Monday, March 26, 2012

A Writer’s (Not So) Small Choices

Have you ever wondered why an author chose a particular character name? Or why that character is short/tall/blonde/freckled? Today and tomorrow, you can take a peek into the writer's mind. (It's not that scary of a place.) We're focusing on the (not so) small choices a writer makes when developing their characters. The things that may seem simple on the outside—like the color of a character’s hair—that were actually a conscious choice we spent a bit of time on!

Today, we’re spilling secrets on character names.

The surname Fern was deliberately chosen. I wanted my main character’s last name to be short and punchy—like her. I went with Fern because, like the plant, she looks delicate but is actually quite hardy.

Part of the Ferns’ family dynamic is that Starla, the mother, leans toward the strange and her kids sometimes just want to be normal. So it made sense to me that Starla would give them unusual first names, and they’d just go by more “normal” nicknames. The boy was always Periwinkle “Perry” Fern. I worked backward with this one. I picked the nickname first—Perry—and searched for an unusual name that could be a longer version of that. My main character, however, was originally called Andromeda “Andie” Fern. ("Andromeda" because I’m an astronomy buff and I like the name. "Andie" because I think it's a girl's name that's both cute and tough at the same time.) But with a title change came a name change to Clarity and Clare was a natural nickname for that. And now I can’t imagine her as anyone else.

Dawn Metcalf, LUMINOUS
I deliberately choose a lot of character names (and nicknames) that reflect not only something about the character's "character" but also a hint about their purpose in the story. In LUMINOUS, I always wanted to use the Spanish name "Consuela," which means "solace" or "comfort," something very much in tune with her character and role in both of her worlds, and her last name was changed from "Bones" to "Chavez," which means "keys," fitting nicely with her ability to walk between worlds.

"Tender" was a fun play on words since he was about as "tender" as a ball of spikes, and "Sissy" wasn't very confident in herself, but her last name--Gardner--hinted at her guardianship responsibilities that she took seriously. I wanted Wish to personify hope and longing and occupy a somewhat lesser status vis-a-vis Tender, which is why his last name is "Squires." And while Joseph Crow could really become a crow, I didn't actually choose his name for that reason; it was more to do with his tribe and its importance and it conveniently made his initials "J.C." which was more than a little hint about what were my bigger plans for his character.

Jenny O'Connell, RICH BOYS
I love the name Winnie, but that's not why I chose Winnie for the main character's name in RICH BOYS. Winnie is actually short for Winifred, which sounds so old-fashioned and mature (and hopefully demonstrates that we all have to grow up and deal with adult issues). Naturally her friends and family call her Winnie. But... when she meets Jay he asks what her real name is. And she asks him what his is (nobody is really named Jay, right?). Turns out Jay's "real" name is Herbert James Barclay III. It's a family name, she learns, and she also quickly gets why he goes by Jay. He is equally understanding about Winifred. From then on Winnie and Jay call each other Fred and Herb. It's only something they do in private, and not something they share with anyone else. I liked the idea of these two very different people sharing nicknames for one another, and that it shows they have a sense of humor and intimacy with each other that they don't share with anyone else.

Leah Cypess, MISTWOOD
When I got my first revision letter for MISTWOOD, one of the first things my editor said was, "You have to change the names of a lot of the male characters." These were the names in the version I sent her: Dykan, Damin, Krigan, Kaer. You see the problem. I'm not entirely sure how I didn't see the problem, but trust me, this is just one of the reasons writers need editors.

So I set out to make up new names. Since I write fantasy, I get to choose names based entirely on how they sound. I start out with the letter I want the character's name to start with. That part usually comes to me pretty easily (though obviously, sometimes my instinct will go bonkers and fixate on the letters "d" and "k"). Then I fill a page, or sometimes more than a page, with a string of syllable-combinations starting with that letter. Some sound more right to me than others, and lead me in the direction I want to go, and finally I come up with a few that sound best. I then go away from my list for at least a few hours, and when I come back, it's pretty clear to me which of the fantasy names I've invented fit which character. Which is how I came up with: Owain, Ven, Albin, Kaer. Much better, no?

When it came to naming my MC in CARRIER OF THE MARK, Megan was the first one I thought of. Firstly, it’s my daughters name and I love using family names in my books. Secondly, it’s a name that crosses borders in the English speaking world, readily known by all, kind of girl-next-doorish. So, while Megan would struggle with all the Irish names around her, all her new schoolmates wouldn’t bat an eyelid at hers. It subtly compounds the duck out of water feeling that sets the scene at the beginning of Carrier.

Sonia Gensler, THE REVENANT
Many have asked how I chose names for the Cherokee characters in THE REVENANT, and people seem particularly intrigued by Eli Sevenstar. It's a pretty awesome name, isn't it? Well, I didn't just make it up. During my research I was fortunate to discover school catalogs from 1896 for the Cherokee Female and Male Seminaries. These catalogs listed the names of each enrolled student from the seniors all the way down to the primary department, as well as almunae dating back to before the Civil War. What a wealth of wonderful and historically/culturally appropriate names! I could mix and match, confident that at one time or another there really was a seminary student with that first or last name. As you might imagine, Sevenstar jumped out at me right away. It was mysterious and alluring, just like the character. I chose Eli for his first name because it seemed more accessible and down-to-earth. (Did I just make a pun?) Now I can't imagine him with any other name, and it's my favorite name for any character I've created so far.

Brigid Kemmerer, STORM: Book 1 of the Elemental Series
I have four brothers in my story, named Michael, Gabriel, Nicholas, and Christopher. My husband's name is Michael, and my son's name is Nicholas. A lot of people think I named the characters after people in my family. They're wrong. I first wrote about these four brothers back when I was in high school, and these are the same four names they had then. One of my favorite male names is Michael, and I always swore I would marry a man named Michael. (Sheer luck, I swear.) When I got pregnant with my first son, I wanted to name him Christopher (the lead character in my first book), but Christopher Kemmerer just has too many -ers going on. So my first son was named Nicholas.

Fascinating, right? Share your thoughts in the comments and check back tomorrow for insights into character appearances!


  1. Very cool! The thought processes behind naming are always interesting to me. One gal in my writer's group carefully evaluates every name for origin, homophone tendencies, etc. so that every name has significant meaning or correlation to a character trait. I'm on the other side of that. I mostly pick names that I like, though I will say they have to "feel right" for the kind of character I'm writing. (I don't think I could pull off a hottie hero named Norman!)

  2. I thought Kim's names were perfect for her characters. I really loved Clarity and Perception.

  3. I thought Kim's names were perfect for her characters. I really loved Clarity and Perception.

  4. awww, I like Andromeda! What a cool name! Very interesting!

  5. What an interesting post that comes at a great time. I just started a new project and up until about a week ago my names were still "boy", "mean boy", and "girl". I finally narrowed it down but have come to the realization that the female lead character will probably have to change. This is so different from the last book I wrote because I had the names before anything else. This book requires them to be just a little different. It's kind of fun though.
    Very cool to hear about other writers' processes.