Monday, August 15, 2011

The Name Game

We're expecting a new baby early next year, and this week my characteristically organised husband and I have been going through our name options all over again. We developed quite the complicated system before our daughter was born a few years back- we've never been ones to fly by the seat of our pants on important decisions like this.

When it comes to naming a baby, there are so many complicated things to consider. Will the first name match up with the surname? What kind of vibe does it have? Can you imagine yelling that name out at the supermarket when your little darling legs it with a snatched block of chocolate? What kind of reception is it going to get at high school? What kind of nicknames? What do the initials spell?

Mostly, what you want is a name that is just... right. One your kid can grow into adulthood with; preferably one they won't immediately change by deed poll the moment they're old enough to disown you for real.

When it comes to naming characters, some of the exact same things come into play- but then, there's also a whole lot of difference.

When I first started writing my story more than a decade ago, I went to the first place I could think of where I could find a long list of first-and-surnames together- the newspaper obituaries. From that source, I got the surname of the family in my trilogy of Australian war novels (Cutler), and the first names of my main character, Bill, and his son Jared.

It turned out to be a pretty good source, because though I didn't think of it at the time, many of the obituaries were for people who were actually born around the right time period. Score! Another awesome source for time-period accurate names are the indexes of US, British and Australian historic name popularity. There's a super mega seriously awesome version of that here- just move your cursor over the chart to see the positions of various names in various years. You can visit individual names to see how their popularity has risen and fallen over time, too.

Besides those records, I'm extra lucky to be writing about a time period for which very extensive lists of names exist- I have the names of tens of thousands of young men of the right age and background on the Australian military records, particularly the embarkation rolls for those departing to war. Every time I need a new secondary character name, I go straight to those rolls.

For female names, I head to the digitised historic newspapers of the time period, or to another favourite source- the real life diary of my ancestor who died in the First World War. From his diary come the names of all the other major characters in my novel- Lionel, Tom, Katherine and James.

Sources notwithstanding, how do you pick just the right name out of all those options?

This is where it's not dissimilar to naming a child- but you DO at least get to cheat on the writing front. When you name your kid, you have an idea in your head of the type of person who'll have that name as an adult. You can correct me if I'm wrong, but you might not be imagining your child presiding over the Supreme Court in later years if you pick a name like Tewesday (a real suggestion from my baby name book). Likewise you probably aren't thinking about your kid being the life of the frat house party if you call him Engelbert. Or maybe you are, and my Australian context just doesn't allow me to see it- but in novel writing, you have to consider the impact of the name on your reader. Part of that is the name itself, and part of it is how the character wears it.

You get to give your character the name that suits them right where they are in their life, that embodies their personality, that encapsulates who they are. You don't have to guess how they'll turn out- you already know. You can make their name as unique and significant as you like (like Lionel, which means little lion and reflects quite a bit of Important Character Stuff), or as ordinary and plain as required (like Bill, whose name is a deliberate nod to him as an Everyman).

In that respect, I find naming characters super easy. After trawling through enough options, the right name usually just jumps right out. And if it's not easy enough to start with, you actually get to change it if it turns out not to suit. How good is that?

Your child's name will help to influence and shape them. Your characters' names are reflective of who they are and where they've been. For me, there's nothing more satisfying than feeling like you've got it just right.

How do you name your characters? Are you all about instinct, or do you like to review and plan? And what are your favourite sources for inspiration?


  1. Yes, choose a name for the baby is a complicated issue for parents.
    but I wish you luck, I hope you choose something beautiful and sonorous:)

  2. You're asking me, the woman named for her daddy's fifth-grade girl friend? LOL!

    But seriously when we were in the child-bearing years, we had names ready--Benjamin Allen and Maria Rebecca. Though my hubby could always get a rise out of me with saying he'd name a girl Gabriel and call her Gabby. Shudder.

    Characters seem to come with names attached for me. Laura Grace and Samantha have been named that from the start. My SF characters have meanings attached to their names, but they are easy to find for the main players. Secondary folk come round reasonably quickly.

    Good luck on the name for the little one, Claire. ; )

  3. How exciting! Best wishes to you and your family!!

    We had a lot of difficulty planning to name our son...nothing sounded right. We ended up choosing his name a few moments after he was born.

    For characters, I tend to start with sound and instinct...and then go back and check to make sure it's not historically jarring. Thanks for the link...I actually need to change a character name in my wip, because I realized recently that, when they use nicknames for each other, they sound too "matchy."

  4. baby, baby, baby! Heheh. Can't wait to hear what you guys pick! :D

    As for characters, well, it usually goes the way of Diana's character categories: mushrooms, onions, and nuts. Some names pop into my head, some I have to look through names for meanings that work well with the character, and some I struggle with and will leave blank until I can figure it out.

    But, as a historical writer, I always check to see if the name works with the time period and the character's background.

  5. I go through all your process - I love naming characters! It's not always easy or quick, but the method is lots of fun. Which reminds me, I think I have to change Salvatore's name. Too many Ss going on. Back to 15th Century Spanish converso/Jewish name lists...