Sharon S asked:
As a reader, I am always interested in finding out how and why authors choose the names of their characters. I’ve asked but never quite get an answer. I’m listening to Maybe This Time again. I’d forgotten Andy’s name is Andromeda. I’m guessing that is because of her strange mom? But what gives you your names? Please and Thank You.
Most of the time, my characters show up with their names. A few like Andie in Maybe This Time started with the wrong name, and those you just have to keep trying other names on for size. I think I went through four different names before I hit on Andie, and then reverse engineered that to Andromeda because of her mother and because it would make North’s mother nuts (although she named her kids North and Sullivan, so she has no room to criticize).
My preference is for names that are different because they’re memorable, but that aren’t so different that the reader can’t pronounce them. I have a character I love in a book I’m working on who’s named Scylla. It’s a great name, but people don’t know how to pronounce it, so it’ll probably have to go. One way to get different but familiar names is to go old-fashioned: Matilda, Dorothy, Mabel, Agnes, Annabel, Zelda (I’ve done a Matilda and a Mabel/Maybelle, but no Dorothy so far). Another is go with something from nature that isn’t usually used as a name like Peony, Petal, Amanita. Still another is to go with a name from literature or myth that’s easy to pronounce: Andromeda, Daphne, Mab, Ophelia, Diana. One caution here is that just because you know how to pronounce something familiar to you, that’s no guarantee that others will, especially from myths. Circe, Scylla, Demeter, even Medea can be problems there. The key is familiar but not used often as names today and therefore different.
But different is not enough; that name will also characterize because of stereotypes (Bertha is going to be large), associations (Alice connects to Alice in Wonderland, Tilda’s worldview was tilted), relationships (North’s character is diametrically opposed to Southie’s) and sound (Andie is a happy-go-lucky kind of name, Zelda is edgy, Agnes sounds like “anger” especially starting with that hard “Ag”). Other things I take into consideration: birthdate (different names are popular at different times), origins (tons of name lists on the internet”), what kind of people the character’s parents were (which explains how the name came to be and how they tried to shape the character as a child to fit that name), and how the name fits that character’s function in the text.
The McDaniel class does weekly chats, and last week I answered a question about names, using Bet Me as an example:
Min and Cal minimize risk and calculate the odds; they’re meant to be together. “Calvin” gives you an idea of how rigid Cal’s mother is, and Minerva gives you the set-up that Min’s mother was hoping for a goddess when her daughter was born.
Bonnie has a soft sound with that B at the beginning and the soft O that fits her softer nature. Liza has that razor sharp Z in the middle. I called the bridesmaids Wet and Worse because they weren’t on the page enough for the reader to recognize them by their real names; the nicknames also set up that Wet was the one who was always weeping for her lost boyfriend and that Worse was capable of much worse. Diana was another goddess name, plus there was the association with Princess Diana, the perfect daughter.
Cal, Roger, Tony, David. Cal’s the hero who calculates things. Roger is a dweebish name. Tony sounds like somebody who wears a baseball cap backward. And David is formal, business like.
One of the best ways I know to get a character firmly in mind before you write is to brainstorm his or her name. It’s like collage in that you’re working with associations: what does this name say to you about the character, how does it give clues to how he or she thinks, acts, talks, where he or she comes from, etc. A character named Poppy is different from a character named Rose; a character named Andromeda is different from a character named Diana; a character named Phineas is different from a character named Harry, and so on. Then there’s the function of nicknames: Minerva’s mother wanted a goddess but Min goes by a name that conserves space efficiently; Andromeda’s mother wanted her daughter to walk among the stars (she’s big into astrology) completely missing the whole victim by sea monster thing, and Andie preferred her strong, male nickname since she liked to think she’s rescue herself.
Basically, names are another path to character discovery. Thinking about the character’s name makes you think about the character in a different and possibly deeper way.