Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Which came first . . . the character or the name?

The writers of The Office, yesterday, released a list of character names, of roles to be filled by celebrity cameos. The names of these new characters are exactly the sort of silly fun you'd expect from the show: Merv Bronte, Nellie Burtram, Robert California.

The writer/actress who plays Kelly Kipoor, Mindy Kaling, said in an article, "Naming new characters is one of the most fun times in a writers room... Takes a tiny, silly part of the brain!" (Can't you just see her saying that?)

I must say, though, I disagree. I've always found naming characters to be sort of stressful. You have to find that perfect name, the one that encapsulates their personality, their unique-ness. And of course, it has to feel just right.

We take our dog to a community park on Sunday mornings, and a family came with a St. Bernard puppy (ahh!) named Clarice. Clarice is huge because, well, a tiny St. Bernard puppy is already bigger than half the dogs there. She's got these paws that are too big for her, so she tumbles about, and her coat is all short and curly.

I thought Clarice was the most wonderful name for this dog. The family disagreed. They came the next Sunday and announced that Clarice had become Dolly. Before Clarice, it turns out, she had been something else. I'll be curious, next time I see them, if the dog's name has changed yet again.

When I asked what brought on the name change, the Dad said, "She just didn't feel like a Clarice."

This got me thinking. We want names to match up to personalities. But we never wait to select a name -- if we're assigning a name, be it to a pet, a child, or a character, we're choosing it before we have any sense of their personality.

I had the same reaction when we brought our puppy home. We'd chosen the name before we'd chosen her, and it took me weeks to get used to it. Now, of course, I can't imagine her as anything else. Even with the baby -- I asked the hubs last week if he thought we'd picked the right name. I said I didn't really think the name we picked fit him. The hubby said, "That's because he doesn't do anything. We'd have to call him 'eat, poop, cry' if we wanted a name that fit him."

The point I'm (slowly) getting to here is that the same is often true for our characters. We assign a name at the beginning of our acquaintance, when we're just starting to get to know them. There's been a couple times I've gotten lucky, and had a character appear with a perfectly suited name. But most of the time, I choose a name, mentally flipping through various choices, discarding ones that don't fit and collecting a few "maybe's" that still just don't feel quite right.

But just like I wanted to tell Clarice's owner to give her a chance to grow into her name, I've found I need to do the same with my characters. Get to know them a bit before I decide fully on a name. Or be willing to adjust the name as new facets of their personality emerge.

So how about you? Do your characters appear already named, or do you struggle to find one suitable? Do you change their name as you get to know them, or pick one and stick with it? Ever changed a pet's name? Anyone else totally want a St. Bernard now?


2nd Chance said...

Well, Bonnie came to us with another name I do not remember...

As for Let's talk about the male lead in my current book. Nathan, Sebastian...I considered's Daniel.

I was chattin' wit' the Bo'sun about this the other day and usually my heroine names come fully there and perfect. The heroes? Almost never.

Though I have a character in the Caribbean Spell never-ending-pirate-saga whose name was perfect. Bailey. Mr. Bailey. And I didn't give him a first name for volumes...until I finally did. Timothy. Timothy Bailey...doesn't that sound like a perfect name for, technically, the third in command of a pirate ship?

A craggy faced Irishman who is really sweet inside and the best friend a pirate captain could have. ;-) I love Timothy.

Donna said...

Hal, I feel bad for the poor dog that has a new name every week. She'll probably never respond since she'll think they're calling somebody else.

I don't usually have problems with my characters' names not fitting them. Sometimes the name comes first, sometimes it comes later--there's never a standardized process. LOL Sometimes it takes me a little while to realize they don't fit with their name, and then I have to fix that because it affects their personality, which affects the story and the direction it should go.

Whew! Who knew it would be such a big deal? LOL

Hellion said...

Absolutely my favorite blog line of the week:

I asked the hubs last week if he thought we’d picked the right name. I said I didn’t really think the name we picked fit him. The hubby said, “That’s because he doesn’t do anything. We’d have to call him ‘eat, poop, cry’ if we wanted a name that fit him.”

Your husband kills me.

