What's In a Name? part 3 on The Write Focus podcast
Listen on podbean: https://eden5695.podbean.com/e/1-8-whats-in-a-name-characters-titles-part-3
Shakespeare claimed that names by any other word would smell as sweet, then he totally contradicted that statement in his play Romeo and Juliet.
Names matter. And names are important tools for writers.
We’re on to part 3 of our exploration on choosing names. This time we look at character names and titles of books and series.
What to do if you’re stumped on picking names? Maybe this episode can help.
Welcome to The Write Focus, a podcast for writers at all levels. Headed up by M.A. Lee from Writers Ink Books, with assistance from Remi Blank and Edie Roones. Our focus is productivity, process, craft, and tools. Resources along with the transcript of this and other episodes can be found on thewritefocus.blogspot.com. Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
So, two episodes ago we burbled about three tips for choosing names as well as the brainstorming techniques and the considerations necessary when selecting names used by creatives. That’s part 1 of What’s In a Name? In the previous episode, part 2 of What’s in a Name?, our burbling covered pen names. Pen names are very important. They create the author brand that helps readers find our books.
Now we’ve reached part 3 of What’s in a Name. This time, we look at character names and ways to generate titles for our books and our series.
First off, let’s remember our 3 guiding tips.
Tip 1: Names must connect with our audience.
Tip 2: Names should be easy to remember.
Tip 3: Try to have a unique name.
How do we come up with Character Names?
First, the 3 tips hold true especially for our primary characters and should reach to our subprimaries and the important secondary characters.
So, Tip 1, connect our character name with our audience.
Names hint at our character’s personality. Even more importantly, names help create the emotions we want the reader to feel for that character. Consider the hardness and the softness of the syllables as well as the number of syllables for the character’s names. Have a name that no reader can possibly pronounce, and the reader will distance themselves from the text.
Most readers will identify or sympathize with the primary or lead character. Even when we write multiple viewpoint characters, we still need a solid character early on for that reader identification.
Consider the character in time and place.
Let’s look at a boxer. You will give him a hard name, short strong syllables, perhaps hinting of an ethnic background. A boxer in New York City is not the same as a boxer from Los Angeles. A boxer in the 1970s may have a completely different name than the one in the 1930s. When the old pro who survived thirty years ago is coaching the new fighter, their names will reference their time periods.
Names also reveal much more than gender. They reveal social status and culture.
A genteel lady of the 1880s would have a soft name, hinting at her parents’ expectations for her life. Alma or Estella. Should she have a hard life on a farm, Alma might be called Elmira. Have Estella born to wealthy parents in the 1940s, she becomes Stella.
Take a name like Robert. We have Rob or Robbie, Bob or Bobby, telling us age and culture. A Robert is not the same person as a Bert. Occasionally, Robert is shortened to Robin. The ways that other characters refer to Robert or Robbie or Bert or Robin gives our readers a wealth of information without our having to write paragraphs upon paragraphs.
Here’s an important detail. Characters rarely choose their own names. Their names are like baggage, slowly revealing elements of their personalities.
We writers may be the ones picking the names, but our characters actually have given names. We may be deciding between Esther or Estelle, but our characters have a back story. Part of that back story is that their names were given to them by their parents or godparents or someone else. Names are given based on parents’ hopes and wishes for their children’s lives. On rare occasions, names are bestowed on babies based on traumas that their parents may have themselves experienced.
Surnames are just as important. The lack of a surname will have to be explained at some point. I recently read a short series in which the lack of a surname was evidence of a caste system, a hierarchal social structure that demeaned those without a surname.
Whatever the back story, whether we relate it on the page or not, will actually help us visualize our characters. When we can visualize them, those details flow onto the page, and the character becomes real to us and to the reader.
Tip 2, Names should be easy to remember for the reader.
Names become easy for readers to remember when we develop strong details for that character at their introduction.
How do we develop strong details? NO, that’s not details of appearance. It’s details of personality.
Nicknames occur based on a character’s revealed personality—or what friends impose upon that character.
If you want the character to be known by a nickname, then introduce that character with the nickname from the beginning. The birth name can be mentioned later on, perhaps when the character is presented to another character. The nickname vs. the birth name can become a common thread throughout the rest of the book.
Here’s an example of the way a character’s personality can change based on the name of that character.
My most recently published novel, The Hazard with Hearts, started with a mad rush of writing which died to nothingness for several weeks.
The name of a primary character created my difficulty. The male protagonist’s name was never difficult. The female protagonist, however, posed several problems.
I had intended the book as a salute to the vintage gothics of Victoria Holt and Jane Aiken Hodges. For my heroine, the name Victoria Winters tempted me greatly. Several pages in, however, her personality was passive, like the Victoria Winters of the TV Dark Shadows series, and no Barnabas Collins or other vampire would take a bite into this story. And after the remake of Dark Shadows as a film, that name “hurt” my sensibilities.
