9.12.2007

Characterization-Names

Roland of Gilead. Captain Ahab. Atticus Finch. Jane Eyre. Jay Gatsby. Holden Caulfield.

All great and recognizable characters in the tradition of English Literature. This week Jeff Cohen did a nice post on the inspiration for naming characters over at the fine blog Hey, There's a Dead Guy in the Living Room. He writes that in his experience, the genesis for character names comes from indirect references to the stories he's reading at the time. That's one of the primary methods I have in my own work. I think of characters I've enjoyed spending time with and then tweak them a bit. Thomas Clutterbuck, a central character in Wendigo, shares a surname with a character that many of you will recognize from some of Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot-inspired short stories. Lots of vamps in that part of Maine, it would appear.

But you have lots of methods. You have the earnest name that seems to roll off the tongue and comes to really personify the types of characters for a genre (Doc Ford and Travis McGee come to mind in the field of Florida crime thrillers).

You have the booze pun (J.A. Konrath's Jacqueline Daniels-great novels, by the way).

You have the superhero allusion (Jason Pinter's Henry Parker-another great novel, but don't think we don't see the Peter Parker reference from a mile away).

You have the classical/biblical allusion(Tim Lebbon's Cain), the alliterative character name (Tim Dorsey's Serge Storms-a nice play on "storm surge") and the classic singular moniker (Carl Hiaasen's Skink).

Then there are the ones that are hard to pin down, but instantly recognizable (Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone).

There's no clear path to selecting a memorable character name (or being a strong enough writer to imbue that character with memorable traits), so sometimes the best tactic is to wing it. There's a great Simpsons episode when a woman asks Bart his name. Ever the agile thinker, Bart responds something to the effect of "Pantsboobs Apron."

Sorry-couldn't find the link on youtube.

The point there is that sometimes you just need a placeholder. As we are constantly playing over the writing in our heads-in the aisle at the grocery store, on the commute in to work, at the damned DMV-those character names will emerge. Then you have another scrap of paper for that drawer in your desk that inevitably stores all of our brain droppings.

How do you folks get into naming your characters?

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