I usually have to think about names. I mean, Adam and Eve came fully formed. You can't really change those. *LOL*

But I picked Elizabeth because I like the name and I like the meaning--both very much fit the story. And I like names that can be shortened to nicknames--so I keep calling Elizabeth Lizzie, which I'm sure she hates.

I picked Olivia because I wanted the nickname "Livie" (see the theme?); I picked Sophia once because of the name meaning and sound in my mouth when it's said (does it sound like a "sexy" name, a "beloved" name)--and the hero knows her from high school, where her nickname was "Sofa". I had a character named Nellie, because I had an aunt who died before I was born with that name and I thought it was a good name. Plus I thought it fit the time period of the story. It seemed like a small town name, but she is actually rather sophisticated and feminist. *shrugs*

Some names come later or get changed a lot. It is hard to pick names. I like to flip through baby books and find meanings. What is the story about? What is going to change? What name can I give my character that either reinforces my theme OR is completely ironic to my theme?

It's no secret I've never liked my name, but now my name and I have been together so long, I can't imagine being named anything else. Nothing else would fit me, I guess. Having a name that means "Free" is actually more fitting than I thought. :)

Hellion said...

Oh, and for men I usually seem to like to pick "manly" names, hard C's and dead sexy L's (like Luke, Lucian...) or J's--but the women, I like their names to start with vowels or have names that sound softer when they're said. I want my men hard and my women soft--and I want the names to reflect that. :)

Melissa said...

I like that example of the character list for cameo appearances on "The Office." It's perfect for a short term commitment and a clear idea of who that person "should" be. I guess that's the way I feel about secondary characters and it's much easier to pick a name with an idea of personality and let the name to TELL me what this character is going to be like. Or sometimes it's the opposite, like that example of calling a St. Bernard "Clarice." I love that contrast! One of my favorite characters I named "Percy" in the regency era and his contradictions with rather effeminate qualities and masculine, "hero worthy" qualities were the most fun.

But the main characters usually end up with less interesting names. I guess I just don't know with them at the outset and wind up with a standard name or the extent of my creativity is having a nickname represent the two sides of a characters personality or who they will turn into eventually. Like Elizabeth and Beth. Heck, even my own son got an "ordinary" name; Michael! I had no idea who he would be. :) He never turned into a "Mike" or "Mikey" in my mind, but lots of people assume he must be one of those. He also has a hispanic last name which has it's own interesting contradictions. Obviously, I find this a very interesting topic. :)

Melissa said...

Oh, looks like I have similar ideas with Hellie on shortened names!

Hal said...

2nd - you get your hero names fully formed and heroine's not (mostly)....that's fascinating. I'm going to keep track of this today, because I'm the same way. It's so much easier to name men for me as well.

I like that you started with Mr. Bailey (any comments, Marn? lol) and then added the first name after you got to know him. I do love Timothy Bailey - that's perfect for the character you described.

Marnee said...

I do think that Bailey's a good name. Yep, I definitely do.

*Big grin*

Hal said...

Donna - Sometimes it takes me a little while to realize they don’t fit with their name, and then I have to fix that because it affects their personality, which affects the story and the direction it should go.

Yes! And you wouldn't think a name would have that much influence! But it really does. I read a book once where I just knew the name was wrong for the character. The author didn't use it often ("She" more than anything else), but whenever the name was used, I seriously flinched. It was just so wrong. A great name - just completely wrong for that particular character. It made me wonder if the author had the same reaction, and just never changed it, or if I was alone in my certainty that that was not that woman's name

Marnee said...

I hate naming characters. Usually, I just stick with whatever I pick first. I try not to think about it too hard and then just pick something, hoping that my subconscious spits out what's going to feel right for the character. I'm not sure it's worked.

My current H/H are Annabelle (Belle) and James Cassity, Baron Cassity, but everyone calls him Cass. I'm not sure they fit. But that's what they are right now. I love the name James. The youngest DS's middle name is James. I think it's a good one but I'm not a fan of Jim or I'd have named him that as a first name.

Hal said...

Hellie - yeah, he's funny. I've never been a fan of my name either, especially the way it's spelled. I've spent huge chuncks of my life trying to get people to call me Nic (my middle name is Nicole). Now it's Hal, which I love, but it's only online people that use it. What is it about me and boy names?? lol.

