Or, What’s in a name.
Oh, character names. How I love them; how I loathe them.
Sometimes I have a very easy time coming up with a name for a character. This is usually when I have a character whose name is part of their story—such as Olivia and Viola from my Twelfth Night novellas, who were named that by their parents because they twins born on Twelfth Night, and named that by me (the author) because their stories were a twist on Shakespeare’s play. Other times the name is the base for the character; for example, I have always wanted to use the name Francis for a hero, because I simply like the name. To me a hero named “Francis” seems like a solid, respectable man on the surface who is a bit dashing or daring beneath, because that is what that name says to me (old school name that isn’t quite common enough to be meaningless, like John, with a bit of unexpected sexiness), so when I decided to write a hero fitting that description, voila, instant name.
But that’s the minority of naming situations. And I am obsessive about my names (I think it springs from having studied theatre, where names are always a big part of the character). I will sometimes not be able to write forward on a story if I do not have the right name. This happened to me with my current work in progress. The prologue and first couple scenes were from the heroine’s point of view. I debated not giving the hero’s pov until later in the story to avoid having to name him. But then I learned something about their first encounter that made his perspective seem necessary…and at that point I could not keep writing until I had his name.
Names are important. They are an integral part of an individual’s self-identity—either through identification with or rejection of the name, and through the way that name causes others in the world to interact with them.
Finding the right name for a character is hard. You have to find a name that evokes the right feel for your character, that carries no insurmountable cultural barriers (for example, using Adolf in a pre-WWII historical is still going to be a bad choice even if it was a common enough name in 19th century Germany), that is appropriate to the setting, and that works with the other names of the story. This last can be filtered into the real-life examinations of a romance (such as a Jim and a Kim not wanting to date each other because their names are so similar) or in friendship (such as Jo Beverley’s three heroes who are friends that all go by their last names because they all share the Christian name of George), or it can be viewed through the literary lens, that “Darcy” just sounds better partnered with “Elizabeth” than with “Jane.”
Even using the constraints of the place and time—which are of paramount importance in historicals, and I would think also in science fiction or fantasy—narrowing down the shortlist of “names that could reasonably be expected to occur in Napoleonic/Regency England” to one name that feels heroic enough, that feels sexy enough, that says something about either the character or his/her situation or family, can be hair-pullingly difficult.
So the thing to do is start adding additional constraints. Such as, “Hm, I now have three heroes whose first names start with A, so nothing that begins with A.” Look for plot moments that might hinge on the name—is there a situation in which two people of the same name are confused? If so, does it happen because the name is common or because it is unusual enough that no one would think to check if there was another person also of that name in the area?
With my new hero, my task was narrowed for me because I had already established the name of a character whose name could be mistaken for the hero’s. With Alexander Jameson to work from, I only had to look at names that could, if overheard, be taken for one part of that combination. This meant looking at Alex, Alec, and Alexander, as well as James and names with a long A sound that end with -son.
I came up with:
- Felix could be taken for Alex.
- Lysander could be taken for Alexander.
- Grayson could be a garbled Jameson.
- Jason would be a stretch, but also a possible Jameson cognate.
- James (obviously) was a very common first name…but it also yields common last names, and having both first names and surnames sound alike or share common elements would increase the likelihood of a believable mistake.
That was about where my brain stopped to sleep on matters. A five-name shortlist is manageable, and most of names on the list seemed viable candidates for a romance hero.
In the end the name I felt fit the best was Lysander. I tried James first (the thoughts about surname notwithstanding; after all, “Alexander” could also be a surname) but decided the name was just way too boring for this mister, who is another fun on the outside, serious on the inside type. After putting in James as a placeholder for about an afternoon, I picked out Lysander because it provided the closest delivery to Alexander when spoken. It could even yield the same nickname of “Xander.” My main objection to it was that Lysander is one of the men in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I don’t want everyone to think I will always make a Bard reference! But after sleeping on it for a night, I woke up confident that this hero’s name was Lysander.
My heroine’s name starting with an L didn’t hurt anything. In fact, they end up sharing the same initials—not intentionally, but once I tried that combination of their names together, I realized I’d nailed both of them down.
So now I can
rock and roll tango. On THIS story, at least….