Book Nerd Guest Post
Four Approaches to Character Names,
a.k.a. The Naming Debacle
“My name isn’t really Beau,” the middle brother explained. That’s my nickname. It’s short for … my full name.” —excerpt from The Hidden Deep, Chapter 1: The Naming Debacle
Whenever I’m invited to talk about the Threshold Series, one question keeps cropping up. How do you pick names for your characters? While it might sound like I’m dodging the question, the honest answer is … it depends! I don’t have one set rule. But I do have four different approaches. I’ll even throw in some bonus tips at the end.
1. Your name is your reputation.
Sometimes, I choose a character’s name because I want to give the reader a hook. The obvious example from The Hidden Deep is my protagonist, Prissie Pomeroy. She always wears dresses. She has excellent posture. She corrects her brothers’ grammar. In a word, Prissie is … prissy! Tying your character’s name to a fundamental personality trait can help your reader remember who’s who. This approach happens to be a classic, employed by authors like Charles Dickens and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
2. Names can have deeper meanings.
I find word origins fascinating, so I’ll often choose a name because of its meaning. And by often, I mean most of the time. For instance, Pomeroy means “apple orchard,” and Prissie’s family lives on one. Milo Leggett is one of the series’ angels; his day job is local mailman extraordinaire. So it’s entirely appropriate that Milo means “cheerful,” and Leggett means “messenger.” Researching the meanings behind names can help you find one that suits your character right down to the twinkle in his eyes.
3. Blending in can be a good thing.
In many cases, I’ll pick a name because it’s ordinary. I don’t know about you, but when I was in grade school, three girls in my class were named Jenny. To keep them straight, the teacher referred to them as Jennifer, Jenny, and Jen. So when it came time to name Prissie’s girlfriends from school, I tossed a Jennifer into the mix, simply because I consider it commonplace. If your story is set in a specific time and place, dig a little. Find out what’s normal. Naming trends are your friends, and every place has them.
4. They’re my characters, not my kids.
I was one of those little girls who kept a list of names that I planned to bestow on my children one day. Looking back, inflicted may have been a better word. When it comes to my characters, I regularly pick names I don’t care for. For instance, I’m not all that fond of “Jayce” or “Ransom.” But Prissie’s dad’s a gem of a guy, and Ransom’s all kinds of fun to write. I don’t hold their names against them. By the same token, I didn’t name Naomi Pomeroy’s children. She did. So their names hold special meaning to her and Jayce. Not to me.
Those kids don’t necessarily appreciate their parents’ choices, either. Just ask Neil Pomeroy, who said, “We who share the name of Pomeroy share a tragic flaw, handed down to us by our parents.” In Book 1: The Blue Door, readers meet Prissie’s five brothers—Tad, Neil, Beau, Zeke, and Jude. It’s not until Book 2: The Hidden Deep that we find out how much these guys would prefer to keep their full names under wraps. I planned it that way. Uncovering their “darkest secret” became a fun way to reintroduce this big, noisy family.
Once in a while, I’ll wish I could take back a character’s name, but that rarely works out. Names stick. And that means I’m stuck. In the Threshold Series, I have a Nell and a Neil in the same household. Their names are so easy to mix up at a glance. Also, I have a pair of guardian angels whose names both start with “T.” I recommend making things easier on your readers.
Every story has its own ambiance, and details definitely add oomph. Names are inherently personal, so you’ll have to deal with them on a case-by-case basis. Your characters will let you know if they’re willing to live with a name. And even if they’re less than thrilled with whatever you inflict, you’ll know if you’ve found a good fit because it’ll stick. And they’ll be stuck.
- Choose something your audience can pronounce. (People often ask me how to say Tamaes)
- Remember family ties. (Prissie’s middle name is her great-grandmother’s first name)
- Mix up how many syllables are in names. (Pearl, Derrick, and Amberly Matthews)
- Pick names with appropriate meanings. (Taweel means “tall,” Koji means “friend”)
- For better or for worse, nicknames happen. (Miss Priss, Goldilocks, Uncle Lou)
- Names can be tied to idiosyncrasies. (Myron Baird prefers to be called by his last name)
- Introduce a “rule” for certain names. (All yahavim have four-letter names that end in “i”)
- Make room for classics. (Paul, Naomi, Peter)
- Chase era-appropriate fads (Gavin), but also toss in throw-backs. (Margery)
Homework, football, apple pies, and ... angels? Harvest time is in full swing when Prissie Pomeroy learns that something terrible happened in her family's orchard. With school back in session, Prissie's best friends are distant, while Ransom and his friends won't leave her alone. As Koji and Milo introduce Prissie to the angels of Jedrick's Flight, she's drawn increasingly deeper into their world and closer to its dangers. A kidnapped apprentice suffers. A chained door bodes ill. A tiny angel makes a big difference. A battle line is drawn. Everything Prissie thought she knew is about to change ... again! 'He was trembling, which frightened Prissie even more than the pitch black. Crouching down, she made herself as small as possible against the tunnel wall. From somewhere in the darkness ahead came a sour note, off-key and unpleasant. She held her breath, listening with all her might. A dull clink was followed by a crunching sound that reminded Prissie uneasily of a barn cat eating a mouse. She cupped her hand around her little passenger and curled more tightly, hiding her face on her knees as her heart sent up a silent plea for help.' -from The Hidden Deep
Praise for The Blue Door A fantasy with a wholesome message and down-on-the-farm twist. -Kirkus