What is the story about? What is going to change? What name can I give my character that either reinforces my theme OR is completely ironic to my theme?

I love this idea. Especially using a name ironic to the theme. In my current WIP, my heroine changed her name, from Molly to Naomi. I like it because Molly seems so sweet and frothy, the perfect girl-next-door name, which she was. When she turned into a bad-ass arms dealer, she went with Naomi, which is so much more sexy and sophisticated. And when someone slips and calls her "Mol" it's super disconcerting because she's changed so much.

Hal said...

Melissa, I'm with you and Hellie on shorten names. there's something very personal and intimate about a nick-name, that can show a lot between the characters. And I like your idea of two names that reflect different sides of the personality. Because we do all have those contradictions, and using distinguishable nick-names is a great way to show that.

I like that your Michael isn't a Mike or Mikey. We named our little one "Carter Michael" and already my FIL keeps calling him "Mike." It drives me nuts. I'm not 100% sure he's a Carter yet, but I know he's not a Mike! lol.

Marnee said...

Your FIL does that kind of stuff too?!

My FIL keeps calling my Ryan James Jimmy Boy. I didn't get it. Maybe it's a sickness FIL's catch.

Hal said...

Marn - I like James too, but not Jim. There's a lot of men's names like that, for me - Andrew, but not Andy; Marcus but not Mark.

I love how your heroine is almost protecting the name her family used, by using a different name as a courtesan with the Annabelle/Anna/Belle split.

Marnee said...

I have a lot of names like that too. William, but not Bill. Robert but not Bob. Matthew but not Matt.

Hal said...

ha! maybe it is. Jimmy boy? Uh, no. lol. Maybe it's just because those names, like Mike and Jim, were so much more popular in their generation. Carter may be too trendy for him :)

Marnee said...

I think Carter is an awesome name.

And I think my FIL is just being contrary. I think it still chafes him that we nicknamed my oldest. Since my FIL is the third and my oldest is the fifth, I think he was a little offended that we don't call him George, like he's called and like my DH is called.

I thought he'd be honored we called the little guy after him at all. But, I guess not.

Honestly, though, I have two Georges in my life. That's a sufficient amount of Georges. And I get confused so easily. I don't need a "who's on first" sort of exchange every time I'm yelling for someone.

Melissa said...

On nicknames, my family always called me Missy and I felt like a Missy much more than a Melissa. But when I switched schools in the third grade I was introduced as Melissa. I was too shy to correct the teacher and Melissa stuck for the rest of my life...which I didn't comprehend at the time would be a really long time. LOL I totally regret not speaking up. :)

Bosun said...

I'm loving this discussion.

My characters tend to introduce themselves, name and all. I did change the name of my heroine before starting the current WIP because I had Joe and Julianne and the two J's thing seemed like a bad idea. Took three tries to figure her out, but now she's Beth and it fits her quiet, unassuming demeanor perfectly.

She's actually Elizabeth to everyone who knows her, but she was Beth when she was young and that's how she introduces herself to Joe, so from then on, that's how he thinks of her.

I guess I'm lucky in that my characters show up with names and the lead is nice enough to also introduce me to his/her mate. In the next Pineville book, the heroine is Bridgit and the hero is Andrew. He's a cop and she likes to razz him so she calls him Officer Andy, which drives him nuts. :)

With pets, I like to get to know them and then give them a name. Dozer was exactly what his name implies. A Chow mix, he was always either sleeping (dozing) or charging through things (bull dozing!).

Bumblebee actually came with his name, but it was perfect for us more than for him. At the time, Kiddo and I were all about the first Transformers movie and we love Bumblebee. And he's orange and it just fits. Helps that he's freaking huge and Bumblebees are big.

Bosun said...

I don't know your little one, Hal, but from the pics I've seen online, he looks like a Carter to me. That's a great name.

When I named my daughter Isabelle, people told me over and over it was too old fashioned and she wouldn't like it. Someone went so far as to insist we should call her by here middle name, Malory, which was just silly.

