November 26, 2010

Writers' tools: a name book

One skill every fiction writer needs is the ability to name characters. The right name can bring a character to life. It should sound fresh and perfect -- and that's not an easy combination to dream up.

My naming skills are fairly pathetic. Just ask my pets. I once had two cockatiels named Chuck and Corky. Those were the best names I could come up with. What can I say? I also had a white one once and called him Blanche. Not bad, what with the gay connotations. But that's about the best I ever did with a pet name. (Full disclosure: I once had a cherry-headed conure named Tallu, and that was a great name. Unfortunately, someone else suggested it; I get no credit.)

So when I started writing fiction and realized I had to come up with names for my characters, I might have felt inadequate. But inadequacy isn't my style. In the first two books, I named characters as they appeared in my sentences. I just typed the first name that occurred to me and that was that. With the exception of one change necessary for clarity, I have never renamed a character. Oddly, in those two books I don't think I did too badly. I like the characters' names that I stumbled upon.

But by the time I wrote the third book, Xmas Carol, I had devised a technique for naming characters. The thing is, I love names. I smile and enthuse over them all the time. In my opinion, names are the best part of TV newscasts. I often marvel at the names that fly across my screen. Some are simply stunning and it's hard to believe they didn't emanate from central casting. They're actually the names were born with!  One night, as I relished yet another fabulous name in a newscast, a simple idea occurred to me.

Thus began the era of my name book, and it has served me well. What I do is this: each time I hear a great name, I write it into a small, staple-bound Rhodia notebook (image above; I get them at WritersBloc, the best stationery store ever). I don't write down entire names, mind you -- my intention is not to kidnap people's identities and stuff them into my books. I only take half a name.

If I hear a first name I like, I write it in the left column of a page in the name book. If it's a last name, it goes on the right. I don't combine them; I just collect separate piles of first and last names. Then, when it's time to name a character, I pull my name book out and mix and match from the two lists.

I have come up with the coolest names this way. I'm especially fond of the unlikely combinations that result when I mix nationalities. It's a joy to play with this tool, which turns a common writer's burden into a naming festival. It's fun, it's easy and it works.

How do you name your characters?

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