Thursday, July 28, 2011

Names Out Of A Hat

By Jay Stringer

Had an interesting chat with Joelle over the twitters this week. Or was it last week? It was some point this year I'm sure. Or last.

Anyway, we had a chat.

I've been working on the latest draft of my adventure novel. I'm loving how far it's taking me from what regular readers will know of as 'my patch,' and is a world away from the crime fiction I usually write. It's been a blast, but it also brings with it new ways of writing, new challenges.

In my crime fiction names are easy. Firstly, I usually hear a characters voice long before I get round to describing what they look like or what they do, and somehow names seem to follow on easily from that approach. I also tend to use footballers names, if I'm looking for a stop gap that's a simple one to use, and there are plenty of those to adapt and play with. The other thing that stems from my stories set in the midlands is that I'm often fictionalising people and places that I know, a lot of the people in my first two crime books are almost real. I've maybe swapped a few letters around, or taken two people that I know and swapped their names, so a character has the name of one person but the background of another.

Naming has never been an issue.

But with my adventure story I'm writing a different way. I'm having a go at planning out my act structures, I'm looking at plot with a capital P, and I know what roles need filling. Sometimes I'll have a person's role before I have their character. It's not a way I would like to write all the time, but it's fun as part of the yin yang bouncing that brain does between two different projects, and it keeps things fresh.

The problem is, I keep tripping up over names. My protagonist is set in stone. I know her name, I know her character, I know her. The rest of the cast can be a bit fluid, they change names, they change roles, they move around on the board while I look for just the right combination.

For instance, one character is my take on a certain kind of film and pulp staple, a lovable rogue, the Han Solo or Jim Rockford. And so to help me find the characters voice, and to make it different from a similar character I had just written in a much harsher light for my 'realistic' crime fiction, I cast an actor in my head, and then I named the character after one of that actor's most famous roles.

It was an interesting exercise, and one that gave me the characters voice straight away. I now know how he talks, what facial expressions he pulls, what his sense of humour is. But the name had to go. It was too obvious, too on the nose.

Joelle talked about using facebook. But I don't think that quite works for me. Whilst use real people and real names as inspiration in my crime fiction, I find it holds me back in this other style. For the first draft I named a character after a friend of mine, but then I found that, when writing dialogue, I kept getting stuck n the trap of, would my friend say this and forgetting that it should be would my character say this. I was simply writing the guy I knew. So, it was working exactly the same way as using the actor, but it was holding the character back instead of letting him find his feet.

So, how about you guys? What tricks do you use for naming your people, and how does that help you find out who they are?


Gerald So said...

I usually don't name my characters after anyone I know, for some of the reasons you mention. I don't want to associate characters with real people.

Other than that, I don't fret much over names. I use the name that first comes to me, and if I think I need to change it later, I do.

I believe characters make names exciting. Ian Fleming picked "James Bond" because he wanted a plain-sounding name, and yet today everyone associates Bond with high adventure. The same might be said of Han Solo.

Make the characters interesting and they will draw readers, no matter what their names are.

John McFetridge said...

Usually I start with the character's age and look at what names were popular when they were born.

And then I name them after my friends.

Dana King said...

My last couple of projects took place in a fictionalized version of my home town, which is heavily ethnic. (German, Italian, Irish, and Eastern European.) I wanted the names to complement the sense of place, so I dug out my old high school yearbook.

Al Tucher said...

Like Dana, I take cues from my setting. I use mostly Slavic or Italian names, because they're authentically North Jersey, and I've been hearing them all my life.

Scott D. Parker said...

When I come upon the first instance of a character, I look around my writing room at books or magazine articles, take two names, mash them together, and see if they work. A character's last name in my Harry Truman novel was named after the chancellor whose name appeared on my diploma. My goal is usually to use them as placeholders, but then they start becoming those names. My western railroad detective, Calvin Carter, is partly named b/c I have collections of Calvin and Hobbes comic strips.