Sunday, July 08, 2007

A Rose By Any Other...

Scout Finch--"To Kill A Mockingbird"
Harry Potter--"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"
Billy Pilgrim-- "Slaughterhouse Five"
Frodo Baggins--"Lord of the Rings"
Scarlett O'Hara--"Gone With The Wind"
Howard Roark--"Fountainhead"
Heathcliff--"Wuthering Heights"
James Bond--"From Russia With Love"

What's in a name? How did these authors happen upon these combinations of vowels and consonants?

I know Ian Fleming named his famous spy after a British ornothologist when he cast about for inspiration for a name and saw James Bond's "Birds of the West Indies". Harry Potter just came to Rowling one day on a train; no great significance offered. Named for fellow infantryman and fellow prisoner-of-war, Edward Crone, Billy Pilgrim's name is a reflection of the theme of "Slaughterhouse Five" and an allusion to the character's journey through time and space.

I love looking at a chracter's name when reading works. Why Anita Blake? Where did Valentine Smith come from? Jonathan Harker? Dr. John Watson? John Clayton, Lord Greystoke?

For some reason, I usually have difficulty with names in my own writing. I usually insert the first thing that pops into my head. Gerald Case. Levon Druery. James Maloney.etc. No deep meaning, just the character speaking out and saying: "Hey,'s who I am."

Just speaking out loud here. No special purpose. Earlier today I worked on a mystery/fantasy with a hardboiled dick named Kevin Falcon. Again, no real meaning behind the just felt right. Maybe, like Charles has said, not everything has to have meaning. People are born. They are given names. Bang.

Of course if I had named Kevin something like Sylvester Arbuckle III, then we might have had to stop and wonder why.


marsha said...

names are hard...I hate having to think them up.

DesLily said...

Fantasy Fiction and SciFi have the best names!! I think many are thought out to help define the character (example from Lord Foul's Bane: Saltheart Foamfollower.. a giant who lives by the sea..easy connection!)

Anyway.. Long ago DeForest pointed out to me (when I was fairly new to california) that many of the names chosen for use in Star Trek we actually street names all around the valley and los angeles.. and that's exactly where they came from!

Fantasy also allows one to take a fairly normal name and change the spelling.. "Emily"= "Emylee" Many y's are insterted for "I's" also many phonetic spellings work.. lest that's what I've discovered about names.. but that's only a small portion I'm sure.

William Jones said...

I've seen many writers struggle with names -- always in search of the right one. Sometimes, a bland name gains power as the character is developed; something is added to the name by the character. I'm certain we've all heard similar lines: He doesn't look like a "Henry," or she doesn't look like "Olivia." The reasons are manifold. Culture plays into it, social perceptions, and sometimes who else has that name (in literature and outside of it).

There are also mechanical reasons for selecting a name. Avoiding difficult names, or those that end in "s" to cause less confusion when using the possessive form: "Marcus' hat is on the table" or "James's hat is on the table." So rules of grammar have a hand in selection.

I suppose what I'm getting around to is that clever names can help, but it is the character who is probably going to do the most for the name. A little extra depth in the name is only a tool for the writer to work with, but not the guide for the character.

gugon said...

Interesting that you should post this because I've been going through something of a character name crisis.

Since February, I've been working on a young adult novel. It became an impossible task for me to come up with names for the two main characters. I spent way too much time browsing the internet baby name websites. But the story wanted to be written, so I put in placeholder names: Billy and Alice. I never intented those to be the permanent names.

About halfway through the story, Alice became Sophie. It was surprisingly difficult for me to make the mental transition - to start thinking of Alice as Sophie. But in the scheme of things, Sophie was just more appropriate, so it stuck.

But as for Billy - well, that character has just become Billy and I don't know how to think of him by any other name. The name has become a part of the character and I can't pull the two apart.

If I change it now - I may have to go back and re-write much of the story because a character named Josh (for example), wouldn't necessarily do and say the same things as Billy.

My advice to anyone writing a story of length: get the names straight up front.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Marsha...I agree. I also find that story names can be a bitch. I sometimes start with one name, then switch to a second when I'm done writing. Stephen King claims to have written down seven or so titles. He then put the list on the refrigerator and one by one wrote a story for each title.

Deslily, so there is a James Tiberius Kirk Ave. and a Spock Blvd?

William, I NEVER end a character's name in 'S' and for the reason you mentioned. One name I came up with when I was twenty one has stuck with me. I was writing my first novel (I consider it now to be a learning tool)and I needed a name for a sort of wizard/confidence man. I chose Greljo Satori. I don't know where Greljo came from..just liked the sound. Satori felt right. Later, I discovered I hadn't made satori up. The word meant: a state of enlightenment. I loved that. As you can tell from my email address, I've kept that name all these years.