You can imagine how validated I felt when in her fifth grade class alone there were five Isabelles, all with different spellings and different nicknames. LOL! The only thing I don't let people call her is Izzy, but she lets people get away with it.

I call her Is, her dad's family calls her Belle. She's very versatile. LOL! I'm actually Theresa, but I've been Terri from the beginning.

Melissa - I was much like you in school. I was always Theresa in school, and when my schoolmates found out around Jr High my name was Terri, they were almost offended that I'd never told them. LOL!

Hal said...

Melissa - that's hilarious! Totally should have spoken up :)

Hal said...

Marn! I think that's my FIL's problem too. He's Robert Michael, same as the hubs. So the FIL is Bob, the hubs is Rob, and to top it off, I have a brother who's Robbie. There's no nicknames left, short of Bobby, which I will not do to a child. I just didn't have room for another Robert in my life :) So he's Carter Michael, instead of Robert Michael, and hence my FIL will probably always call him Mike :)

Hal said...

Oh Ter, I adore her calling Andrew "Officer Andy." I've seen bits of Bridgit in the parts of your WIP I've read (I'm sorry - it's not personal, I just haven't gotten to read hardly anything recently!), and I can just see this playing out in my mind. Officer Andy. I'm still giggling :)

I like that your characters introduce both themselves and their partners. That's hella-convenient! And Bumblebee sounds like the perfect name for your cat. I adored Bumblebee in the first Transformers movie too :)

Marnee said...

See, I don't know about you, but I personally find this annoying. They had their chance to name their children. They called them whatever they wanted. This is OUR turn. If I wanted to name my sons Orville and Redenbacher, that's my right. I carried them in my person for months and months. My husband got some say in it because he helped put them there and had to tolerate me all those months, but any outside dialogue is completely unnecessary, I think.

Okay. Rant over.

Hal said...

Ah, thanks Ter! I love the name Isabelle - I had Isabella on my list for a girl. I can't believe people thought she should be Malory instead! Old-fashioned names for girls have always been favorites of mine. The classic names like Isabelle, Elizabeth, Sophia -- ironically all names which have been mentioned today. Apparently I'm not the only one!

I also find it interesting that in real life, we have different nick-names for different people, or different phases of our life. One name for school, one for family, one for friends.....I love that your daughter lets her friends call her Izzy.

Marnee said...

Tee hee. Officer Andy. :)

Bosun said...

I have a thing for boy names too, Hal. But oddly, didn't give one to my daughter. My mom is Joni pronounced Johnny. I have a future heroine (too many damn people running around in my head!) named Sidney and she goes by Sid.

Isabelle has always loved the classic names. Gave her dolls names like Victoria, Olivia, Emily. Now she names our vehicles. The Pontiac G6 is Chloe. LOL! My full size pick up with the killer 350 engine was Ashley. ;)

Marnee said...

I love old-fashioned girl names too. Like Margaret and Grace. Though, I suppose those names are coming back in fashion. They're good names though, so I can see why.

Bosun said...

Marn's name rant is hands down, best comment of the day. LOL! I know it's early, but that's going to be hard to top.

Speaking of the "too many of the same name" stuff, my cousin David is about to be a dad for the first time. He's going to name his son David. Meanwhile, my uncle, the cousin's father, is David. My other cousin, David's sister, is about to marry a guy named David.

WTH is wrong with these people?

Hellion said...

This is OUR turn. If I wanted to name my sons Orville and Redenbacher, that’s my right. I carried them in my person for months and months.

ROTFLMAO. OMG, I wish Wordpress had a LIKE button under comments. *LOL*

Bosun said...

Oh, I bet we could do that. LOL! Not that we'll figure out how, but still.

Now someone much use these names in a book!

Hal said...

Clohe and Ashley for vehicles - yes!! I drove a Ford mustang for years I'd named "Gus" after the chubby mouse in Cinderella. Then when the poor mustang died a calamitous death, I named his successor "Gus, Jr."

Hal said...

I could totally see naming two dogs Orville and Redenbacher

Or, the classic, Walker and Texas Ranger (sorry, Talledaga Nights was on TV this weekend :) )

Hal said...

I read a book once where the two dogs were Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. I loved it. They shortened the boy dog to Rosie, which lead to all sorts of confusion.

