January 2, 2008

First Name, Last name, Shouldn't be a Pain

Martin Spratt, Jonathan “Jack” Chase, and Roger Price are three names you’ve never heard of; but, they are folks who are near and dear to me. These three men are each protagonists in my unpublished novels. For me they are as alive as my family members are. It is as if they always lived, and because they exist in my stories, they shall never perish even if nobody reads about them.

They were all born through my inspiration; each taking on a separate identity in spite of the fact that they all have some of my personality traits within them. Unlike my own children who already wonder aloud about where they will attend college, who they will marry, and what they will do when they grow up, I was sure of everything about my characters the moment they were born. For one of them in particular, I knew when he would die. The only troublesome detail in conceiving them was what to name them?

In real life, I had a partner in naming my children. My wife came into our relationship with unique thoughts on what to call our babies and she also had a family history which held some sway on how we would derive names for our kids. There were ideas which we drew from my wife’s ethnicity, and there were, of course, mothers, fathers, grandparents, and other ancestors from whom we could take names. Ultimately, as we decided on what to call our daughter, and then our son, they became their name.

It seems silly, but my son looks and acts like what we called him. Pardon me for not wanting to divulge too much about the identities of my little ones; but, look at your own kids and see if you know what I am talking about. A parent would know. In as much as writers give birth to their characters, that person living within the confines of the plot which you, the writer, originated acts like their name. "Milton" can be a bit of a softy and not very good at sports, if you will. "Rocco" might toss you out of a bar for hitting on the waitresses. "Jerry Cholmondeley" will most likely spend his days spelling his last name for everyone and explaining that it’s a French surname meaning “the place at the gorge or neck of the mountain.”

The same considerations must be given to your character’s names. If you notice, for some reason each of my protagonists has a one syllable surname. This was entirely by coincidence, not by design. Roger’s one-time significant other went from Claire Malachowski, to Claire Mundey after she married her high school sweet heart. Claire’s daughter remarks at one point about her father, a New York City police sergeant: “Sergeant Mundey sounds like the name they give the dumb cop on some stupid sitcom.”

Take your time naming your characters. Take from their families, their backgrounds, and how they will have to react to others learning their names into consideration. A name is an important thing and not to be taken lightly. It can be the difference between getting noticed and slipping through the cracks anonymously. I grew up with a kid in my neighborhood that was locked up by the local police because he gave them his real name, John Smith, and they thought he was lying to them. Be careful about being provocative because the character might have to fight off a negative perception or a sterotype. This is especially worrisome if your start to get a lot of readers. Mr. Grudge can tell you all about that.

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peteej said...

Sounds like you would enjoy the book, "The Secret Meaning of Names." It's an unusual compilation of hundreds of names which are grouped into profiles.

The basic premise is that the sound of a name heard over and over has an impact on a person's behaviors as they grow up. If you go by this, then you assumption that people act like their name is dead-on.

Interesting stuff, for sure, since my name profile was eerily precise.

Anonymous said...

Great post Mike. Certainly advice worth acting on. Have you ever tried Googling the names to see if a real person wears them? I did. I had to change my characters names several times before I got a nil result. Scary. Out of my brain, some obscure name, and it exists somewhere else in the world.
Mike, thank you so much for the great review. You are way too kind.
Now, I've had my break and I'm off to shovel for one more hour. I'm near the end. Then a hot shower and I'll crawl into bed.
Nice to see you back. Missed you.
Take care.

Teige Benson said...

Character names are something I take some time with. I think that when we really know our character, who they are, their name comes to us naturally.

Of course, there have been times when I've had to change a character's name many times before I found one that suited their nature.

They really are like our children. Care and time should be spent before we decide on the name we choose for our characters.

Mike French said...

So Mr Grudge, come on then: how did you come about that name Mike?

Kimchihead said...

Changing names (to protect the innocent) is the toughest thing to do. Sometimes I simply use a random name generator!

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Peteej,
Thanks for the recommendation. I'll find the book in either the library or at the bookstore. It seems a writer would find a book like this very handy. Thanks for stopping by. -Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi JD,
By the time you read my reply, the snow may have melted already. I Googled the names after you made the suggestion and it turns out that Roger Price is some sort of big shot. You know what? I don't really care about the real guy. Any resembelnce to persons living or dead is a coincidence and too bad, so sad. Haha. I am back to blogging and I missed my blogging pals. However, this is busy season in the world of Colleges (I work in one) and we are getting ready for the SPR08 semester. Sorry for the delay in replying to your comment. Have fun in the snow. -Mike

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Teige,
I agree with what you say. Many times I can't begin to write the story until I have a name I feel belongs to the character. Thanks for stopping by and Happy New Year!-Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Mike,
How did I come up with Mr. Grudge? Vvery simple: I was stumped. When I decided to begin blogging, in my ignorance I didn't realize that I actually had to NAME my blog. I sat in front of the computer screen staring at the field where I was supposed to type my blog's title in and drew a blank. Then, for no other reason than I was in a bit of a foul mood, Mr. Grudge was born. My wife tells me that "Mr. Grudge is so you." I get what Mrs. Smart Ass means by that. Thanks Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Kimchihead,
I guess for the type of writing you do it's imperitive to hide the identities of who you write about. The random name generator is something I never considered, but I have a feeling I might be steered in that direction soon as I can't find a suitable name for my latest character. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. -Mike.

Mike French said...

"My wife tells me that "Mr. Grudge is so you." I get what Mrs. Smart Ass means by that."

LOL Mike, I find that wifes are normally very perceptive though, so maybe she is right!

Kristyn said...

All very good advice, Mike. I find it exceptionally difficult to name characters. I sit for hours, pondering their names, considering what it'll mean for them and how it can express their personalities. I wrote a tale of a girl who broke from the norm, defied convention and expectation, and followed her heart. The character's name is Charlotte, a very conservative, conventional name. This was purposeful, but many of my character names seem not to be. I give them names I hate, then rename them again and again, no name ever seems to fit just right. On occasion, however, the perfect name falls on the perfect character and from it a work of art is born. I've had the perfect names and characters but am still waiting for the work of art. Ever critical, am I.

My apologies for not coming to visit sooner, the holidays were busy and a bit overwhelming. I hope yours was wonderful.

Very best,

Anonymous said...

Hi Mike
Just for your info I tagged you in my latest post. Cheers.
Guess what? The snow melted...a little. :-)

footiam said...

A name is important, I suppose. A rose is a rose if you call it by another name, but call a rose a skunk and you'd think it stinks.

Bob Johnson said...

Hey Mike awesome post, your right about the names of your kids acting and looking what you call them,lol. My make believe name when I was kid was always Jim, never had a last name though, Jim to me was is cool name, don't get me wrong Mike is a cool name too,lol.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Mike,
Yes, buddy...I think she's righ too. -Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Kristyn,
I hope your holidays were enjoyable. I am like you sometimes where I spends hours, sometimes days coming up with a name. Interesting that you gave a character a conservative name when you wanted her to be unconventional. I have a story I am working on now and I have a great name for the protagonist's friend, but not for the main character. This has been going on for weeks and I can't get past the outline without a real name for my main guy. I'm almost ready to sponsor a contest on this blog. Whew! Good to hear from you again Kristyn. _Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Footiam,
Great to hear from you again. What happens if you call a skunk Rose?

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Bob,
Jim is a cool name. I work with a man who goes by the name Peter. His real name is John but he uses Peter because his father named all five of his sons John after him. I couldn't call him John after call him Pete for so many years. He doesn't look like a "John." How funny. Thanks for stopping by, Jim..I mean Bob. -Mike