Monday, July 26, 2010

Not So Pleased to Meet You, Derek Stone

by Sophie

NAMES

There aren't many aspects of writing on which I have a confident grasp - a sense that I do them right more often than I do them wrong - but naming my characters is one of them.

Not everyone agrees with me; readers and reviewers occasionally raise an eyebrow or toss a virtual tomato in my direction for a name they find clumsy. But 9 times out of 10, I'm pleased and even delighted by the names I choose.

The problem is that I have no idea how I do it.

Maybe it's presumptuous of me to think other writers might like to know my secret, but if there was a way for me to share my naming talent I would. In fact, there are a few authors out there who I'd love to send a plucky but well-meaning form letter:

Dear ______,
Next time you're kick-starting a new project, won't you consider giving me a call?

While you're certainly adept at _____, and I admire your facility with ____, I hope I'm not being too bold by suggesting you need a little help naming your characters. I couldn't help noticing that you named your last character ________, which is about as special and evocative as a can of chicken noodle soup.

All best regards,
- Sophie


(I threw in the compliments because everyone likes a little sugar with the medicine, and I can nearly always find something to like about a person's writing.)

Seriously, it stops me in my tracks when I'm reading happily along and run smack into a Derek Stone. Or a John Murphy. Or a Claire Johnson. Or any of a thousand bland, flavorless names that have been slapped on heroes and heroines who have so much more to offer. I imagine them in Fictionland, meeting each other at cocktail parties...they start out all confident and game-faced, since they're usually fantastically handsome/gorgeous, as well as tremendously fit and clever. But their cheery smiles slip a little each time they introduce themselves.

"I'm Allyssa Gray," a slightly embarrassed raven-haired beauty says, extending a perfectly-manicured hand to the tall, handsome man in an Armani suit (Armani! Why does it always have to be Armani!!), who blushes and mumbles "Jake Williams." Then all the sexual tension in the encounter evaporates as each assumes the other will be just about as exciting in the sack as their name.

Not in my world! My characters might not be stunning to look at, but when Stella's thoughts turn to love, she's got her choice of Goat Jones and B.J. Brodersen or even Jelloman Nunn, though he's more of a friend. Tell me that didn't just send your mind in interesting directions!

I've named characters Dot and Mud and Mo and ThreeHigh and Twister, and a thousand other things that just sort of popped into my head. Occasionally I have a little trouble with surnames, especially if I need a Polish or Irish name, for instance - as in my young adult - but I poke around online and on the spines of books and in my kids' school directories until I find something that catches my fancy. Kazmeircz Sawicki, the hero of BANISHED, got his name that way, as did Dor MacFall (AFTERTIME, 3/11).

Not long ago I blurbed a fantastic book (trust me on this - you're going to love PURGATORY CHASM by Steve Ulfelder), the hero and dead guy of which are named, respectively, Conway Sax and Tander Phigg. I loved this book so much that I did a bad thing - I sent the first page to a fellow author who I suspected would love it just as much as me, which I had no right to do since it's not published yet, but I couldn't resist. I anticipated a drooling exchange about the deftness of these opening lines, but what I got back was "Tander Phigg! Awesome name!"

That's what a terrific, unique name can do for you - catch the attention of even the most jaded reader. So why do people keep settling for boring ones? Beats me.

(One more comment on names: twenty years ago I was in a PayLess Shoe Store buying a pair of silver flats and the clerk runs my credit card and says to me "Sophie Littlefield? With a name like that, you should be a romance writer!" So, long-lost friend, wherever you are, many thanks...)

13 comments:

Rachael Herron said...

Whoa. The Payless shoestore clerk? Whoa.

Also, I'm coming to you for naming help. I screwed up all kinda ways this week, details to follow.

And you -- HAPPY BIRTHDAY! We adore you. xoxo

Kristin Miller said...

You had me thinking about my characters...now I'm wishing I could go back and add more flair to my heroine.

Something else to think about--in Rebecca, Daphne DuMaurier didn't give her heroine a name at all. I wonder if she was having issues at the time...you should have sent her that letter. :)

Hope you're having a very happy birthday!

L.G.C. Smith said...

Oh, names. Yes, you have a gift. :) In defense of apparently bland names, sometimes they're more than they appear. It's possible to hide meanings and connotations in them, associations that aren't obvious, but that support themes or character arcs. But, yeah, Tander Phigg is primo.

Happy Birthday, Punkydoodle.

Hard Boiled Mysti said...

You did tell us how you do it -- you keep digging until it sounds right :)

That sounds right part is tricky, I think it may be a gift like being able to add numbers together by seeing them as colors. I have a tin ear for titles and names. In my defense, my family is full of Alvins and Rodneys and suchlike.

I've been busted for being lazy and just stealing my inlaw and ancestor last names. "Hoisington" sounded cool to me, but it's been replaced. You can see my tin ear at work there :)

Sophie Littlefield said...

Rachael, don't leave me hangin' sugar - how did you "screw up"? and by screw up do you mean your awesomeness bulb burned a little less brightly for a while?

Sophie Littlefield said...

oh Kristin, you just reminded me of something - in THE ROAD, cormac mccarthy (great name by the way, someone steal it quick!) none of the characters have names. gives me shivers, just thinking about it, though the author in me pauses every time the article usage (that's what "he" is, right, an article? whatevs) gets awkward, in sympathy more than criticism

Sophie Littlefield said...

oh L.G.C. - how could I forget to add, in my post, that you are the Names Goddess....and how many times have I turned to you for help/derivation/explication? I assume your post on the subject will be your usual brilliant...

Sophie Littlefield said...

oh, mysti, mysti lou....you do know i've used your name twice now in stories....it's completely irresistible. :)

McDroll said...

Can I be boring and say that I don't like all of those fancy names that writers come up with? I find them annoying and don't help me form a relationship with the character - sorry!

Daisy said...

I have a terrible time coming up with character names in general (though my current WIP is almost entirely based on a name that came to me like a gift from the gods, and it couldn't be more fun), but there's one that I have ready and waiting for when I decide to write macho thrillers and "Daisy" just doesn't cut it. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: Rip Steele.

(The only thing I can't decide is if it should have one p or two. Suggestions?)

Sophie Littlefield said...

hey mcdroll - absolutely, and obviously there are others who share your opinion, since some of the most popular characters in fiction have ordinary names...

Sophie Littlefield said...

Rippgh. Riichtp. Rikkp. something gutteral, perhaps...

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