Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Guest Author Karen Walters: What's in a Name? How Do You Name Your Characters
Karen lives on the edge of the Hill Country in South Central Texas with her husband and son and daughter. She is working on her first novel set during the Texas Revolution and is blogging about it at http://scratchesonlinen.wordpress.com
Take it away Karen...
Recently I was having lunch with a friend and she asked me how I came up with names for my characters.
I want my characters to stand out so I look for names that are just a little bit different from the common and popular. My work in progress GTT (Gone to Texas) is historical fiction set in 1835 – 36 and in order to transport the reader I need to make sure I settle on names one would expect for that time period.
Sources of names are everywhere. All we have to do is look and be open to the endless possibilities. There are phone books, census records, diocese records, and baby name books just to name a few, and all of these can be found within easy reach on the internet.
To settle on a particular name, I listen. Sometimes the name jumps out at me and sometimes I have to gather a list then narrow it down from there. Ultimately, though, I have to find the one that resonates deep within me.
GTT is a novel with three distinct story lines, each with their own main character: an anglo woman, a male slave and a male Tejano, or Texas born Mexican.
To find out the name for my main anglo character, I started out by searching the internet for 19th century female names. One site mentioned that the name Melina was used somewhere in the New England area during my time period. Melina. I liked it. Not only is it feminine and different but it also has a lot of promise. This character masquerades as a man so Melina can be shortened to Mel, which can be short for Melvin. Because it’s human nature that we only see what we want, or expect, to see, the combination of her shortened name and dress would lend itself to a male figure and no one would think otherwise.
Picking out the rest of her name was not difficult at all. Middle names are a dime a dozen so I picked Ann. Her last name, however, needed to be as strong as she was. Strong sounding names have hard sounds, such as “k,” “p,” and “t” so I settled on Parker. Melina Ann Parker. Say it out loud and see how it rolls off your tongue. Feminine, easy to pronounce and strong. Perfect.
Let us now turn to my main Tejano character. You would think that since I live in south central Texas I should have no problem with this one. Wrong. In my experience Hispanic parents typically gravitate to the more popular names when they name their children and since I wanted one that was different, I had to go on the hunt once again. This time I didn’t find anything I was happy with so I turned to one of the authors who inspired me to write historical fiction--James Michener. I picked up his book Texas, skimmed through it and lo and behold, I found what I was looking for. I combined the first name of one of his Tejano characters and the last name of that character’s maternal grandmother, then finished the process with further research on historical accuracy. Let me introduce to you--Benito Saldana.
Naming my slave character was the hardest. After much brainstorming, I consistently came up empty-handed. When this happens, I’ve learned that I have to wait until my character gives me their name so in the meantime I use what I call default names. BG stands for Bad Guy and GG is Good Guy. Not very original but I have to use something. Sometimes when the character is neither the good guy nor the bad guy, I use the letter “A” simply because it’s the first letter of the alphabet.
During the early to mid-19th century slaves were either referred to as negro, negress, or the other unmentionable "n" word so this time I used the letter “n.” I could have used the letter "s" for slave, but I wanted to use the term “negro” because that is what was used at this point in time. In addition, it would set me in my fictional world much better than the term “slave” would. That is very important when trying to figure out a character’s name. My next step was to sketch out one of his scenes. I sketched and sketched and all of a sudden there it is. Ebenezer.
These are not the only ways to develop character names. Sometimes we wake up knowing the name and sometimes we mix and match names of family and friends and even mix and match names of folks who are neither family nor friends. The options are endless. So you tell me, what’s in a name and how do you name your characters?