Name Theory: Make it Matter to Make it Real

Some writers need to know their characters completely before they can name them. Other writers are inspired by a name to write a specific character. And still other writers blend the discovery/creation of a character with the naming.

Several writers commented to me that just by answering the questions I asked about their characters (childhood background, type of parents, career and characteristics, et al) they discovered more about the character and about the story. And that was good for my process, because I need to discover aspects of the character before I can name them, and discover still more in the process of naming them.

Whether you put the name before the characteristics, or the characteristics before the name, a writer often uses one to influence the other.

When I went to name one character I knew that her mother was dead and her step-mother felt she was an obstacle to the “perfect” family the step-mother wanted to create. I knew that her father was weak and in the background. I knew that she had been betrayed by her best girlfriend, and that the betrayal had led her to make a stupid choice for which she would suffer large consequences.

When I skimmed a list of names looking for her name, I was searching for a name that would embody all that she was and all that she could be in the story.

One name stood out. It was not the type of name I would have gone looking for. It was a frilliana name like Ariana that didn’t quite suite the character, until it did.

I wondered why she would have that name, until I discovered that her mother was an Italian artist and the opposite of what her step-mother was (WASP). I discovered that her step-mother made everyone call her Anna, because she liked classic names (although her father didn’t allow her name to be legally changed). And I discovered that the character was stuck between the two identities, Ariana and Anna, and that she had never quite discovered who she was in there.

The name is part of her journey to becoming herself.

And the naming was part of my journey to becoming that story’s writer.

When you name your characters I suggest you stay open to the influence the name could have on the character, and the influence the character could have on the name (a nickname?). Look to the words and names you choose to see how they can enliven the story and the characters you write. Use your language to express yourself, and discover how by making details like names matter you can make your story read as if it is real.

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