Character Naming   Leave a comment

What goes into building a character? One of things that makes most romance novels unpalatable to me is that the characters are usually pretty cookie cutter. A handsome man, a gorgeous woman and … yeah, I keep waiting for the rest. Occasionally I encounter a romance novelist who goes beyond that level to something deeper and I almost feel like I could become a reader of romance, but the next novelist of that genre proves there are few exceptions to the rule and I return to fantasy or literary fiction because of the characters.

By the way, I feel the same way about sit coms on television. The occasional sit com that gives their characters personalities can win my viewership, but most … don’t waste my time.

So what goes into building a character? Too many components for a single blog post.

Let’s start with …

What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. And, yet, that is not entirely true.

Characters drive my novels and I suspect they drive yours too. Often we spend inordinate amounts of time trying to figure out what a character’s job will be or what they look like. I recently was talking to a local writer who is reading The Willow Branch and she noticed that my character names are ethnocentric. All my Celdryans have vaguely Celtic names. My Svards have Scandic names and my Kin have long names based on Asian naming conventions that end up shortened. She wanted to know why I would go through all that trouble. She admitted that she changes names for her characters frequently … something I had noted as an inconsistency in one of her manuscripts. She didn’t understand why I would “waste” so much effort on mere names.

This might surprise nobody, but fiction differs from reality. There’s actually a whole lot more mystery in real life. My husband’s last name is distinctly Irish and it tells a tale only known in Ireland, where my father-in-law was surprised to discover that everybody knew where his ancestors came from without knowing anything more than his last name. My maiden name is Swedish and it tells those who in the know what the first name of my great-grandfather was, because when my grandfather left Sweden, men still took their father’s names as their surname. These examples aside, most of us go through life not knowing these things about each other. We may not even know these things about ourselves. So it’s not surprising that writers tend to give short-shrift to naming their characters, but authors shouldn’t.

In a novel you have a limited number of words to define your character—to make readers immediately relate to him and his story. That makes names an important tool for building a character. For example, someone named Bruce tends to seems strong and masculine, adding an important descriptor to the story. A girl named Ariel seems delicate and feminine.

For example, the first among the ensemble cast of the Daermad Cycle is the healer Padraig. By choosing that name I accomplished a couple of things without having to do a lot of explanation. First, I set the tone for the book as being a Celtic fantasy. By spelling and pronouncing it the way I did, I also subtly hinted that this world wasn’t Ireland. The Celdryans are a long time gone from Celtic Europe, so they don’t spell their names the same as we would expect in our world. Without having to explain that journey, I established the fact quickly.

On the other hand, the character of Ryanna is introduced as Morynsionryanna. That’s a long, complicated name that puts her father’s home village first, followed by his name, followed by hers. She is of the clan Moryn, daughter of Sion, and her name is Ryanna. By doing this with all the Kin in the book series, I assure that my readers will immediately know that this character is Kin. I wanted to avoid stringing a meaningless collection of letters together so that the name appeared alien. I wanted the full name to be just a bit difficult for the reader to give the sense that this is a culture with which they are unfamiliar, but then I quickly introduce the character’s given name, so the reader doesn’t have to struggle long.

Choosing names is not the easiest task in the world, as my local writer friend can attest. Still, there are some wonderful resources for choosing names. I have a collection of Baby Name books that provide typical names and their English translations based on their different origins and languages. That comes in very handy for old Celtic names in the Daermad Cycle. The Internet was a great source of the Irish, German and Wendat names for Transformation Project. I picked a couple of towns in Kansas and found names I liked from their telephone directories.

So what’s in a name? A lot. Characters, and their names, should be well-defined before you even begin writing because names can define an entire story. At the very least, names should add to the story, like props in a movie. They should help the reader envision and relate to a character by providing a physical or personality description. Writers should give character naming as much thought as you might naming your own child because, in truth, your characters are your offspring.

Posted May 20, 2015 by aurorawatcherak in Uncategorized

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