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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » When do you name your characters?

   
Author Topic: When do you name your characters?
joecs
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I have this tendency to leave my characters unnamed even as I'm writing about them. When I come up with characters and their stories, I very rarely start with a name and very often know most everything about them, their role in the story, their lives, hopes, and dreams before I have to come up with their name. If I'm writing a first-person narrative short, it's likely that my charcter's name will never be said. I've even put in placeholders like [wife's name] or [son's name] so I don't have to stop writing to think of or research an appropriate one.

There are a few notable exceptions, but for the most part I just don't consider their name an important detail as I'm writing the story they're in, which I think is kind of weird, because names are important to people. I know mine is to me.

And oddly enough, things are the exact opposite if I'm creating a superhero. I have to start with the name and then everything flows from that.

I'm not sure it matters one way or the other when characters are named - unless you're in my boat and find yourself going out of your way to structure your dialog to avoid names, something I manage to avoid - but I am curious how other folks do it.


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genevive42
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I'm lousy with names. Like you I often start creating a character before I have a name. BUT by the time I actually start writing with them I pretty much have to have a name for them.

I actually have a baby name book I keep around so I can flip through it when I need a name. I've marked some of my favorites already. One day I have a grand plan to type all of my favorites into a master list. The book suffices for now.

For my science fiction NaNoWriMo story I have gone to some of the name generators at Seventh Sanctum, and others and come up with lists of character names, planet names, race names etc. That way needing to come up with a name for something won't slow me down when I'm trying to come up with 2000 words a day.


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Denem
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Character names are probably one of the last things I think about and usually change by the time I'm done anyway. Mainly because I have bigger issues with my writing than names (I'm still rubbing the bruises you left, by the way, genevive. ).
I've used Seven Sanctum a few times, but I don't usually take the names as they are, I'll try mixing them and and coming up with my own names that way. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Another area I find even more difficult than character names is location names. Agonizing.

[This message has been edited by Denem (edited September 11, 2009).]


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joecs
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Oooh, a name generator. Heaven!

One trick I have done in the past that I forgot about is taking two people from my past - usually high school or college - and switching their first and last names. That works pretty well in a pinch, at least for non-fantasy writing.

One of the things I admire in Jordan's Wheel of Time and Martin's Song of Ice and Fire are the sheer volume of names that clearly have been invented. I have a fantasy story in mind for someday and have been adding to my own list of exotic made up names for it for a few years. I can't imagine having to come up with an epic fantasy cast's worth of names in my current fashion.


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genevive42
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Here are some of the name (and word) sites I've found useful:

http://www.seventhsanctum.com/index-writ.php

http://www.gaminggeeks.org/Resources/KateMonk/

http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/index.htm

At least one of these I have to attribute to Smaug who posted to another thread in this forum. If you haven't checked it out, look at the one entitled Writing Resources posted by Exploding Monkey.

I have even more trouble coming up with titles than I do with names.

Sorry Denem. Maybe a little ice will help.


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Meredith
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I usually name my characters from the beginning. But that's no guarantee that they'll keep the same names. Find and Replace is a wonderful feature.

I have notes for a couple of possible name changes I'm considering in my current WIP right now. I'm just not sure I like the male MC's name, but I haven't found a good replacement, yet. Or the surname I'm using for the female MC, for that matter.


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rstegman
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In my story ideas, Most of the time I don't use a name, instead using he, she, it.I usually add a name if it looks like there might be an interaction with another person of the same sex and confusion comes. There are times when I will go back to the beginning after I had run into that situation and add a name

For a while, I was getting loads of junk mail. I was collecting the names into a big name file. When I do my story ideas and need a name, I open the file and see what name hits the spot.

When I actually write, I tend to use one fairly simple name and use the search and destroy, I mean search and replace, feature of the word processor.
The key is to choose a name that won't be found in a normal word. If you choose a name like Tom, and then change it to Albertini Glostorini, you will end up with, when you do your search and replace of Tom, Albertini GlostoriniATO. when the word was tomato.

