Names and Naming

I realized, a few years back, that every single story I was writing had a main-ish character with some version of the name Katherine. Every one. The funny thing is, that name was never even on my list of favorite names, certainly not one I considered for either Joy or Grace (although if I had a third daughter …), and yet it kept cropping up in every one of my stories, until I had to consciously edit it out. Magic Most Deadly’s Julia was a Kate first, for example. As were the main protagonists in the two other stories I was writing/plotting at the same time as that. I kept one as was, changed MMD’s Kate to Julia, and abandoned the other story entirely, at least for a time.

Other names, or name-sounds, crop up with frequency, too. I adore Lloyd Alexander’s Princess Eilonwy (I think the E and the I look ugly next to each other, especially with that W showing up so soon after (W is just an ugly-looking letter anyway), which is one reason why I never considered Eilonwy as a name for Joy or Grace, but the sound of the name – Aye-LON-Wee – is pure music). I love JRR Tolkien’s Eowyn as well (though the E-O-W is even uglier to look at than E-I…W), and have found myself using very similar names in many of my stories. I have an Eilwen in one, her daughter Eirlys in another (plotted but not written). I’ve used Owen, Will, Gwen, in several of my non-fantasy stories. And I have yet to write this character, but I love the name Telyn and am eagerly waiting for the right story to put her in.

I sat down and analyzed Wings of Song the other day and realized it pretty much needed to be torn apart and begun again. Part of that tearing apart meant changing my main protagonist’s name. So much of her character was bound up in her name. If she needed a different personality, she needed a different name. I wanted this new heroine to be a combination of two previously-written protags: one named Meggie, one Gwen. At first I thought I wanted a name that preserved that middle “eh” sound, but in the end (and it was surprisingly difficult), I went with something entirely different.

And it’s working.

Poor Carl – I used to scare him half to death when we’d be driving along in the car, talking of something completely different, and I’d suddenly fire off: “What do you think of ___ for a name?” “Are you pregnant?” he’d howl.

He’s since learned to just roll with it. He married a person with an endless fascination for names, how they look, how they sound, what sort of associations they conjure up in people’s minds, all that. When I did get pregnant, and we finally did start talking names for real, I couldn’t settle down to think about anything in the pregnancy seriously until we had decided on names. (Joy and Grace, for newer readers, are not their real names. I decided when Joy was a baby that I could use photos OR real names, but not both, and at that point I went with photos. As they’re getting older and their faces are getting more recognizable, I’m starting to rethink even that policy. We’ll see.) And even though we didn’t use the boy name we had chosen for Joy, I couldn’t consider that name (Evan, by the way) for Grace. That was Joy’s-boy-name. Grace (of course, at the time we were discussing names, we didn’t know she was a girl) needed her own unique boy-name (she would have been Tristan, if you’re curious).

What about you? Are names something that fascinate you, or are they just convenient handles for keeping people and characters from getting confused? Do you find yourself drawn to similar-sounding names without even realizing it, or re-using one name across many different stories? And which is more important to you, a name that looks beautiful written, or sounds beautiful spoken?

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15 thoughts on “Names and Naming

  1. I have a tendency to pick names that begin with the same letter. In one novel, I had four characters whose names started with “m,” which necessitated changes very late into writing the novel and that’s so hard. I thought it was a fluke until I did the same thing in other novels. Now I keep a list when I write, and I make sure that every character’s name starts with a different letter. I know it seems silly, but it’s the only thing that works for me.

    • I don’t do a ton of names-that-start-the-same, but my tendency is names-that-sound-the-same. Not quite so blatant as a Meg and a Peg, or a Mike and an Ike, but close. Enough so that it might not be a problem to look at, but if you’re an auditory reader (like myself), or even just reading aloud, the names would all start to blend together after a while.

  2. To be honest, I’ve never even thought about the written look of a name. To me it’s the sound, the shape of the person it conjurs up, and the historic connections. For “real world” characters (as for my children), I like classic names. I have to say I have a thing about “Elizabeth” (always did, even before I met Lizzie Bennet). I’m sad that I’ve already “used up” that name in one, quite short, story. Ditto for Andy – the character that appears when I think of that name is someone I really like, and would like to write more about, but not in the same person, if that makes sense. But actually, quite often I go with the first name that pops into my head when I write – bam, there’s Cat, or Nicky, and that’s who they remain. And some other characters’ names have strange origins – Guy became Guy because in my notes, I kept writing “the guy does this and that”, and finally I just capitalised it and made it his name! And Andy and Ben were “Boy A” and “Boy B”, at first, so then I found them some names that start with those letters. Naming characters is one of the fun bits about writing – you don’t have to have more children to name people!

    • Actually, now that I think of it, I don’t think of the visual look of a name, but I do think of the spelling. A Catherine is a different person from a Kathryn, and both of them are totally different from any Kathy, let alone Kate or Cat. They’re different names, as far as I’m concerned.

