Writing
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The Importance of Names

Inspired to get back into writing by my dear friend, Kenny, who is himself embarking on an online journey of his own, I’ve been thinking about character names. The power of names and how they can define a character without ever having to describe the person. This is achieved by what one mentor, whose classes I took, said is the power name. A name made up of a first and last name that instantly tells a reader, oh, here’s a hero-type.

What you’re looking for is a combination of first and last name that give a lasting impression. So someone whose last name is Major sounds far more impressive than Smith or Jones. Pete Smith sounds as generic as they come, as does Deirdre Jones. Which are great names if you are looking for background characters, or someone’s best friend, sister, or cousin.

Of course, coming up with a ‘power’ names is all well and good, as is trying to nail down a title for your novel. But that’s a whole other post. Getting your character’s names to reflect who they are, isn’t always that easy. Oft times a name you might pick has already been taken, and used to good effect elsewhere. We’re all familiar with lots of well know novels featuring very distinctive characters, so to call your character Scarlet O’Hara is asking for trouble unless, that is, you are trying to say, here, look, this woman is the epitome of Scarlet from Gone With The Wind.

Most authors want to avoid the use of a too familiar name, or even, a name of someone real and still alive. I mean, do you want to call a character Donald Trump in today’s climate? You’re very likely to be dragged through litigation of some kind by the, eh, real Donald Trump.

And so it is, I’ve only just begun to plot out and put together my novel and already I’m started to hit a number of speed bumps. I want to set the novel here, in the province of Québec—specifically here in Québec City. Which means my characters need to sound genuine enough to be acceptable, never mind looking for a ‘power’ name for my main protagonist that will ring true.

Tramblay here is the equivalent of Smith in the UK, so Jean Tramblay is about as generic as you can get. And while Jean Tramblay might sound exotic to an outsider, anyone living here would think I’m talking about the clerk at the bank, or the guy that bags groceries.

Meanwhile, I’m thinking, Lucien Bouchard is a great name for a lead character. That said, however, he was also the Prime Minister of Québec and is still alive. That may be a little difficult to pull off.

Hmm…I think this is going to be a little more problematic than I first thought.

4 Comments

  1. Oh, choosing names is always a challenge, Alex. Not only is there the issue of the ‘power name’ (by the way, a really interesting point!), but there are other issues, too. One is, as you point out, the setting. A name needs to fit in with the setting, but still be distinctive. And, yes, it can’t be the name of a noted person. I’ve also found that it’s important to choose a name that isn’t a stereotype (e.g. not every native speaker of French must be called Jean(ne) or Marie). And here’s one more thing I ran into and had to face: name similarity. I’ve found it’s important that names of characters in a book can’t be too similar to one another (e.g. If there’s a character named Don, it’s not a good idea to have another character named Dan). It’s interesting how those details can really matter so much!

    • La Blonde says

      You nailed it, Margot, and know exactly what I’m talking about. So many writers fail to consider the levels of interplay between characters, their names, the story arcs, setting, and yes, dialogue. Each piece of the jigsaw must fit together perfectly otherwise you risk having a disjointed mess, that doesn’t flow. And there’s nothing worse than a jarring name, and yes, as you point out, similarities of name.

      I recently read Christina Kovac’s debut thriller, The Cutaway, which is about a TV news reporter chasing a story. It was a disaster, well, for me at least, it was. So many of the elements were not thought through, or fully-fleshed out, and the characters were paper thin. This was a 5-minute segment of the nightly NBC/CBS news that had been strung into a novel. I never did write a review, it would have been too critical.

      Details matter and are critical even down to the last name.

  2. Kenny says

    There’s a lot to gleam from a name. I love to scan for names when the credits run after a film, as the variety of names stirs my imagination. You’ve inspired me too, Alexandra. You’re a dear friend and a mentor to me. Now that I’m back online it’s time to let the voices visit more playgrounds, and I look forward to meet your characters roaming about in QC. Fun, fun, fun.

    • La Blonde says

      Oh, indeed, TV credits are a great source, Kenny, along with the telephone directory. Though the later is now going/gone the way of the dinosaurs. Graveyards are another interesting source, especially if you looking for something vintage.

      You’re a great friend to me too, Kenny, and to be called a mentor is humbling. Thank you. I hope we can continue to help and inspire one another in our latest writing adventures, and can’t wait to see what you’ve been up to these last few months.

      Let the voices have their say!

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