Saturday, September 10, 2011

What's in a Name?

“Timmy, look out!”

Think about your favorite books and movies. What kinds of names do the heroes and heroines sport? Usually it's not Timmy or Susie. Timmy doesn't inspire an image of rippling muscles or a bad-boy attitude. Susie makes me think of a little blonde girl with a basket of flowers and a kitten rather than a sex pot with mile-long legs. I'm not saying they're bad names or that there aren't even worthy characters with these names. 

I like to put a lot of thought into names. Sometimes a name will come to me and I know right off the bat what kind of person the character is. I kind of got on a biblical kick for a while. I'm a sucker for a Daniel, Jonah, or Benjamin. For the protagonist in my steampunk romance The Treasure Hunter's Lady, Abel Courte is the brash, devil-may-care cowboy hunting for a fabled jewel. Abel, historically, is known for being slain by his brother Cain because he was the favorite son. I like the way the name Abel rolls off the tongue. It makes me think this is a man capable of accomplishing great things. Heck, his name says it all. Short names are easy to remember and pleasing to the ears. I chose Courte because in French it means a fortified place. He's the safe person for my heroine to turn to.

The heroine is named Romancia Farrington, but everyone called her Romy. I knew from the start she'd be called Romy, but I needed it to be short for something else because her parents were British and I wanted it to be somewhat formal. Her parents, although I don't discuss it in the story, were very much in love, hence romance and also because it's steampunk, I wanted to give her an unusual name. And when I sought unusual, to date I don't know of any other characters named Romancia. I like to think it really suits her because she falls for Abel hard from the first kiss.

One of the characters I never intended to write a story for was a minor player in THL. A Dutch airship captain named Alwin van Buren. The setting for the first draft was Australia and because the Dutch were the first white people to discover the continent, I thought a Dutch captain was appropriate. In writing the second book in this series, The Sky Pirate's Wife, I discovered that while I whipped van Buren off the top of my head, it literally means, neighbor. Funnily enough, van Buren isn't very neighborly, preferring his own company to others, until he meets his match, Sophia Barnsworth. Alwin means arrow and from the moment he finds out that Sophie is the daughter of his arch enemy, he's determined to use her for revenge. He sets out on a path to get what he wants, much like an arrow flies straight to the target. I really picked his name at random, but he lived up to that part.

I like a good strong name, one that strikes fear into the hearts of bad guys everywhere. Typically, bad guys are called by their last names. For example, Kyle the rotten sheriff doesn't give me the image of a bad guy. Maybe a goofy one, but I'm not scared of Kyle or Mort or Steve. But if you let your hero say something like, “Damn you, Kline, you'll pay for that!”, you get that the hero really despises the antagonist, preferring not to call him by a given name, but by the last name. It makes them seem more sinister. I roll my eyes when I see a name that's descriptive of the baddie. Like Blackheart or Wormtongue. Sure, you get the immediate idea that this person is bad, but c'mon, use something original.

I used to use the website to pick a good monicker for my characters. While the site will tell you the meaning of the name, it doesn't give a reference to the time period when people commonly used it. I discovered and not only does it give meanings, it will tell you the language it was used in, alternate spellings and the time frame. Not for all names, of course, but for a good many. While writing a historical western romance for NaNoWriMo in 2009, I picked the names Cassie and Jacob for the main characters. It was set in the mid-1870s and Cassandra wasn't widely used in that time frame. It's Greek and was popular in medieval times, but you won't find many western women sporting it until the mid-1900s. Meh, I used it anyway because names that end with an 'e' sound are attractive to my ear. Jacob, interestingly enough, was largely Jewish and not very popular back then either. Which seems weird to me, because what about Jake on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman? I can think of several characters, either good or bad, called Jake in westerns.

The latest novel I'm working on, the third steampunk romance is called The Turncoat's Temptress. I knew the hero's name from the start. Ransom Shaw. A dashing Scot who risks his life to save kidnapped women and children for a living. Yes, it's kind of ironic that his name is Ransom. At a family reunion, I pointed out a sepia toned photo of a skinny man wearing angora wool chaps and a cowboy hat. My cousin told me the long-ago relation's name was Ransom. I adored it from the second I heard it. The temptress in the story is Evangeline, or Eva. I was really frustrated this time around because I have Romy, Sophie and I didn't want another woman's name that ended in an 'e' sound. I also have Abel and Alwin (even though Sophie's the only person who calls him that), so I didn't want a name that started with an 'a' either. I wanted it short. I've always been a fan of Evie, but there's that dratted 'e' sound again, so I compromised with Eva. It's a strong name and well-suited to an even-tempered, no-nonsense heroine who still has sex appeal because her given name is French and we all know how the French like to kiss.

So how do you pick your character names? Got any good websites with name lists? Am I the only one who goes into overdrive with meanings or do you like it when someone relates a name with your character's traits?


Brenda said...

Wow, awesome post.
I love the name Abel too. And Romy is an excellent name--one I haven't heard before.
Names are such a personal thing, aren't they? The names of my characters are....well, their names are their names. If I was asked to change them, it would be a hard thing to do. Their names just came to me--fast--no thinking really involved. Kinda like they were whispered into my brain.

Sheri Fredricks said...

Hi Allison ~

I played around with my characters' names & the spelling until I liked them. Rhycious, Kepor Hippolyte, Templar Khristos...I got name samples by googling certain nationality names lists, and then tweaking. But I've never heard of and will give it a try next time.

This is a great post!

Duckie said...

i think names are so important and i take on that task very seriously...i pick names that i like, and are NOT popular...timeless names..usually gaelic/ english...also names that didn't make the short list when my hubby an i were naming our kids

hotcha12 said...