IT'S A TRAP!: Quirky Character Names

| Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Today's Tune: That's Not My Name

I have an idea for a series of posts, so here’s to hoping you like it!

IT’S A TRAP! entries are posts in which I discuss newbie writing mistakes that seem like a good idea at the time, but usually end in burning wreckage. I’ve made many of these mistakes myself and thankfully learned from them, but I needed a few years and wake-up calls to recognize them for what they were.

DISCLAIMER: there are aaaaalways exceptions. The topics discussed herein are not always mistakes. But most of the time they are *shifty eyes*

Quirky Character Names: IT’S A TRAP!

If you’re like me, you get a big kick out of naming your characters. You carefully consider the “right” name for your MC and other important persons. The name has to fit. It has to represent them. We want the reader to see it and go, “Wow, that’s the perfect name for this character!”

This is all well and good. THE TRAP! comes into play when you take The Naming way too far. Beware the following:

1.) Scouring name websites for the name meaning that illustrates your character’s True Self. I was such a sucker for this. I have a character that was born at an astronomically important time! I’ll name her Danika, which means “star!” She was born between an air sign and an earth sign, so her last name will be Tadivanda, which is a mish-mash of “wind” and “wanderer!” YES!

Don’t do this. Seriously. Your concept of your character’s “inner self” might not translate to your readers. It’s also very easy to punch a meaning into BabyNamesWorld and then pick the most exotic-looking name, even though there is NO WAY YOUR CHARACTER WOULD BE NAMED THAT NAME. They’re a Latino from the Bronx; they’re not going to be called Alkinoos.

Also: the audience is not going to run name meaning searches and theorize about why you named your character “Corinne” instead of “Jessica.” This is also a form of telling: you’re telling the reader who your character is (or how you want them to be perceived). Don’t.

2.) Likewise, naming a character after a profession, color, animal, or inanimate object as foreshadowing. You know what I mean. Naming a character “Wolfe” when they’re a werewolf, or “Watcher” when they’re the secret teacher/mentor. This is sooooooo cheesy, you guys. It is sometimes acceptable to do this in children’s or middle-grade literature, because kids enjoy making those connections and they’re less likely to catch on right away. If you do this in YA or adult literature, it is CHEESETASTIC and transparent.

3.) Making up totally off-the-wall names. A caveat: obviously, there are some genres where unique and author-created names are the norm. These tend to be genres such as fantasy and SF that create their own world where EVERYONE has an unusual name. This is fine. Expected, even.

Made-up names get sticky when a character has a weird name for no apparent reason in an environment where unique names aren’t commonplace. I know all of our MCs are super special and unique and all that, but that doesn’t mean we have to find The Most Unique Name in the World to bestow upon them for no other reason than THEY ARE SPECIAL, OKAY?
In a nutshell, if you are going to go with unusual names, everyone has to have one. If they don’t, your character will stick out like a sore thumb.

4.) Giving your character a name that is mainly attributed to the opposite sex. I don’t mean unisex nicknames like Chris for a girl and Jess for a boy. I mean naming your female character Steve and male character Bettie for no real reason. Maybe you’re trying to portray her as a tomboy and him as someone that is constantly belittled for being girly, but there are better ways to go about it.

I fell victim to this one. I nicknamed Danika “Danny” because… well, no real reason. Because it was quirky, see? She’s a girl with a boy’s name! Because she’s DIFFERENT! Yeah. Not really.

5.) Naming a character after yourself - nicknamed, spelled differently, or otherwise. I, uh, may have done this one, as well. Unless you’re going for something experimental or postmodern, this is a bad idea. You may be able to get away with it if your name is something SUPER common like John or Mary. Otherwise, the character will be compared to you, and people will assume you did it on purpose. Which you did, of course, since you know your own name.

It’s extra bad news if you make the character bearing your name WAY cooler than you are in real life. Not that I did that, or anything. BAD AUTHOR. BAD.

And there we have it. Naturally, I’m sure people will have 800+ examples where the preceding nitpicks were employed effectively, which is why I led with the admission that not every instance of these five naming strategies is a mistake.

I still maintain that most of the time, we’re not being as clever as we think we are. *Ducks tomatoes*


{ Shelley Sly } at: February 23, 2010 at 2:23 PM said...