    • Joy and Grace’s real-life names are very unique, decidedly ethnic, and unusual without being too bizarre (my husband’s insistence). I never liked having a “bland” name as my first name (you can’t get much more simple and classic than Emily, unless perhaps you name your kid Anne, which interestingly enough was my parents’ second choice for me), and so I wanted my kids to have something that would be special to them, not shared with hundreds of other people. There’s a small part of me now, though, that wishes I had given them classic names – Anne, Katherine, Lucy, Margaret, etc. Oh well. Too late now – I hope they don’t resent me when they’re older!

  3. I love names soooo much. I’ve always been fascinated by names and their meanings. I was a weird teenager–I memorized so many meanings of baby names just because I found them so fascinating. (I love the name Eilonwy, too, but I always thought it looked beautiful too. ;) But I think vowels look pretty and the sound/sight of the letter W never crossed my mind as being ugly. (Actually, I had never thought of any letters being ugly…some names I find ugly, but not the letters.) My daughter’s name has a W in it. :D) And yeah, names totally change personalities. When I first conceived my “Rising” books, Alphonse was supposed to be Alphonso, but with a totally different personality, and when his real personality hit, it was like “Alphonso lol no.” In my current YA book, I chose some names quite deliberately because of their meanings. Other names must have been subconscious on my part–for instance, a healer who was introduced to the story made it clear that his name was Jason, and later I was like ‘wait a minute,’ and I looked it up, and sure enough, Jason means “healer.” I got a laugh out of that. Guess that character knew why he was picking that name. ;) For this book, I also had to change a secondary character’s name, and it took me a while to find one that didn’t make her suddenly feel like a stranger.

    • Now see, your daughter’s name both looks and sounds pretty. I think it’s the combination/arrangement of the letters … maybe the A in there instead of an E?

      Then too, I know I’m weird about letters/words. I don’t see them in color, but certain ones are definitely more appealing to me than others, and a word that both looks AND sounds lovely to me is something rare and to be savoured. (It’s one reason why I tend to prefer British spelling – “savour”, for example, looks much better than the American “savor,” even though they are pronounced the same. And “grey” has a completely different feel to it than “gray.”

      • I agree that different looks in words have a different feel, which is why changing even a couple of letters in a word can make a huge difference in the feel of it. The character whose name I recently had to change was Alyssa, and I had to change it because my MC has an A name, and it was too confusing having two A names in there. But I couldn’t change Alyssa to Lyssa, or Elissa, or Elyssa…because even if Elissa and Alyssa sound the same out loud, they have completely different “personalities.” (Oddly enough, she ended up as Mariah, which is nothing like Alyssa, but somehow, my brain was able to make that switch without losing the personality of the character. If that makes ANY sense.)

        I read your above comment about the small part of you now wishing you had given your daughters classic names–but I just have to say that I think your daughters’ names are fabulous. :D

      • I could see Lyssa working instead of Alyssa, but you’re right: Elyssa and Alyssa are completely different names. And I totally get that about Mariah instead of Alyssa not seeming to make sense to anyone else, but it worked for you. That’s how I feel about the current name for the MC of Wings of Song – the name doesn’t look/sound anything like Meggie OR Gwen, on the surface, but it combines them perfectly in my mind. Who knows why?

  4. After growing up not having anyone able to pronounce my name correctly, let alone spell it right, I vowed I would never do the same to my children. Then, we had Ladybug and gave her what is interestingly enough the least popular spelling of her name. Bart’s cousin has actually referred to her as a brand of makeup in the past.

    That said, I love her name. I love how it looks spelled out and I love the flow of her first a middle names. If we ever have a boy, we’ll probably still use our boy first name, since we haven’t changed choices since long before any of my pregnancies. We have ideas for girl names if they’re ever needed, but none are set in stone. I think Bart and I both mostly want to at least attempt not to use another “L” name as we both have siblings that at least go by names with the same first initials as our own.

    Also, we don’t want to give our children names where their initials will spell impolite words, as my parents did to my sister… no matter how it actually fits 41 years later. :)

    • Ha, that last bit makes me think of Magic for Marigold – when the relatives are considering naming the baby Harriet Ellen Louise Lesley, until Old Grandmother points out what the initials spell.

      • That was one of the considerations when we named our kids – a last name starting with O makes for interesting acronyms. We kept telling people we considered Zachariah Oscar or Zoe Olivia for baby names. :D
        But our last name is actually a big reason I picked simple, classic names for the kids – it’s hard enough to spell without adding a weird first name in there.

  5. I struggle with names! I want them to say something about my character, but also to feel organic. I also struggle with giving my secondary and tertiary characters “real life” names — after all, somebody’s got to be named Jennifer, not every character’s name can be beautiful and quirky…

    • Sometimes I think giving an “ordinary” name to a character makes their personality shine out even more. I mean, as much as Anne Shirley would have loved to be named Cordelia, would her personality have stood out as much if she weren’t named “plain” Anne? Or would Dorothy Gale’s adventures in Oz have been as remarkable if she had a quirky name? On the other hand, sometimes a story works if the character *does* have an extraordinary name in an ordinary setting, and then their life follows that pattern – extraordinary in an ordinary world. It’s all very complex, and choosing one path over the other can really shape the type of story you find yourself writing!

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