I hunted up another project while I tinkered with the novel’s elements, trying to figure out what my writing problem was. When you write an entire chapter from the heroine’s point of view without using her name once—that is problematic. I had Name Avoidance. I can plead various distractions and completed projects—but those are excuses.
For writers, disruptions are often psychological. We can and must free ourselves from mental prisons. I repeated that reminder continuously, yet I kept stumbling into that mental cage.
As I worked through other projects, I discovered that my protagonist shared a given name with a rather vile young lady in a previous book in the series. After a few hours of contemplating alternate names, I changed her from Victoria to Vivienne.
The next day over 3,000 new words flowed out. On the next, 2,000 words, rethinking early scenes and revising others. 3,000 words more followed the third day. The dam had broken.
Changing the name to Vivienne changed several traits of her personality—and her new active drive changed the trajectory of the back-half of the novel.
Tip 3, Give the character a unique name.
First, help the reader by giving them a unique name. Unique does not mean Unusual. It means that the name will help the character stand strong in the reader’s mind.
We need to walk the reader into the story without confusion. Two characters with names that are too similar only disrupts the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief for the story.
Most books have a host of characters to remember. Books in a series have an especially hard time with introducing new characters.
The easiest and simplest way to keep characters distinct and unique is to use different alphabet letters. If you have a character whose name starts with R, like Robert, don’t give another character a name starting with R, like Richard.
Second, don’t keep using the same names over and over and don’t use the same names that every other writers is using over and over.
Third, keep the characters grouped with their names. A family might draw names from the Bible or from Shakespeare or from Greek mythology. By grouping in this manner, the reader gets back story for the family and can quickly identify brothers and sisters—and you can even extend it to cousins. Or to a community, like an Amish or Mennonite community drawing names from the Bible.
To have a hoard of unique names you need a reliable resource.
The internet is not a reliable resource for names. No list on the internet is comprehensive or quick to use. Most internet lists will give you 25 or 50 of the most common CURRENT names, or sometimes the list may stretch to 100 girl names or 100 boy names. We then have to click on the name to get its meaning and more information. That’s far short of a comprehensive list that will carry us over several novels.
One of the best tools that a writer can have, even working in the world building genres of science fiction and fantasy, is a baby-naming book. Virtually all name books have the meanings of the names. The best baby-naming books not only give the cultural origin of the names but variant spellings and nicknames. Most are divided by gender although many names can cross-over. A few also list famous people with each particular name.
The book that I picked up decades ago is falling apart, the pages held in by a massive stretchy band. Not a rubber band; those eventually harden or break. It’s called Name Your Baby by Lareina Rule, and the paperback is still available—I just checked a couple of online book distributors, the big amazing one as well as a used book dealer.
A baby book lists the names alphabetically. Name Your Baby boasts over 6,500 names. I can quickly flip to the G section for females and skim to find a name.
Even when writing about cultures beyond our anticipated readers, when writing about worlds we have built for fantasy or science fiction, our character names need to relate to our audience.
Skim through a baby-naming book, change a couple of alphabet letters to create an alien-ness to the name, and your world building becomes much easier.
What happens when the baby-naming books let you down? That happened with a book I published in 2019, The Key for Spies. The setting was the northern mountains of Spain in the early 1800s. This is a Basque region, so I needed Basque names. My Name Your Baby book had limitations for that region, and the internet helped here with names for several minor characters. A distraction on the search engine page led to my exploring recipes for that region, and added a wealth of unexpected minor details for the characters.
My, this is a lot on character names. We’ve covered our 3 tips …
so it’s time we switched to titles of our novels and our series.
As we start, we must distinguish between fiction and nonfiction. Or should we? Because I’ve seen nonfiction books with fantastical names and fiction books with straightforward names. Nope, I don’t think that’s a consideration. All we have to keep in mind is our connection with our readers. Audience means everything.
The role of the title is to entice the reader. How do we entice the reader?
Titles are Identifiable. That’s Tip 1, by the way.
Titles connect the reader to what they are looking for: fact or entertainment. Both are divided into genres, whether it’s a nonfiction genre or a fiction one.
Philosophical nonfiction can have metaphorical titles, like Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror. Gory thrillers can have hard fact-based titles, like Dean Koontz’ Velocity. Nonfiction that is purely fact-based will announce what it is: Joanna Penn’s Audio for Authors or Carl Jung’s Man and His Symbols while fiction will announce its genre or tone: Dick Francis’ Whiphand or Georgette Heyer’s mystery Behold, Here’s Poison.
