Character Naming (or, How To Justify Hours on the Internet…)

whats-in-a-name
My inclination, when I’m struggling to find that perfect character name…

When I was growing up, I fantasized about being named…Nancy. Or Cathy. For real. Those were the names I coveted because I wanted to blend in with the Tiffanys and Susans and Lauras peppered throughout my middle grade life, not stand out as the one and only Karma. And Boy George cursing bringing the world Karma Chameleon didn’t help things…

I have since come to love my name, and am grateful my hippie parents chose a unique and meaningful moniker — even if every other day someone in my Facebook or Twitter stream is commenting about how Karma is such a “b*tch.” Harsh.

With one real baby and four book babies, I’ve had the chance to do a lot of naming, and guess what? It’s not easy to choose the perfect name…for your baby in the flesh OR your characters. But it IS fun, if not a tad time-consuming (between the baby name and random name generator websites, this “research” can suck up some serious time). I also find my character names are influenced by whatever I happen to be binge watching on Netflix. In my second book (coming to shelves Fall 2016!), it wasn’t until I revised that I realized I’d named a married couple Lyla and Jason … guess who was many episodes deep into Friday Night Lights during drafting?

In COME AWAY WITH ME, my protagonist named herself. Tegan (pronounced Tay-gen) popped into my head when I was thinking about the character, and it stuck from the beginning. I pictured those who knew her best calling her “Teg” and the name felt unique enough to be memorable, but not so different it would be off-putting (I’m irked if I can’t be sure how to pronounce the protagonist’s name in a book I’m reading). Gabe, Tegan’s husband, also came to mind easily and felt right the moment I first wrote it down in dialogue. I still love their names, even after nearly two years of spending up close and personal time with them.

So there are a few rules I hold myself to when naming my characters. One, I don’t pull from people I know. I should clarify I DO pull traits from people I know, but their names are off limits (I’m a wee bit superstitious). Two, I’m careful to consider the details of my characters lives — decade they were born, their heritage, whether they are the nickname types — when choosing a name for them. Finally, I pick names I like — names I might have considered for a child if I had two dozen children to name (thank goodness I don’t have two dozen children…)

And because I’m always curious about this, I’ll leave you with a question: If you hate the protagonist’s name, does it ruin the book for you, or at least make it less enjoyable to read?

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Karma Brown is the author of COME AWAY WITH ME (MIRA/Harlequin, September 2015), an emotional story of one woman’s discovery that life is still worth living, even if it’s not the life you planned. Karma is also a National Magazine award-winning journalist, and lives outside Toronto, Canada, with her family and their mischievous labradoodle puppy, Fred.

This article has 4 Comments

  1. I’ve had a few situations, none of which I can recall right now, of course, where I’ve read about a character and thought, “Damn, if that was my name, I’d have changed it years ago.”

    I’ve used a few people I know as minor characters, under their own (first) names. Just cameo appearances, really.

    Characters who have more “screen time,” as it were, sometimes have names from old-time radio shows (a passion of mine). Once I needed to introduce a bunch of suspects all at once, and I grabbed names (and some physical characteristics) from the TV show Dark Shadows.

    With other characters, sometimes the ones who stick around for years and decades, I have no idea where the names come from. I’ve been writing about a character named “starling” (always lower case) since around 1970. I have no idea why she calls herself that.

    It took over twenty years before I even learned her real name. 🙂

    1. *I’ve been writing about a character named “starling” (always lower case) since around 1970. I have no idea why she calls herself that.

      It took over twenty years before I even learned her real name. :-)*
      This made me laugh! 😀 I particularly love that it’s always lower case…this is why I think this is such a fun topic — our characters, even though they are 2D on a computer screen or notebook page, DO become real!

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