When it comes to names, I realized that the average reader has no concept of what the origins of a name is and what the names mean. They don't sit with baby naming books to see if the definition of the name fits the character. Most parents who name children don't use the books either.
Most people are named because the name sounds right. I choose the names for my characters that same way. On my story ideas, I might choose a first letter or a sound as a start. For non period names, I might come up with something that seems good, and when I do a spell check, I will see what choices come up that might be better. Most of the time, I go with my spellings.

Let us know if any of this sticks to the wall and we can expand on it more.


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skadder
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I usually start writing and then just make up a name for them with very little thought. I may pause for a minute...but not long.

Occassionally I change it later, but usually I let it lie.


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Kitti
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I use a combination of methods. First, I keep track of names that I run across in real life that are interesting. Second, I use Social Security records to pick names that are time period appropriate (if it's set in the US). Third, I go to a baby-name website and start searching for a name that's the proper nationality and embodies the essence of my character.

That's only for MC though. For everyone else, I throw a random name at them and change it later if I don't like it. I have been known to write [name] and [twin1] and wait to pick a name until later, but only if I have some sort of generic monicker for them (e.g. "the twins") that I'm usually going use to refer to them.

I do like search-and-replace, but you have to monitor it carefully. Otherwise it'll happily replace letters from the middle of your words and make them unintelligible, just because those letters happened to match to the name you were changing.


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Robert Nowall
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Generally I name them as I go along...then go back and change them as seems necessary.

In my last finished thing (the one I've mentioned, the one with the big gaping flaw in it), I started out with a nameless narrator. Another character asks his name. He remembers having another name some eighteen thousand years ago but it no longer fits. He recalls part of an old serial number, two letters, and tells the other character to call him "T. L."

The other character promptly calls him "Teal," as in the color, and it stuck.

I didn't plan any of that---it happened as I wrote it down.


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Unwritten
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quote:
Find and Replace is a wonderful feature

Find and replace is awesome, but use it carefully. One time I changed a characters name from Jack to Scott and had to go back and change words like Scottet back to jacket.

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Meredith
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quote:
Find and replace is awesome, but use it carefully. One time I changed a characters name from Jack to Scott and had to go back and change words like Scottet back to jacket.

Been there, done that. That's when you learn to use the special features and specify Find Whole Words Only.


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Crank
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In my Earth-bound fiction, I usually give my characters the first name that pops into my mind while creating their bio sheet. Most of the time, that 'first-draft' name works fine. Yet, there have been times where I've decided I don't like a particular name for a particular character (it doesnt flow well in the passages where it's referenced, it doesn't match the character's personality, it's too similar to another character's name, etc.).

No biggie, 'cuz the Find and Replace function solves all of my problems.

Not really. Once, I changed a primary character's name more than once, and forgot to make sure it was changed in some of my first draft documents. Weeks later, I merged all my chapters into the main document, read through it, and became completely confused as to where this mystery character came from. I figured it out when that character dropped out of existence in the very next chapter.

Duh.

Then, there's the issue of creating alien names. Find and Replace usually asks for a day off when I work on my SF stories.

S!
S!


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lbdavid98
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I know a Rose by any other name would still be the lithe young woman I described, but a boy named Sue on the other hand might not be as tough if his name had been Robert from the get go. There are some details of a story I can't begin without, and names are one of them. That's just me though, the truth is I spend days agonizing over details that would be better spent hashing it out behind the keyboard. I'm trying to work on that

[This message has been edited by lbdavid98 (edited September 11, 2009).]


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Kitti
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I want to know what a Scottet looks like. Is it some sort of cool, otherworldly garment that maybe has four sleeves to accommodate an alien anatomy?? :-)
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MartinV
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While planning, I give characters a label. Sometimes it is related to their work or role in the story, other times it is family/friend-of-important-character.

But sometimes I start stories with the names of the characters. I develop their personalities by their name and then see where these can lead me.


