Name Theory: Tonality

Sometimes character naming can come down to “Just the facts, Ma’am.”

Sometimes it needs something a little less tangible.

While re-reading this week’s character naming I felt like I was missing something. The writer had given me the information I asked for, but not anything more. I don’t know anything about the plot, anything about the world, or even enough of the writer’s naming style to fake it.

There is something about this writer’s book that I especially could have used when I attempted to name this character—the novel’s tone.

How does this writer plan to pursue this novel? Who are the target readers? How does this writer hope to get across the theme of this novel?

Is this going to be a dark paranormal romance, or a coming-of-age story couched in fantasy clothing, or a fantastical adventure story?

Is this story going to be humorous, or have elements of horror? Is this a “normal” world with fantasy elements, or is this a fantasy world hidden among us?

What did the character and/or her mother know of the fantasy elements before the story begins?

Any and all of this information would have given me a better understanding of what types of names would be most appropriate to the story. If her mother, for instance, was naming a girl who she knew would be a white tigers then the name Bianca would have been a way of trait naming. There are many “if”s that all relate back to the novel’s tone. Without it I was left to offer a range of options that may have been perfect and may have been off mark. With the tone I could have narrowed my search and came up with a better set of names that would give readers a feeling for the story, the character, and her arc.

If you are stuck on naming a character, think about your novel’s tone. Consider how different types of names might feel to your target readers and aim to choose a name that will resonate with your tone.

Name Theory: Being Marlo

I wasn’t one of the Lisas, or Julias, or Melissas growing up. In fact my name rather than ending in the feminine “a” ends in the masculine “o”.

Having an unusual name in the years when every other kid had a “normal” name was only one of the things that made me feel odd—but it was the one thing that struck me every day. Every time someone said my name I was reminded that I was different.

At that time I didn’t like that. And while I have grown to accept that I am different, that that is who I am, my name still reminds me that I will never be one of the Jennifers, or Taras, or Megans.

I have never met another Marlo. I don’t know if I ever will. At this point it is becoming increasingly likely that if I do meet another Marlo she will be an infant or small child.

Now in the age of “rare” names my name is becoming more popular than it has been. This still does not make me feel “normal”, but rather makes me think that I’m less “special” but still odd.

It’s all very complicated. My feelings about my name are complicated, but that’s how names are.

Names have different feelings and meanings for their hearers and their wearers. Names are titles that stand for specific individuals and must somehow encapsulate their essence, while still not really having anything to do with them.

That’s the thing there, isn’t it? While my name means “me”, it was given to me before anyone ever knew who I was to be. So it may not define me so much as I have come to define it.

I am not the same person I would have been if my mother had named me Jenny (the other name in the running for a girl, because my boy name would have been Miles). I am Marlo, and that is all I can ever see myself being.

Even if my 5-year-old name change to Candy had stuck I would forever be a Marlo at heart.

Name Theory: “Meanings”

Names can have a different feel to people based on their experience of the name. I personally have two very close friends with the same name, and know two very difficult people with the same name—and now those two names are tied up in those associations.

For writers this can be good, as when a name’s associations are cultural and will “mean” the same thing to readers, or bad, as when the writers’ associations are extremely personal and the writer makes the mistake of thinking their feelings are universal.

I’m sure I do this. Some names I think of as ugly, or weird, or dated. I have to keep reading up on names to keep up with the trends in name fashion, but I know not everyone will do this.

As writers, however, we all need to be aware of our prejudices so that what we write will resonate with readers—rather than be so dissonant that the reader is taken out of the story. As I like to say, the suspension of disbelief will only go so far.

Part of the reason why I suggest five names to writers is because I know my associations won’t always match their associations, or that my preferences won’t match their preferences. This week I suggested Katherine for a character, and the writer liked the name—but that does not mean it was chosen for the same reason I suggested it.

Name fashion, like language, is fluid and changing. I try to roll with the tide. Won’t you come with me?


