has pored over lists of baby names knows, names have periods of popularity. I don’t know what’s ‘in’ or not; I have never named a baby. I mean, I called my Savannah-breed cat Spots and even his predecessor was Spots. Not terribly original.

I once knew an author who said he got his character names from cemetary tombstones and obituaries. “Those people don’t need their names any more,” he explained. Amusement aside, he was inadvertently naming his current-era characters with names that had been all the rage seventy years or more ago.

How old is your character? How old is your anticipated reader?
You’re writing your book today, but your character was born fifty years ago. Your average-age reader of fifty is surrounded by people with fifty-year-old names too. What to do?

Do you wish the name to do more than just identify the character?
Charles Dickens was famous for choosing names that conveyed some personality-aspect of his characters. Seems like a lot of thought-work to me but if the result is not too tortured, I suppose it would work today. Your track-and-field heroine could be named Francine Pettijane or Jane Armstrong. Which sounds more athletic to you?

And Lynda Schab has a good discussion of this at How 2 Choose Character Names:

So, what’s the big deal about naming your character? I mean, a name is a name, right? Everybody has one. Some are long (think, Winnifred Patricia Hinkleberry), some short (Ty Cook), some rhyme (Larry Berry), some even have the same first and last name (Jeff Jeffries). In real life, you may chuckle at the names you hear but probably don’t give names much thought. Why should you take the time to choose a great name for your character?  . . . (more).

All right. Now, I admit to laziness here. I sort of scramble around when I need a character name and the more important the character the more I pay attention. But I also tend to grab up scraps of paper off my desk — bills, notices, ads for the local grocery store, whatever — and sort of transmogrify some word there into a name. My private investigator character, Cord Macintosh, is named for (a) Cordwainer Smith, a penname for Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger, who wrote science fiction that I read when I was a teen and (b) my computer. I was casting about for a name and there it was, right in front of me. If I ever name someone ‘Logitech’ you’ll know I was looking at my keyboard.

My police chief of the Mangrove Bayou books, Adam Troy, is a case where his name is relevant. Adam was named for the first man in the Bible by the director of an orphanage in Troy New York. He’s constantly having to correct people who think his last name is Adam or who tell him his names aren’t terribly original. Well, duhhh.

For my Sorcet Chronicles fantasy series, I knew I wanted a web site to promote the books. Web site names are hard to come by. I looked for something vaguely similar to ‘sorceress’ and came up with Sorcet. It’s not anyone else’s name. It’s not even a word in any language but Turkic, where — I think — it’s some kind of bread. Anyway, Sorcet it is and the website URL was available. (The narrator of those stories, incidentally, is Tachi Green Fujiwara, so back to our ethnic names.)

Speaking of Mangrove Bayou, the first two books called it Mangrove Bay. But, surprise, surprise, that name was taken for a web site URL. So I added two vowels and bought the URL of MangroveBayou.com. Then I did a global-search-and-replace to change the name in the book manuscripts which I had not yet sold. (But I have now; first book is due out in May, second at the end of 2015.)

 

 

 

 

 

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