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arriki
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I have lots of dictionaries. My favorite is Sanskrit. Old English, Welsh, Scottish, Norse, Chinese, Bengali, etc. I even have a Farsi-Japanese one. I go through looking for interesting words that I can turn into names, especially alien names.

Sometimes I distill the character's essence into words describing the character and play with that, rearranging the letters, altering them. I've come up with a number of great names that way. Then, of course, there is always John. I've managed to have John somebody in almost all my stories. Sometimes he's the MC, but not always.

I just had to change Lord John (sigh) to Lord Ban for a period piece where there wouldn't be a John.


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tchernabyelo
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I neve rbother with choosing names, as some do, that have a meaning that matches their character or plot purpose. Since that doesn't happen in real life (unless people get to choose or are given names in later life), I don't bother with it in fiction.

I usually use cognates of Earth languages/cultures in my fantasy, and thus tend to simply adopt names from the real world. Some have to be removed, though (e.g. if I am writing about a world with no Jesus Christ, then calling someone Jesus or Christopher is out of the question...).

I have extensive cultural name lists for my main world and can thus dip into that. In general I avoid using similar names to avoid reader confusion, but occasionally I'll use them, or even the same name twice, deliberately (e.g. two characters called Ivan, one gets called Big Ivan and the other Little Vannie).


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BoredCrow
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LOL @ Unwritten.

I'm the opposite of many people here - I almost always pick the name first. But sometimes it takes me forever, because I can tell whether the image of a character in my mind fits certain names. Sometimes I do switch halfway through a story.

Oh, and I use Baby Names World. You can pick common names in English, uncommon names in English, or both.

http://babynamesworld.parentsconnect.com/advanced-search.html


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rstegman
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Of course, if you are creating your world, you can use your own naming conventions.

Family names and personal names might come from different conventions. Family names might be from where the family lives such as big tree, stone bridge, crabtree, creek, mount. One can use the region for the last name such as China did.
One could also have a last name based on what they did what they do for a living, gold smith, cooper, or might be who one is a child of. There might be more than one family name, possibly listing the important lineage one descended from.

First names could be for things, like Axel or lance, or for an ancestor one had, such as named fro a grandmother or grandfather.
There is, of course the American Indian joke where the mother explains that a child is born of animal action they first see after birth, Running deer, sitting bear, "wolf eating buffalo dung."
In some societies, they receive a name change when they become an adult. That might be something really effective if they have to go through an ordeal to become an adult in society. All that is a child is given up.

There is a tendency to make male names strong and harsh, starting with hard consonants, while female names soft and gentle, starting with vowels or soft consonants.

the idea is to create a constant naming convention and follow it through.


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Robert Nowall
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I do have an admiration for names that mean something, even if the meaning is obscure. I'm a big fan of the works of the writer known as Cordwainer Smith, where the names might be from Russian or Chinese or German or some other language

I like the notion that the name of a place or character might be concealing some meaning, be it serious or be it a joke.


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babooher
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I can't write a character without a name. I've been willing to change the name later on, but I have to start with something. I've even had stories where the names I had thought up didn't completely make it into the story.

For example:

Shameless Plug Warning

In my story "Zhero" (which can be read at www.thousand-faces.com), I knew that the protagonist would become Zhero, hence the title, but Zhero is never again seen in the story. I had to know the protagonist's alter ego before I could write the story.

I can't imagine not knowing my characters' names. They don't seem real enough without them.


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JenniferHicks
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A great place for finding names, in my experience, is the local newspaper. Most people have names you would find in a baby-name book, but some are quite interesting and sound like they're right out of a fantasy novel.
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Andrew_McGown
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true
many names also have a regional flavour

So if you can find an online newspaper near where your story is set, it pays to peruse.


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Zero
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quote:
Find and replace is awesome, but use it carefully. One time I changed a characters name from Jack to Scott and had to go back and change words like Scottet back to jacket.

That's why I recommend using find and replace to search for "jack(space)" or even better "(space)jack(space)" and that will only find Jack

[This message has been edited by Zero (edited September 14, 2009).]


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