Here’s a little game for you (don’t guess if you know me in real life):

  • Which one of these is the name of two of my best friends?
  • Which is the name of a few bitchy girls I went to high school with?
  • Which is the name of two difficult women I know?
  • Judy
  • Tara
  • Lisa

Name Theory: Giving Thanks for the Vision

Sometimes I am blind. I don’t see what is right in front of me on the page. I read my words and I don’t see glaring mistakes, or I don’t see where I haven’t written enough for the reader to see what I see, or what have you.

Writers are too close to their own work, and it is too alive for them to be completely objective. Writers need to rely on others to help them discern where they need to work on their work—whether those others be editors, crit partners, or people who comment on what they have posted online.

Be thankful for the “vision” of readers. Be thankful for their suggestions and opinions. Be thankful for their desire to help.

Every reader’s opinion matters, to an extent.

I am thankful for the woman who kept trying to change the “voice” of my writing, because she also pointed out some glaring mistakes that others didn’t—things that I would not have seen on my own.

I am thankful for the woman who gets all flustered at my suggestions, but does the same for me. Her questions make me think about my story in a new way, and will help my rewrites lead to a more effective story.

I am thankful for the wonderful writer and dedicated editor of her own work who inspires me by her example, and by her keep no darlings attitude. I don’t always agree with her, but I always respect her.

I am thankful for anyone who listens to me drone on about my writing, my characters, my plot, and my process. I love you all for it.

To you and yours: Happy Thanksgiving, Happy Hanukkah, and Happy Thanksgivukkah.

Name Theory: Vamping for Names

Vampires aren’t as big as they used to be.

For a while werewolves were making a run for the money, but that went to the dogs. Then came zombies, and they are still rambling along. Angels were big for about a moment, but then they flew away. Aliens were tried, but never really landed. Fairies are still trying to take off.

Still vampires creep around in the darkness. They are not favorites of agents and publishers, but they still hold some of the market. And they are very much alive and well in self-publishing.

Readers are still enthralled with paranormal. Readers of romance especially have always been looking for a bit of fantasy mixed with their real-life aspirations, so these larger than life paranormal characters still attract those readers. And, you must remember, romance readers can be voracious.

Some may believe paranormal is trite, but as long as vampires sell I will name them. Send me your blood-drinkers, your demons, and fiends. They are much more exciting to name than every Tom, Dick, or Harry.

Name Theory: It Matters What You Feel

It doesn’t matter what I think, it matters what you feel.

Sometimes I have to repeat it to myself.

It doesn’t matter what I think, it matters what you feel.

I say this to myself when a writer I know makes choices that I don’t agree with or understand.

Sometimes it’s easy for me to say, because I trust the writer or because there is much about the plot that I don’t know and can’t judge. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to say, because I think the writer is being blind to problems or ignoring readers (I know one writer who “doesn’t care” if her dialect writing is unreadable or if her descriptions make no sense).

Sometimes, I know it doesn’t matter to me but it matters to them.

Would I have chosen the names Jasmine, Winster, and Isabel? No, not at all. Does it matter to me? Not really, I can see them working. Does it matter to the writer? Yes; they are the writer’s babies.

It doesn’t matter that I think Princess Jasmine is too fraught with associations to be used as this character’s name, it matters that the writer feels this is the best name for the character. And, I don’t know, but the name could have meaning within the story, or the character could be called a nickname that will negate the association, or the character could be so different that readers won’t think about the Disney princess at all.

As a writer, you have to judge the criticism you get from others. Does it matter what they think, or does it matter what you feel? Sometimes, you have to give in (especially if multiple people say they can’t understand your description!), but most often you will have to go with your gut and trust in your choices.

Write the story you love. Edit the story as much as it needs, but no more. Keep true to your vision, and you will find readers who love it as much as you do.

Name Theory: Name-Build Skill

Even through my protestation that I am not good a creating names, did you notice the name variation I stumbled upon in this week’s naming?

I didn’t notice it myself until I was writing the blog post.


That’s not the name I meant to write. I meant to write Julius, and my twisted spelling happened to be a different pronunciation and thereby a variation on the name.