Titles can play with literary devices like opposition and contrast, irony and allusion, in order to convey what they are. What a title is is related to genre.
Whether a title is short and powerful or metaphorical and lyrical, titles lets us know the kind of story and the kind of writing we can expect.
One of my favorite authors is Alistair MacLean. Yes, I know, years and years ago. The title The Way to Dusty Death is an allusion to Macbeth’s famous speech, by William Shakespeare, the “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” which continues with “all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle.” That dusty death is an allusion to the graveside service, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
MacLean’s novel presents a race car driver protagonist with several car chases—and car crashes—ramping up the tension of the novel. It’s a clever use of the allusion. The title clues in the reader that we will a tricksy logical suspense that has to be solved, not a simple thriller. The antagonist is hidden yet dangerous, and the protagonist will risk everything, perhaps in a foolish gambit to stop the evil.
Tip 2, Titles have a Bit of Punch.
Punch makes titles easy to remember.
Now, how do we achieve punch? Every word in a title has to count. The fewer words, the better.
Single word titles are not an entirely new concept.
In the early 1900s Gene Stratton Porter gave us Freckles. And The Harvester.
Dick Francis gave us Whiphand and Enquiry and Forfeit and Rat Race.
Titles can be names: Charlotte Bronte’s famous Jane Eyre. Her sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights. Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles or Jude the Obscure.
Then Hardy turned more lyrical with Far from the Madding Crowd, an allusion to Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, big broad hint to the reader there.
Recent titles have played with movie titles. The famous To Catch a Thief has had several iterations in the romance marketplace.
Or the title can play with a trope of a particular subgenre, such as a fairy trope with the title Elf in a Forest.
A series of novels about the members of a group, such as a military team, can use the individual names of the team members as the novel titles while the series title itself mentions what they are or where they are: Space Marine Delta Team. (My apologies if that actually is a series title.)
That apology, by the way, brought up the problem with this type of naming.
It’s not unique.
Remember Tip 3? Titles have to be unique.
That’s where the use of contrast and allusion and irony as well as other literary devices like alliteration and metaphor become powerful.
Ellis Peters is best known for her Brother Cadfael series. Her earliest titles played with irony or surprise.
· A Morbid Taste for Bones. Can we have a taste for bones? That would indeed make us morbid, wouldn’t it?
· One Corpse Too Many. Why would we have too many corpses? Who would figure that kind of thing out? Why would we have one corpse too many?
· Then we have such titles as Monkshood that reminds us of the first Cadfael books we bought or A Virgin in Ice that gives us the unusual murder victim or The Rose Rent that plays with alliteration.
Study several of Ellis Peters’ titles and you will quickly see the repeating pattern of irony or surprise or a reminder of the Cadfael character. Couple that with great cover imagery, and readers will snatch the books up.
Tony Hillerman wrote a series of southwest Native American novels with detectives Leaphorn and Chee. His novels follow the same guidelines of irony or a reminder of character and setting. A Thief of Time presents an impossibility; no one can steal time. Skinwalkers and Coyote Waits are clear indications of the setting.
Hear these following intriguing titles? They use these ideas of irony or surprise or character or literary device like alliteration or contrast.
· Listen for the Whisperer.
· A Room with Dark Mirrors
· Watch the Wall, my Darling
· The Last Camel Died at Noon
· Wind from a Foreign Sky
· Sorceress of the Witch World
· Snow Falling on Cedars
· A Court of Thorns and Roses
· A Song of Fire and Ice.
Grab a copy of the USA Today Bestseller list for a little more-current research. All fiction titles used these tips. Find a physical bookshelf at a bookstore or a library—if you can enter a store or a library in these plague year days. Skim the titles. Look for the basic elements.
Here’s the most powerful element to remember about titles. They’re not long.
Usually five words or less. Three of those five words will be vivid, like Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses. We have contrast with the thorns and roses, we have setting with court. We have passion and cruelty and the high politics of the embattled monarchies of the Faerie courts.
George R.R. Martin has kept his titles to four words.
· A Game of Thrones
· A Storm of Swords
· A Feast for Crows
· A Dance with Dragons >> Notice how all of these contain threat and menace. He also will have, not yet published >>
· The Winds of Winter AND
· A Time for Wolves
Titles start the writer’s contract with the reader. Between the title and the cover, the reader can determine the genre. Most importantly, the title gives the reader a Taste of the Writer’s style.
This podcast ran a little longer than the previous ones. Trying to crowd too much in, I guess.
But we’ve finished with our three-part series on What’s In a Name?
Coming Up, we’ll examine the 7 lessons that every new writers needs to learn to become a pro.
We’re book-casting. Is that a word? Anyway, it’s Think like a Pro, beginning next Wednesday.
Until then, Write On.
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Name Your Baby by Lareina Rule