Tuesday, September 1, 2020

2020 - September - Naming Characters


Part 9 of 12  of Job titles for Story Characters • © 2020 All Rights Reserved

Your choice of monikers for heroes, heroines, and heavies often sets the tone for everything that follows, shaping audience perceptions of the characters before your people have a chance to hit their stride.  - Author Michael Newton 

Few writers know about psycholinguistics. The definition is mind-boggling in and of itself so let me give you the simplified definition: sounds affect the way we behave and act or react in the world. 

For instance, hear the hiss of a snake and our primordial conditioning that vipers can kill us has us instantly on alert and afraid — or terrified, or panicked to the point of immobility. On the other hand, if we hear a baby giggling, we have this feeling of contentment, that all is right with the world.

Such reactions to sounds happen instinctively, down on the subconscious level. But some name-sounds can also elicit a conscious reaction, like laughter at a person's named Katz Meow, or Iona Bra, which, by the way, are actual names of real people.

Another factor about sounds is reading words, i.e., seeing a name. When reading a name and in the process of looking at the letters in that name there is both a conscious and subconscious emotional reaction to those letters and the word they form. 

This is especially so when listening to the pronunciation by syllables of a name. Pronunciation affects the interpretation and sorts the name into a feeling that the name-word is positive, negative, or neutral. Here's a tip, the easier it is to see and sound out the name of the story's main characters, the more enjoyable the story becomes for the reader and writer. We're not talking Dick and Jane simple. We're talking James Bond versus Mister Mxyzptlk (of Superman fame).

Here's a secret to ensure a better story— heroes need positive names, villains need negative names, and all other characters in a story who have a name fall under the neutral name classification. This is another reason why having a Master Word List or Style Sheet for a story is important (refer to August's post about word lists or look at examples here.  https://www.writerscheatsheets.com/free-writers-cheat-sheets.html

Yet, far too many writers feel they can "make up a name" for their characters. The truth is that millions of names already exist. And do consider that every person has been exposed to thousands of names from the womb to school, on the job, at leisure, and in being exposed to hours of video, TV, movies, musicians, and print media (books, magazines, and newspapers). Such names are filed deep in the subconscious along with a reference to the name, or filed with the characteristics (archetype) of a person with such a name. 

Of course, there are name generators you can find online, but again, what is the psycholinguistics of such made-up names? Keep in mind that whether it's a person's name, an animal's, a place's, a thing's, a gizmo's, a weapon's, etc., all those names solicit (consciously or subconsciously) a reaction (a feeling) that will be positive, negative, or neutral. 

The most enduring of people names (those passed down through the generations) have imagery and characteristic associations (tags and traits), which makes them archetype names. For instance, these are powerful archetype hero/heroine names: James, Sarah, Jacob, Adam, Michael, Jillian.

Let me stress that it's not about stereotype but archetype.

Archetype names better resonate with readers. For instance, Margaret Mitchell first thought of calling Scarlet O'Hara of Gone With the Wind Pansy O'Hara. I'll bet when you saw Pansy, you envisioned a Milquetoast personality. But Scarlet? Didn't you see the fire and flare that goes with the resonance of the noise of her name?

Mitchell wasn't the only one who changed the name of their lead characters. How about— Sherringford Holmes changed to Sherlock Holmes and Luke Starkiller to Luke Skywalker? Which means, a writer should not entirely trust the source of a name, be the source their own subconscious or their conscious effort to invent a name. Every major character's name needs to be checked before writing the draft. That's right, before writing a draft. That will save hours of edits and rewriting to change the name. 

As a matter of fact, the appropriateness of all names used in a story should be analyzed — be it a machine, a street, an animal, a weapon, etc.  Ask: how does the "name" look? How is it spelled? How easy is it to sound out? Does the name come with tags and traits that make the character easily identifiable? Does the name have a positive, negative, or neutral vibe? 

Next Month  —October - Character Tags and Traits


Janet said...

Pansy O'Hara, Sherringford Holmes, and Luke Skykiller convinced me. The right name matters.

Catherine said...

Indeed it does. Thanks for commenting, Janet. Have a great day.

Carol Schoenig said...

Hi Catherine

I found this blog really interesting. I never really thought about the noise names make. I do go to baby name websites or meaning and origin of names and try to think of my character.

Recently, I was searching for a female namme for a cowgirl. I chose Sierra, but after reading your article, I may need to change it.

Could you please provide information where we can research these names other than websites?

Thank you and I will be passing the info along with recommendations to your site.

Take care!

Suzanne said...

This was very interesting.

Catherine said...

Hi, Carol,

On the surface, Sierra sounds like a cowgirl name that would work for a female protagonist. However, a person with that name's tags and traits are not instantly recognizable, so that means it is not an archetype name.

The name is also problematic because it has three different meanings: l) Sierra is Irish for "black," 2) the Spanish meaning is "saw-toothed," and 3) the Sierras are a geological formation (mountains). FYI: Often the mountain connotation nets strength and grounded-ness.

The name is also "modern," like 1967 was the first reference I got when I did a very quick google search for the name. Should you change her name? Only you can determine that. Just realizing the name isn't one instantly recognizable, you know you'll have your work cut out for you. If you keep the name, you must scrutinize her "heroic" tags and traits, which must be believable and consistent so the reader accepts Sierra as a "real person." More work, but it might be worth it. Like I said, only you can determine that.

Now, on to your other question. Although I will google names to be sure they don't belong to a porn star or some serial killer, etc., I really avoid online name sites. Partly because millions of writers are using the baby name and other name-generating sites. Please realize anyone using the internet for a name search is tapping into the same name pools, which have a limited number of names. I prefer vetting out my character's name meanings with books like 100,000 BABY NAMES by Bruce Lansky. By the way, Lansky uses REAL birth certificate names (and I've never seen any website that can boast 100,000 real names).

I also consult THE WRITER'S DIGEST CHARACTER NAMING SOURCEBOOK. It has 359 pages of listed names and meanings as well as names sorted into nationalities. Many of the names are really "old" and "myth" names, which comes in handy when writing sci-fi or fantasy.

In my opinion, both books should be on any fiction writers reference shelf.

I also have six other books on my shelves that deal with names. Sadly most are out of print. Or, if available, some are outrageously priced. For example, a hardcover book I bought in 2004 for $29.95 is now available as a paperback for $304. Do keep a watchful eye when you go to library book sales. You never know what gems you'll find on naming or names.

I wish you success with your writing and with finding the right name for all your story characters,

PS - check out "The Noise of Their Name," which covers all aspects of naming story characters, things, weapons, medicines, gadgets, tools, machinery, etc. The link is http://www.rimstoneconceptsllc.com/The-Noise-of-Their-Name-a-Fiction-Writing-Course-PUB-1300-NoiseOfName-00.htm

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Catherine said...

Thanks, Suzanne, for commenting and I hope you'll continue learning all you can about writing well and telling a story well. :)