On purpose it can be more difficult to create names that are easy to read, easily pronounceable, believable, consistent (with the other names used), and NOT already a real name somewhere.

This week’s writer had a bit of a gift for it.

Elaenine is pretty clearly a variation on Elaine, and a very pretty Fantasy variation it is.

Ennilfeth is probably a much less clear variation on Jennifer, but interesting nonetheless.

Mannurnon seems as though it is a cross between Mannur (a boy’s name of unknown meaning) and Manon (a girl’s name). It sounds male, and strong, and perfect for a Steampunk King.

As with many Fantasy names, these tend to be long and a bit complicated (still readable, though), as short and simple names sound less fantastical and tend to be more likely to already exist as names.

Creating names takes a bit of creativity, some style, and a lot of determination. You must use sounds from “real” names and put them together in a logical way that will sound believable to readers, but the name has to remain something hitherto unknown.

If you write Fantasy, if you world build, name creation is a skill that you ought to develop for yourself. No one else will be able to create just the right name for your world as you will. Certainly, the best I was able to do was recreate the variation Julious (one of my best name creations, I am sad to admit). I bet you could do better than that!

Name Theory: The Name of the Day is NaNoWriMo

The name of the day is NaNoWriMo.

This November I will be participating in my 4th NaNoWriMo. For those of you who are uninitiated, NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month, an online challenge to write 50,000 words towards a new novel (rather than continuing a project).

Many people take NaNoWriMo as a word challenge, and write outlandish stories in their quest to conquer their daily/weekly/monthly word-count goal. Others take it as a first draft challenge, and try to write to plot and/or character. I’m in the later camp.

While I’m certainly not a pantser (someone who writes by the seat of her pants), I’m not entirely a plotter either. I know a few characters (all well-named), and I know some planned events, but the story mostly takes shape in the writing.

Really, NaNoWriMo is anything you make it. Rebellion is afoot amongst writers who chose to write memoir, finish a previously begun novel, write a series of short stories, or pound out that How To book they have a brilliant idea for.

The challenge is to write, to commit to your writing, to get out the story of your heart. I dare you to take the challenge yourself. Starting at midnight tomorrow with the very beginning of November, write your heart out. Put your words into the world and onto the page. I promise you’ll be glad you did.

Name Theory: Names as Cultural Short-Hand

Some names seem sexy, or classy, or pert. Some names have a definite image attached to them, either by sound or by association.

But associations can be tarnished by experience.

Character namer:  Know thyself!

If you think Horace is the sexiest name in the world, because the one Horace you know is sexy, you are name biased.

If you think Tara is an exotic name for a sultry character, you may have a name prejudice that readers will not share.

If you think Aiden is a cool and interesting name that no one has heard about, you might have missed out on some cultural knowledge.

Maybe no one else would think Miryam is a cool/sexy/alternative name, as I do. Maybe it would be more generally considered nerdy/clunky/foreign by the general populace. Maybe I get it wrong, sometimes.

But that’s why I give options to writers; that’s why I give a list of choices. I know I have biases, and no matter how hard I try to think neutrally about names, I know sometimes my personal opinions will confuse my judgment.

Consider your readers, and their general associations of names. Don’t chose names only based on your experience of them, but on how they will most often be perceived by others. Remember that character names are a kind of linguistic short-hand that we use with our readers, and we need to make sure that our meaning is understood.

Name Theory: All Major Characters

Sometimes, as part of character development, I try to think about the story from another character’s perspective. I believe that every character, like every person, is the lead in his or her story.

The characters we, as writers, choose to tell our stories through are usually the heroes or heroines, or the most damaged, or somehow “special”. But every character should be special, and every character should have something to add.

It’s crossed my mind that my stories could be told from another perspective—from the sidekick’s perspective. In fact, I have a novel idea that I plan to tell from the sidekick’s perspective.

Still, even when the story is told from the perspective of one character, the other characters should be full enough in the reader’s minds that they are left wondering what those characters are doing off page.

Challenge yourself to write full characters, ones who live and breathe, who inspire readers to wonder. And remember to name each one as though they were the lead character in their own story—because, they are.