Oh, I am such a sucker for quirky names. This post is for me. :-P

Question for you, though: In your opinion, what if the fact that the character has a weird name is explored in your writing. As in, the author doesn't ignore the name as if it's the elephant in the room, but instead have the characters talk about it ("What did you say his name was?" "Is that a real name?" etc.)

In case you couldn't guess, the above scenario is totally in my book. Er, both my books, now that I think about it. Great.

{ maybe genius } at: February 23, 2010 at 2:46 PM said...

Haha, me too, Shelley. Which is a big part of why I wrote this :D

I think if there is a *reason* why your character has a weird name that actually pertains to your story, you can get away with it. Something like "His mother named him Manolo to always remind him that his existence could have been easily traded for a good pair of shoes," or something.

Where I get wary is when a character has a bizarre name... just because the author thought they should. If that makes sense!

{ maybe genius } at: February 23, 2010 at 2:47 PM said...

Or I could say or something or something, LOL.

{ Christi Goddard } at: February 23, 2010 at 3:19 PM said...

Hey, I'm totally clever. Sorta.

Mine's fantasy, so I've got quirky names, but my humans have got realistic names. Naming is one of my favorite things to do.

{ Kate } at: February 23, 2010 at 7:38 PM said...

I admit I loved the names in Harry Potter. I, however, do not write fiction so I usually end up with names I might have, but didn't, give my own children.

{ maybe genius } at: February 23, 2010 at 8:16 PM said...

Ah, but Harry Potter was both middle-grade and fantasy, so it gets a pass :D

Christi - I love naming, too. Too much, obviously! Haha.

{ fairyhedgehog } at: February 24, 2010 at 5:38 AM said...

people will assume you did it on purpose. Which you did, of course, since you know your own name.

Wonderful! You make really good points.

{ jjdebenedictis } at: February 24, 2010 at 7:00 AM said...

I totally gave all my characters descriptive and oddball names in my WIP. I feel no shame!

Because I have 13 main characters. The reader needs some way to keep them all straight! I'm hoping that giving them obvious tags--like the knickname "MT" for the shallow guy--will help.

{ Carolina Valdez Miller } at: February 24, 2010 at 8:25 AM said...

Oh my, this was funny. Wish someone had passed this on to Suzanne Collins. I mean, really...Peeta? LOVED Hunger Games. Not so fond of the names.

I'll be cracking up all day at, "THEY ARE SPECIAL, OKAY?" Hahahaha!!

BTW, follower now ;)

{ Matthew Rush } at: March 5, 2010 at 2:17 PM said...

Great post, this is sage advice. I named a supporting character in my book after a famous Japanese samurai - Miyamoto Musashi. In my novel the characters first name was Miyamoto. It wasn't until I'd written half the book that I remembered Japanese people give the family name first ... so in English the famous samurai would be Musashi Miyamoto. Oops.

Then I realized naming him after a historic figure was kind of cheesy anyway. So I kept the first name and gave him a new but still authentic last name (he is Japanese in the book at least).

Just found your blog when you posted in Nathan Bransford's forum. Love it so far. Check mine out when you have a sec.


{ Sarah Enni } at: March 6, 2010 at 10:47 AM said...

Oh I am a sucker for this, big-time. My WiP is fantasy, but it's aimed at high-level YA, so I might need to do some re-thinking ... One thing someone told me at a workshop was that I should reconsider giving characters names that end in "S", as they are so annoying to make possessive. And of course this is correct, but I am so attached to James and Wes already!

Thanks for compiling all these reasons, it makes for a very convincing post!

{ Yamile } at: September 1, 2010 at 9:24 PM said...

My male MCs are named after my ex-boyfriends. But shhhh. Don't tell my husband ;-)

{ The Quick-Quotes Quill } at: December 27, 2013 at 4:14 AM said...

Hey! I loved your article. I came across it when I was searching for a name for my character who is a quirky but slightly shy and incredibly creative girl.
I was looking for an ordinary-ish but pretty name because my story is not a fantasy,
I came up with these:

Which one do you suggest?

{ S.E. Sinkhorn } at: December 27, 2013 at 7:51 AM said...

Oh gosh, this post is so old and embarrassing. Forgot I'd written it!

The Quick-Quotes Quill - I can't tell you what name suits your character. Only you know that :) Which of those names do YOU think fits her? Sometimes it helps to look up which names were popular during the year/decade your character would have been born.

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