On Naming Characters

Writers pick up habits, some good and some bad. We learn to cope with the solitude of writing, how to manage our manuscripts, etc. One of the things I have always found difficult that I’m still struggling with is naming characters.

I’ve often wondered if parents have the same trouble. Obviously, you pick a name, and that’s that, but the kid is going to have to live with that name forever. I once came across a woman named Aquanetta. That’s pretty bad, but there’s been a lot in the news recently about the couple from New Jersey who hung Nazi names on their kids. Can you imagine his daughter, trying to be normal as a teenager, doing normal teenage things like dating? She’s doing the typical “get to know you” thing with a new boy, and he asks her what her middle name is. How horrifying would be to have to say, “Aryan Nation. Yeah, and I have a brother, Adolf Hitler”?

I guess the father wanted to give them interesting names, but those names come with heavy history and connotation. At least with the name Aquanetta, the direct implication is that her mother was addicted to hairspray in the 70s and 80s.

The same–the weird name phenomenon–is true of character names. For a lot of writers, they want their character names to stand out. The default, I’ve found, is to go with something unusual or something kind of oddball. It works in sci-fi and fantasy novels; it’s expected. Romance novelists seem to like to use some whoppers: Cerynise, Anastasia, Beauregard, Rosalind, etc, and it’s cheesy but also expected. And I’ve seen some crazy names in other types of fiction, too. Like I said, I get it. Writers want their characters to stand out, be unique. A character named Grayson gives you a picture of someone far different from a character named Bob.

Most of the time, though, character names that are really out there don’t do anything except make me roll my eyes a lot.

So yeah, I pay attention to character names in books and agonize over how I name my own characters. The main character in The Trajectory of Dreams is Lela White, which is fairly normal, right? I think she was named at least a dozen different things before I settled. In the end, Lela White stuck because I liked the jokey meaning behind it. Lela is a variant of Layla, which is Arabic for “night”–appropriate, yes? And White has connotations of innocence and justice (“white hatting” and “white hats”), plus the full name speaks to the dichotomy of Lela’s public vs private life.

Not all my names are so carefully chosen for meaning, but I do think about naming hard for all characters. And I collect names for a rainy day. One my writerly habits learned to properly cope with the stress of naming is to visit cemeteries now and then to look at headstones. Does that seem unrelated to naming? It’s not. I’ve found some great names that way, just waiting for the right character to pop up.

Any weird, writerly habits you’d like to confess?

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