ASK AUNTIE MJ: WHAT'S IN A NAME?

raggedyanndy asked you:

Let’s talk names. How do you choose your characters’ names? Any advice or resources for people looking for names? How important do you think it is to have the “right” names for characters?

Dear raggedyanndy,

Are you familiar with the quote, “Wherever you go, there you are”? It’s been attributed to many great minds over the millennia, but most famously to Buckaroo Bonzai, the title character of the 1984 film, The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai Across the 8th Dimension. Auntie MJ has a corollary to this: whatever you name your character, that is your character’s name. And I’ll add on this additional wisdom for no extra charge: naming a character is the most unimportant important thing you’ll do when writing your book.

Now I’ll give you a second to get a bucket to scoop up your mind, because I know I’ve blown it. 

Yes, naming characters is important. There is much to be said for a good name. We love Ebenezer Scrooge, Boo Radley, Bigger Thomas, Charlie Bucket, Sam Spade. There are double names like Humbert Humbert and Major Major. There are telling names like Dolores Umbrage and Sal Paradise and Billy Pilgrim and Holly Golightly. But many great characters have names that aren’t actually out of the ordinary. They’re just names. Jane Eyre. Willie Stark. Jay Gatsby. John Yossarian. Jake Barnes. Sally Bowles. Margaret Simon. Jim Dixon. I could go on FOREVER.

I could go on forever.

Telling names are usually found in children’s (middle grade and under) books and sci-fi and fantasy. They come from a world where the rules of naming are a little unhinged. We don’t normally get names that reveal our characters (and if we do, they tend to be nicknames). We infuse character names with meaning, because we take the name as a term and apply all we know about the character to that term. So Harry Potter takes on a whole set of meanings. But truth be told, we would feel the same way about Harry if he had been called Henry Palmer or Davey Duster or Sammy Finkus. Really. We would. 

(It seems worth noting here that J.K. Rowling is one of the great namers of all time, right up there with Dickens, I think. Harry Potter has the plainest name in the books; this is clearly done by design. He is the Everyboy, the kid from under the stairs who becomes the Boy Who Lived. The other characters get names like Ronald Weasley, Cornelius Fudge, Gregory Goyle, Bellatrix Lastrange, Pomona Sprout, Luna Lovegood, Gilderoy Lockhart … names that indicate something about the characters. But Harry … he could be anyone. That’s the point.)

So yes. Names are important. But naming is also a great timewaster—right up there with building the perfect playlist and organizing the pencils in order of size and sharpness. You can spend a LOT OF TIME looking for the “right name.” I think there is an impression that the RIGHT NAME will announce itself like a bolt of lightning and from that point on, your book will more or less write itself because you have found the MAGIC WORDS. You actually just pick a name and move on. 

In something like NaNoWriMo, the name thing can be a problem. Auntie MJ hears from many people who can’t seem to get anywhere because they can’t “find the right name.” I suggest you give this task A HALF AN HOUR. Go out and take a walk. You probably need a walk anyway. It’s good for you. Bring a pad of paper and a pen. Look around you. Look at street names. Look at names on mailboxes and trucks and signs. Look at objects around you. Mentally say what the things are called. Let your mind wander a bit. You want a name that’s appropriate, but most names are more or less appropriate. 

At the end of a half hour walk, go back inside and write down the first reasonably appropriate name that comes to mind and GO WITH IT. You can always change it later. Make obsessing about the name a SEPARATE TASK that you do on non-writing time. It’s a nice way to kill time when you are riding around in a car or on a subway or digging the hole to put the bodi … any other mindless daily task. But for now, give it 30 minutes and move on with the business of writing.

That is what I suggest as a way of dealing with this PROBLEM should it ARISE. You know, of course, that there is no RIGHT advice for writing? There is no CORRECT way of doing things? There are just suggestions, which you can follow or ignore AS YOU LIKE. Auntie MJ is only here to provide ideas.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to find my shovel.

Love,
Auntie MJ