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Monday, July 07, 2008

John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt - That's My Name Too!

Today I received the excellent news that there is a new addition to my big extended family, as one of my cousins has had a baby girl! As the baby's chosen name spread like wildfire along the family communications lines, it had me thinking about what a name can provide for the developing character of a child, and what it can mean for a character that you as a writer are creating.

I could easily have titled this post with the famous Shakespeare quote, "What's in a name?" After all, your character is your character regardless of the name you choose to pair it with. However, there's no denying that some names carry a certain feeling with them, and unless you're going for irony in a Johnny Cash "A Boy Named Sue" sort of way, it simply might not work:
Harry Burns: With whom did you have this great sex?
Sally Albright: I'm not going to tell you that.
Harry Burns: Fine, don't tell me.
Sally Albright: Shel Gordon.
Harry Burns: Shel? Sheldon? No, no, you did not have great sex with Sheldon.
Sally Albright: I did too.
Harry Burns: No you didn't. A Sheldon can do your income taxes, if you need a root canal, Sheldon's your man... but humpin' and pumpin' is not Sheldon's strong suit. It's the name. 'Do it to me Sheldon, you're an animal Sheldon, ride me big Shel-don.' Doesn't work.

- When Harry Met Sally by Nora Ephron (1989)
I know a lot of people favor character names with special meaning. They spend a lot of time on baby name websites looking up what a name means or its various historical and literary references. That's all good and well, and may get you points in some circles, but for me, I realized that Enola was "alone" backwards ages ago, and it was only cool for about five minutes.

The most important aspect of selecting a name for your character is making sure that the name is appropriate for the time and place about which you are writing. If you're writing about a character in Revolutionary era Boston, "Tony" probably doesn't have the right connotations, but 1970s New York City, and "Tony" will fit in perfectly.

So how do you go about finding historically accurate names for your characters? The answer is simple: Research. You should already be doing significant research about the time period for your writing. As you go along, just make note of historical names that spark your interest, and keep a list. Remember, you don't just need names for your main characters, you need names for all of the people who populate their world.

Don't let names get you stuck. If you can't find the right name for a character as you're plugging along with good momentum in your writing there are two references I never get tired of using:

1. The Bible - There are way more names in there than just the typical Judeo-Christian set if you just take the time to page through; and

2. A baby name book.


Sven said...

That's great news about your cousin. :) I hope she(?) and the newborn are doing well.

I would like to add one more resource for coming up with period specific names; Wikipedia. It's what I use. At least for the 19th-21st centuries as it lists, by year, births and deaths of famous individuals. It's not perfect but you have plenty of names to choose from and get a good feel for what was popular.

stu said...

And if you're inclined to let writing drift off into the realms of fantasy, the names are still important. How many times have we read something where half the names are unpronouncable?

Anonymous said...

Eek! You know I have a character named Enola. But the Enola Alone line was scrapped looooong ago. Like 5 minutes after it was written. Turns out I just like the name and think that just because an infamous bomber was named Enola Gay doesn't mean it should fall out of the lexicon. Oh, and for some reason in the same piece a David turned into a Simon, I think it had to do with too many people's names beginning with D. It always ticks me off when every character's name begins with the same letter. It just looks sloppy.

Nev said...

I love the When Harry Met Sally reference, as that's my favorite movie!! And they also go back to this name thing a bit later on in the film with Ira, the guy that Harry's wife left him for.

"You're an animal...Ira."

Nope, doesn't work. :-)

Justin said...

Naming my characters is one of my favorite parts of writing. I'll typically do a toss-up between looking for names that fit a character's personality, and just picking something that sounds nice and appropriate and not giving a damn what it means.