Insecure Writers Support Group: Finding The Right Name

I’ve been struggling with names for some of the characters and locations in my novel. This isn’t a new struggle, naming things has always been hard for me — in part I think because I know that names can hold great importance.

I want to get the names just right because it is important. I don’t want a Kalina to be stuck on the page as a Marta for all eternity… it just won’t do.

Names are a piece of our identity, they are often one of the early things that we know about someone, and we certainly do make assumptions based on someone’s names.  People say things like, “He doesn’t look like a Edmund” as though that name somehow embodies something about how that individual should look. Or be.

I know some fairly quiet and easy-going people who will be very assertive when it comes to their name.  I have friends who have changed their names — some legally, some unofficially — because their names did not fit them.  Some of these name changes accompany life events, some happen when the person was very young, and some happen later in life.  Sometimes it’s just the spelling of a name that needs to be tweaked in order to make it fit.

Some I know, including my mom, have changed how much of their name they use.  Known for years by a shortened version of her name, she started to use the full name at one point to mark a shift in her life and in how she viewed herself. It can be empowering to claim a name for yourself, or to reclaim your name.

The power of names is certainly nothing new.  A number of religions put importance in names, and there is a lot out there around the idea of the power that comes with knowing ones “True Name.” Magic and power held within the simple combination of letters that form a name.

Yes, maybe this is just an extended excuse for why I’m struggling with picking the right names for some characters and places, but I think it’s also a concept that merits more exploration and reflection.  Sometimes the correct names come to you in an instant, but sometimes they are harder to find and I think that people’s connections with their names is intriguing.

What have your name experiences been?


 

This is my monthly post as part of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, a IWSG badgegreat group of supportive writers, helping one another through our writing ups-and-downs.
There is also a great Facebook Community for more daily connection!  More posts from the group are tagged on Twitter at #IWSG. 

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14 thoughts on “Insecure Writers Support Group: Finding The Right Name”

  1. Ooh, great question. Personally, I use my full name everywhere except within my family. To them, I’m Allie. I tried using Allie at school once and it just felt wrong.
    In writing, I get the character’s physical and some personality traits in order. Then I brainstorm names from past classes (there have been many). If that doesn’t work, I use my name dice app. Roll the dice til you land on a name that fits!

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  2. Everybody struggles with names and once you have exhausted all the every day ones, it can cause a lot of angst. I find baby name finders on the web useful. I also have a “Complete Book of Baby Names” on my shelf. Not always helpful in themselves, but they can provide inspiration to make up your own names or find something that will fit.

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  3. A lot of times I work backwards with names. I choose an idea or concept and then try to find a name that means that or relates to that. For example, if I have a character who rides horses, I might pick Phillip as his name, because that name means “friend of horses.”

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  4. I used to put off naming any character until the story was complete. That worked for short pieces, not so much for longer stuff. What works for me is lists. The Internet is good for things like cats an baby names. Long, long, long lists of names are there for my benefit. I pick a letter, scan the first three pages of names. If nothing strikes, I do it again. Sometimes it takes days before the right name appears, but I almost always know it when I see it.

    Random- I once changed a Katie to Marta. She thanked me for it over and over.

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  5. Names definitely hold a certain power. I know I get frustrated when I’m constantly called Sharon instead of Shannon. My kids both fit their names well, and it’s made me wonder whether a person grows into their name or whether i just had an innate feeling for their personalities during pregnancy.

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  6. Names are something I always struggle with when I’m writing. (I think that’s why I like writing in an established story — whether it be fanfic or mythology — because the names are already there for me.) I actually have a book aimed at helping writers name their characters, which lists a bunch of names by nation/linguistic tradition, and gives meanings for the names, too. (Though the meanings are not always accurate, I’ve noticed. Some of the meanings it gives for Greek and Roman names are decidedly wrong. That presumably is even more the case for the non-Western names.) It’s not much help for fantasy or sci-fi (well, it *can* be helpful for sci-fi, if it’s Earth-future) but it’s good for real world stuff, and I often end up scouring it for all too long, trying to figure out what to name my characters.

    Speaking of which, if I’m going to do NaNo this year (not sure yet) I’ll have to spend quite a while with that book. I’ve only got four characters named so far, and one of them is a “gimme” ’cause she’s a real person…

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  7. I put in the names that they sound like, the characters, the sort of people they could be. Sometimes the names change, at others they don’t. The changes mostly happen because I’ve chosen similar names for two characters, which might confuse the reader.

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  8. Alli,
    My biggest struggle I can think of so far has been a character with an African background (as in she was born in Ancient Egypt) I originally gave a Eurocentric name (with the caveat that it was a nickname she used) – and in edits decided to give her a name more appropriate to her background, closer to what would have been her “original name”. It looked so wrong to me that I asked people for advice, and was told to stick with it, so I did. The story still hasn’t been published (and may never be!) so I don’t know how her “new name” will play out. But I agree, it can be a struggle, especially where there is some meaning to it.
    Thanks for sharing this, even though I don’t have any answers, it’s good to know you’re not the only one struggling. I agree, names can be so important.
    Anne

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  9. My name is Tamara, but I grew up as Tammy. Now that shorter name seems kind of young and silly, but the other seems so serious (although when I met Margaret Atwood at a book signing, she said it was a romantic name). Names are funny things.

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  10. Names can be tough. I usually do some research before I name characters. My WIP takes place in Poland, so I needed to give my characters Polish names, but I also wanted at least the first names to be fairly easy for English speakers (since that is my audience).

    In my own life, I struggled with what my friends should call me well into high school – I hated the name Ursula in the 90s because everyone associated me with the sea witch until some of my friends started calling me Ula. I go by that to this day and I love it. When I got married I added on my husband’s last name and I’ve regretted it because it doesn’t feel mine, so I dropped it for my author name. I still legally have it, but my author name feels way more authentic.

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