Gugon, do you remember those childrens books where you inserted your own name in for the name of the protagonist's?

Vwriter said...

MuseNames is a program designed to generate names for fiction writers. It costs less than $100. Here's how the creators describe this program:

"MuseNames is the world's largest commercially available database of names, containing more than 40,000 names from over 70 ethnic origins. Designed especially for fiction writers, this software allows the writer to quickly find the perfect character name - by gender and starting and ending letters, as well as by meaning (to match the character's personality and role in the story) and by origin (to match the character's ethnic background). Each name also shows a numerological analysis of the name, adding another powerful tool for matching (as well as generating ideas for) the personality traits of each of your characters.

And when you're not using it to write stories, you can use it to find the perfect name for your baby."

Imagine. Numerological analysis, generation, of character traits, and endless varieties of names.

Soon we will not even need to write the stories.

On the other hand, I am stuck for a character name right now...

Charles Gramlich said...

The only character name I actually did some research on was Ruenn Maclang for the Taleran books. For others I do sometimes look through phonebooks or check the names on headstones to get good combinations of names. I've never tried deliberatly to name a character with "symbolic" meaning, though. It just seems too contrived to me.

DesLily said...

Actually, I have seen many "james streets" and even seen "kirk" and Tiberius!.. can't say I've seen a Spock Blvd though lol..

SQT said...

I'm weird. I love coming up with names for my characters. I like them to reflect certain characteristics. I really like the name to fit the character. I find that if I am writing something that has a religious theme, names like Isaac, Adam or even Cain might come to mind; though I'd only use any of those names if they would fit in the story.

To me a name can have so much to do with a personality. I had a male character in a story with a feminine name-- the idea being that he spends much of his life compensating for the name by trying to be extra masculine. Hopefully stuff like that doesn't come across too cliche, but it plays a big part in the idea process.

SQT said...

Speaking of names, you might find this story interesting Stu.

Stewart Sternberg said...

I don't know Rick..anybody using Musename has to be pretty desperate. And maybe a little pathetic. Well...yeah, I guess I fall under those categories.

SQT...HELL???? Hmmm. I suppose that would be like naming your kid ADOLPH HITLER or ATILLA HUN. What about KAY K. KAY?

deslily, I worry that somewhere we'll find Voldemort Blvd.

Travis said...

**steps up to the microphone**

Hi, I'm Travis and I'm a writer...and I keep a spreadsheet file listing all the names that pop into my head from time to time.

Whew! Now that wasn't such a hard thing to admit. I've got a catalog of over 500 names so far.

Many, as Deslily suggests, are variations of a single ordinary name. I like to put names to my characters that fit with the style of story I'm writing.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Trav, I don't know whether to applaud you or pity you. Wow. Five hundred names. Yeah.

gugon said...

Like Charles, I often browse cemetaries and take note of names. I have a little notebook full of names from headstones.

I find that cemetaries popular with African Americans often have the best names. Much more creative than Caucasians. I have found some really incredible names in these places. Names that just ring like a bell.

I usually look for a certain rhythm in names. Certain combinations of syllables work well together between first and last names. A one-one combination (like James Bond or Mike Stone) is a no nonsense, down to business type character.

A two-two combination like Harry Potter often works well. But I find myself partial to odd combinations like two-three or three-two. They have a nice rhythm. I have a character with a four-one combination.

gugon said...

One more thing, because I thought this was interesting.

Collection agencies are aware of the power of names. When you are on their call list, they have a pre-recorded message that kicks on when they get an answering machine. The message says something like this (in a deep voice):

"Hello. This is Mike Stone calling from XXXX collections. It is urgent that you return this call as soon as possible. Please call 1-800-555-1234 as soon as possible and ask for Mike Stone."

When I returned the call, I asked for Mike Stone and (more than once), the pleasant individual on the other end said, "I can help you."

Eventually, I came to realize that there is no such person as Mike Stone. But something about that name sure makes you feel the pressing need to return the call - and the agency knows it. Had it been Philip Sneed, the message would have been much easier to ignore.

And don't ask why a collection agency was calling me. It's a long and stupid story.

Jon said...

Oh, I love making up names!
One of my favorites is Clarence Bunn. He has Downs Syndrome to a degree and his particular insights help in a murder investigation near his group home.
Of course I favor Buck and Tangee Crimmins.
But I use "place holders" too. I often use the names Clement and Malcolm as my good guy/bad guy names.
And in my murder mystery novel, I used the name Donald Sutherland because I couldn't think of what to really name the character, but I pictured him looking like that actor.