Friday, February 25, 2011

To See is to Know

Ever heard a future parent say that until they see their baby, they won't know a name? Or even that the baby will name itself, based on it's reaction to names said? That is basically how I name a character.

I'm a pantser, first and foremost (pantser = no/little planning for novel other than possibly knowing the end and a few tidbits ), so it may come as no surprise that I don't really create a character, except for the main ones. They just float in and out of the story, sometimes with more importance than other times (that's what editing is for right?) Sometimes, I won't know they're there until they start talking...and then the details come....and then their name. Other times, I start writing and fill in the details right before they jump in. (which is what happens below) (Keep in mind, that, like most things I do, this is a mental process that I don't write down and plan...normally)

Example: Let's say I'm writing something about a girl, named Lisa, who is skipping class...For all I know at this point, Lisa could continue walking down this sidewalk for the rest of her life, but something tells me she's going to run into someone who isn't in school either. As soon as the idea hits me to add another character, I start imagining it.

This is what I know, just from seeing him in my head:
  • It's a boy, though not one Lisa knows well or by name
  • He's a dweeb
  • Slighly annoying--makes me think he's younger than her
  • Brown hair that hasn't been combed
  • He has glasses that are too big for his face
  • Mismatched clothes, they're worn, as if they've come from a lower end thrift shop
  • He's bored and curious as to why "Perfect Patty" has skipped. 
Here are the names that immediately come to mind, just from thinking about who I think he is:
  1. Tom
  2. Andrew
  3. Matt
  4. Harold
Two stick out the most for me (Which for you? or are you seeing another name?) Tom and Harold. He seems like an young kid under the influence of older he lives with his grandparents or his parents are older.  I don't confirm a name in my mind until I actually start writing him.

Something flopped from the bushes not ten feet before Linda and landed on the sidewalk, blocking her path like an animated trash bag. It took a few minutes for her to see there was a head attached to the bag along with arms and legs. It waddled like a duck coming closer until she could see it wasn't a bag at all, but a boy in an oversized black jacket, floppy baseball hat, and shoes at least three sizes too big.
"Uh." She looked down at the mess and figured he was about ten. "Excuse me." She tried to edge past the blob of clothing.
"I said, 'hey.'" The boy complained in a whining tone, pushing the thick glasses up his nose, which like the rest of his attire were way too big. "I'm Harold."

Not my best, but you get my least, I hope you do.
I can't name a character until they come alive on the page. Until they have an actual voice or flow about them, I find that I keep renaming them every ten seconds. Every image of a character conjures a name or two that seem to just "fit" the character. Of course, if I want to surprise the reader, I may pick a name like Harold, and turn him into the school jock, just because that seems less predictable.

So, what about you? Are you feeling a different name for this new character? How do you name your characters? Let me know in the comments!


  1. I did a whole post on naming a while back. I'm really meticulous about it. I like to start to form the character and then brainstorm names for them. I like them to have some kind of name before they start hanging out and moving in the story, not sure why. I’ve changed names before if I just didn’t feel like it would fit them later.

  2. I research names that have a meaning that hints at their character, or what purpose they might have in the story. That can be pretty difficult when trying to find normal sounding names in the English Language. I use the Babynamer sites a lot. Names are about the ONLY thing I plan before I start writing! (Fellow Pantster here!)

  3. This made me think of an exchange I heard on my ESPN Sports Guy podcast the other day.

    Sports Guy: A few years ago, my friend Scooter was on Jeopardy, and she got this really easy question wrong...

    Interview Guest: Whoa! Wait a minute, you have a friend named Scooter who's a GIRL!? Didn't see that coming...