Melissa said...

It's interesting how many of us didn't exactly care for our given name and made (or didn't) make changes. But we're usually going for something "better." This reminds me of a short story by Flannery O'Connors of changing identity to something worse. I had to look it up, but here's where the mother describes her grown daughter:

It was hard for Mrs. Hopewell to realize that her child was thirty-two now and that for more than twenty years she had had only one leg. She thought of her still as a child because it tore her heart to think instead of the poor stout girl in her thirties who had never danced a step or had any normal good times. Her name was really Joy but she had had it legally changed. Mrs. Hopewell was certain that she had thought and thought until she had hit upon the ugliest name in the language. Then she had gone and had the beautiful name, Joy, changed without telling her mother until after she and done it. Her legal name was Hulga.

I notice now how Mrs. Hopewell's name fits too. Yes, this is a strange and grim story. Can you tell? LOL

Bosun said...

All my vehicles are female. It comes from growing up with a gear head for a father. LOL!

Orville worked for a Wright brother. And you could shorten Redenbacher to Red. Totally doable.

Melissa said...

Oops, that was Flannory O'Connor. No "s." (I'm in school mode of being paranoid of citing correctly. LOL)

Melissa said...

And then I spelled her first name wrong. I'm stopping now. LOL (And I'm off to my only class of the day. Lovely blog and it's been a fun visit. :))

Hal said...

From Joy to Hulga?? Wow, that is a change ;) I like Flannery O'Connor - I'll have to look that one up!

Bosun said...

So is she Helga? LOL! That does sound like an interesting story. Off-putting and heartbreaking, but interesting.

Have fun in class!

Melissa said...

Hal, the short story is "Good Country People."

Janga said...

My main characters usually come with names too. The heroine of my first ms. is Dori to everyone, but the hero calls her by her full name "Adora" when he speaks to her. The heroine of the current WIP is Zan now. I changed the name she started our with because she had a boy's name and the same beginning initial as one of her best friends. Zan is the fourth name she's had since then. I may change it again since I'm not fully happy with it.

I hated my name growing up. All my friends had ordinary first names like Ann and Peggy and Nancy and English, Irish, and Scottish last names. I had a weird first name and a German last name and loathed being different. My other identity--Janga--which started out as just a screen name on Squawk Radio, now feels so much like my romance writing identity that I plan to use it as my pen name.

Janga said...

I love "Good Country People"! All the names in the story are important. Hulga's lover, the Bible salesman, is Manly Pointer. Isn't that wonderful?

Hellion said...

My other identity–Janga–which started out as just a screen name on Squawk Radio, now feels so much like my romance writing identity that I plan to use it as my pen name.

Have the same problem. Except...Hellion doesn't sound very romancey does it? *LOL*

Bosun said...

Hellie Sinclair works. I think so anyway. You'll definitely stand out.

I love Janga as a penname. As I've said before, I should probably address you by your real name, but you'll always be Janga to me. :)

I intend to use my real name, mostly because I'm not sure I could learn to answer to anything else. LOL!

Janga said...

I like Hellie Sinclair!

I also like being addressed as Janga. It makes me feel less staid and aged. :)

Hal said...

Janga - I don't know your real name, so I can't compare, but you'll always be Janga to me :) I think it's a perfect pen name

I love the juxtaposition of Dori to Adora. They're so different - and "Adora" sounds sexy, even without the hot hero saying it!

Bosun said...

And Max IS hot, make no mistake about that. And damaged. And vulnerable. She's got it all. LOL!

2nd Chance said...

Wow, chatty morning! I actually found the name Bailey from me favorite drink, but I totally understand why Marn appreciates it!

I tend to like the full name for the guys, too. James, though for a little boy? Jimmy.

I was never Mo. There was a younger Maureen in the neighborhood and she got that one!

My Mom named my sister Jeannine and my grandma popped off with "I'll call her Jeannie." And my Mom said, "If I'd wanted her called Jeannie that's what I would have named her."

Don't cross Mom.

Janga? You still around? You won The Kraken's Mirror from my visit with the Lair the other day!

Janga said...

Yay! I missed that news. Thanks, Chance!