on names

I have a Thing for names. I think it has a lot to do with having the most common girl’s name of my generation (yes, I am a Jennifer, and no, I don’t like being called that): I looked it up once at this app they have at the Social Security site, where you can see how common a name was back to . . . 1890, I think; and the year I was born, something like 30% of girls were also named Jennifer.

I’ve been collecting baby name books since I was in high school, though I haven’t bought any for a long time. Once you realize they’re not going to tell you anything your other half-a-dozen books have already told you, there’s not much point. I’ve branched out a little: I’ve got a book about names of places, cities and states and houses and so on; and a few collections of ethnic names, like one that’s all Irish names.

My favorites, though, are the Beyond Jennifer and Jason series by Rosenkrantz and Satran, because they focus more on the feel of a name instead of the meaning. It’s geared towards parents finding a name that suits their personal style, but it’s incredibly handy for a writer: if you want to convey a little characterization in a word, a name is a handy way to do it.

For instance, Dune. I’d wanted to name a character Dune Jericho for years, and when I realized that a kind of hippie-esque name would suit him best I knew I had to use that one. I feel that him having an usual name allows him a certain extent of freedom that other characters may not have: Ben, for instance, is very down-to-earth and traditional, in his way. I like the notion, though, of Dune having this unusual name and being perfectly comfortable with it, much the way he’s getting comfortable in his own skin as he develops.

Or with Shiloh. I knew a girl named Shiloh in college and I always thought it was so pretty and unusual. It’s a religious name—if I recall correctly it’s a city in Israel—but it’s not as common as something like Mary. (Which is a perfectly good name. I have a cousin named Mary and nothing else would suit her.) I wanted something that says, yes, tradition is important to this family, but they’ll still surprise you.

I often feel I don’t have a proper handle on a character until I have his name. Some characters go through many names until I find the right one—Jamie was originally Charlie and Micah was Jeremiah until I realized I didn’t want him to sound like a Puritan—and some name themselves, like earlier today when I was thinking about the next Arcana and realized one of the heroes is named Delaney, called Del. Why? Because that’s his name. No other reason, really.

Giving a character his or her name is often the moment they take shape and solidity for me. It’s always a good thing.

Naming a place is a little harder. A few weeks ago I realized I had never named Stuart’s chateau and would need to do that for the next novel, so I’ve got a list of wineries in one of my notebooks for ideas, and another list of possible names to figure out which one I like best.

When it comes down to it, naming a character or a place or a pet (fictional, though I have a list of names for my hypothetical cat when I’m ready to become Crazy Cat Lady, too) is mostly a question of feel, what feels right, how it expresses what I want to express about the character.

Or just because I like ‘em. I may name a character Cotton someday, just for that reason.

Mirrored from Jenna Jones.com.

Leave a Reply