Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Choosing Your Writerly Words

WORDS, Part 1
In last Wednesday's post on Writing Rhythms, I talked about the importance of the sounds of words to contribute to the overall mood or rhythm in a work of writing. For this week and next week, I'm zeroing in on specific kinds of words. Today:


Unusual or familiar?
I choose my character names with care, and I like my main character to have a more unusual name. I'm not as concerned about minor characters; they can have more bland names. To me, it gives the novel a different flavor. I'd be really bored writing about a main character named Jane or Sara, Tom or Bill. My characters have been named Rylee, Karleen, Troy, Marina, and Niesha. Especially for a fantasy novel, I go for the more unique, like Niesha. It could just be me, but a more unique name makes me more fond of my character, and more like I want to spend 200+ pages with him/her. Sometimes, however, a more familiar, comforting name might be in order. It depends on the story.

I think part of my reason for choosing a more unusual name is that I don't want another book to have a character with the same name as mine. It's like seeing another child with the same name as my child running around the neighborhood. Weird, and just…wrong!

Matching personality
I try to fit names to the type of personalities my characters will have, whether the names are unusual or not. Names can alter the overall feel and meaning of a character. For instance, Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind originally was called Pansy, before the editor asked Margaret Mitchell to change it--and a good thing, because there's a completely different connotation between a pansy and something scarlet! Scarlett's character is NOT pansy-like.

People in real life tend to live up to the way their name sounds, or at least to their perception of their name. The characters in your novel can work on the same principle. There's no denying that a name like Edward James Cunningham brings to mind a different kind of personality than Jasper Lee Snickdon, right? Although actually, sometimes for comic or ironic effect, a totally OPPOSITE name is effective--kind of like naming your teacup poodle "Killer" or "Brutus."

Overly unique or unusual?
If you adore using unique or unusual names, be careful not to overdo it. A lot of novels (particularly fantasy ones) tend to have such extremely unusual names, it's difficult to remember them or "say" them mentally as you read them. They're full of apostrophes and so many syllables they can become tangled in the reader's mind. Confusion is not what you're aiming for as a writer.

Varying beginning letters and syllables
It's also important not to name your characters all starting with the same letter. These names can get confuzzled in the reader's mind, making the story difficult to follow. It's also nice to vary the number of syllables, throwing in a simple Rose along with your Stephanie, Jennifer, and Havannah.

'Cuz we wanna
Sometimes, we as writers can purposely--or subconsciously--name our characters in honor of a favorite relative, or an old crush in junior high. To you, the sound of that name equals a certain personality. Perhaps you've even named your villain after a despised schoolmate, teacher, or neighbor. Isn't being a writer wonderful?

Being inventive with PLACE
Place names can be invented, too. I think a lot of writers do this, so they aren't tied to keeping true to the geography of an actual physical place like Chicago, Paris, or Tokyo. In one novel, I invented a fake beach town on the Oregon coast, kind of a cross between invention and reality. (Does this mean I'm lazy, and hate research? Maybe. But I also don't like to be tied down to reality if the plot veers off a different way.) Writers invent places like this all the time, while others prefer more concrete kinds of settings.

As a note, you may want to Google or do a web search on ANY name you create, whether a place name, a band name, a character name, or an acronym--to make sure you're not stepping on toes, copyrights, or personal space. For instance, in a recent novel of mine, I had to alter a protest group from WHO to WHA, since in real life, WHO is the World Health Organization and totally opposite from my novel's obnoxious, violent organization.

What have you named your characters?
Do your character names tie in with your characters' personalities?
Do you prefer usual or unusual names for your characters?
Do you make up place names, or name your characters after real people you've known?


  1. Oh, I'm a cuz I wanna person. I pick names because I think they sound cool and that's it. There is no scientific method or matching to personalities going on. I know a lot of people do that, and I admire that. :)

  2. Well, see? you're still going by sound and how the word "feels" to ya! *grin* I don't choose mine as scientifically as SOME people do, either.

  3. Yes, I try to match my character with a name that suits their personalities. Unfortunately, they're pretty ordinary names, as are the characters, until they do something extraordinary. But, too late--they're stuck with the name.

  4. Ha, Shellie, that's funny. I think it might make a difference if you're writing contemporary novels (which I think you are) or sci-fi/fantasy/dystopian. More "normal" stories are ok with more "normal" (usual, everyday) names.

  5. Choosing a name is so important. I think not only does each character have to have different names (not like Jane, Janice, and Jan) but they should fit the time period and place. Great post.

    Thanks for stopping by my blog!


  6. Oooh, Clarissa, great point about time periods. You certainly wouldn't want a modern-named character running around in the 17th-century, or a Scottish-named character born in Africa. That's what a little research is for, I guess!

  7. I envy your ability to choose interesting names! I am terrible with names (and titles), and usually write the first thing that pops into my head, and then of course it sticks. Even if I don't like it. I get stuck with boring names all the time.

  8. Hi Jennifer, thanks for stopping by. One thing I do is keep a list of names. When I hear one, or think of one I like, I write it down! You can also do a Google search for "popular girl names" or "Hispanic boy names" or whatever you need.

  9. This is a great post. I love it. I hadn't thought of the issue of using a common name. I agree i wouldn't want to read about a main character whose name is the same as mine. It's a good thing I write fantasy ;) I like the idea of googling the names too.

  10. Hi Lynda, thanks for stopping by! And thanks for your bloggy award over on your down-under site!

  11. lol, I popped back coz I forgot to tell you about it. My mind is mush at the moment. Glad you found it! :)

  12. Hi there, I just came over from Lynda's blog. You have a great blog here! I have a book of baby names that tells what people think someone with that name would be like. I like to use that to try to match the character's name to their personality.

  13. Lovely to meet you Carol. I'm returning your visit. I love names and I agree, you need to choose unique names. I use google random name searches then sometimes play around with them. Sometimes the character changes their name on me then I realise that fits better.

    Talk soon..:)

  14. Hey! Thanks for stopping by, Susan and L'Aussie. Yes, Susan, I've used baby name books too, very handy.

    And Denise (mwuah-haha, I discovered your REAL name), I agree--good to play around with the names and see if the characters like them before I get too attached!

  15. Thanks for stopping by my blog. I love choosing my character names. I write YA Contemporary so I don't go too bizarre, but I try to pick names that would fit the age group/decade they were born, while also capturing their personality. More serious characters get more serious/mature sounding names while upbeat/flighty characters get names that primarily end in "y" or something lol.

  16. Hi, Rachel. Great idea, about the names ending in "y" because they do have a younger/perkier sound to them!

  17. Oh this is such a weak area for me. Yes,Tom is the name of one of my current characters. Guess I better do some more inventive research on them. I did change my MC name from Rebecca to Norma as it seemed to fit her better. Thank you for this eye-opening post!

  18. Thanks for visiting, Terri! Well, I admit my WiP's main character is named Jay right now--not exactly inventive or creative, but it does fit his personality perfectly. Besides, it's easy to type over and over! LOL

  19. Hi Carol, I love how inventive your names are. I'm still trying to broaden my vision there. I try to name my characters as close to their personality as possible.

    Great blog. I love your wealth of information and opinions! Thanks for stopping my my blog as well. :-) Hope it is sunny there!


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