Wednesday, May 31, 2017

A Character By Any Other Name: Cheryl St.John

My stories don't begin to unfold until I've named my characters and named them correctly. How do I know if a name is right? I can't explain it. If their name is right, I can see the person. I can hear them talk. I can create scenes and situations for them. If a name is wrong, there is no story.

Whenever I get an idea for a character or a plot or theme, I grab my binder with my worksheets, a notebook and a couple of fun pens, a cup of tea, and make myself comfy on the sofa. I use a story grid to flesh out my characters' goals and motivations and the points of the story. But I use a stack of books and folders to find their names. I keep lists of everything, so of course I have lists of names I want to use. 

I have at least a dozen name books, a folder, a NY name index encyclopedia and a reverse name dictionary. I am not obsessive. I’m thorough.

Most important for me is that the character’s name sound like a real person—and a real person I'd want to know. It must be a name that I won't mind typing 400 times. I checked one of my books, and I’d used the hero's name 403 times. Sometimes I fall in love with a name, but it's tough to type quickly, so what I do is create an autocorrect for it in Word. For example, if the heroine's name is Elisabeth Ann, I create an auto correct so that each time I type in elsb+spacebar, it changes to the name I want.

Where do I get my lists of names? Lots of places. I'm an avid movie watcher and also check out the new season TV shows. If I sit with a notebook and a fun pen (notice how pens are required to be special?) I can call it work. So I watch every line of the credits and write down names I like. If I'm watching a movie, I'll take notes regarding what worked for me and what didn't. It's research. I save graduation programs, school band programs and baby name books. I’ve come home from many a burial with names from gravestones written on the back of my memorial folder. If you browse the library book sales and Friends of the Library sales, you can find vintage registers and books about county and state officers, townships, etc. filled with names. These type books often include maps with street names and businesses. Ship’s logs are a treasure trove of historical names.

What else is important when choosing a name? Sometimes nationality. Sometimes connotation: I probably wouldn't name a nuclear physicist Tiffany. No offense to any nuclear physicists named Tiffany, but it just wouldn't work for most of us. Tiffany is a teenager's best friend. On the other hand, you can go against stereotype, for instance naming an enormous woman Daisy or a tiny dog Rambo. It's confusing to the reader if two characters' names are similar or their names start with the same letter. Personally, I get lost if a writer does that. I catch that first letter and if they are two similar, my brain doesn't associate it quickly enough, so I constantly rethink and recheck to see who this person is and am jerked out of the story.

Here's how I prevent that confusion and others with names: For each book, I keep a 5x7 index card with all the characters' names handy. At the bottom I write the alphabet. Every time I use a letter in a first or last name I put a strike through a letter. Of course, I often use a letter two or three times, but some are for last names and others for secondary characters that won't be confused. I also create a "style sheet" for each book. This is a page or two that I turn in with the manuscript. It contains a list of all the character names and all the places, streets, businesses, proper nouns. This reference helps me in creation of the story and in turn helps the copy editor. Sure comes in mighty handy when I do a sequel!

Once or twice I've gotten hung up in the creation of my story in the planning stages or first chapters. The story person’s name had been nagging at me, because I never was quite sold on it. So I changed the name and the story took off. Once when I had revised a story proposal, taking out the hero and replacing him, I was completely stumped for a name and couldn't develop the guy. I held a contest on my blog to name him. As soon as I saw a particular name, I knew it was the right one. With his name in place, the character sprang to life.

I’m currently writing another installment to the Cowboy Creek continuity series, with fellow authors Sherri Shackelford and Karen Kirst. This one is Return to Cowboy Creek. We have a lot of fun figuring out the threads and how our characters in each book will interact. The Rancher’s Boomtown Bride is a working title right now, and it will be an April 2017 release. The main characters are Seth and Marigold. 

I don't like frivolous names or names that are difficult to pronounce. Even if I'm not reading aloud, I want to be able to know how to "think" it correctly. How about you? Is there anything you find distracting about a particular name or spelling of a name?

Do you like names plain or exotic? Did you ever think about how much work goes into naming an entire cast of characters?

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29 comments:

  1. Cheryl, thanks so much for sharing your secrets to naming your characters. I picked up some very useful tips that I plan to incorporate into my writing. For me, I prefer plain names over exotic, especially in writing. Great post.

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    1. Mary, so glad you enjoyed it! Names bring characters to life.

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    2. They do. If you have the wrong name for one of your characters then it throws the whole book off.

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  2. Oh, I so identify! Everything I write is character-driven. Until I have the characters, I have nothing, and when the name isn't right, nothing is right. One thing I'll add. I try very hard not to use the names of people I know. Too many times, people assume I've based a character on them if the name is too much the same. By the way, I keep detailed records, too. With nearly 100 books published, I have to!

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    1. That is an amazing backlist, Arlene! I'm right there with you. No name, no story. I don't use names of people I know either. Occasionally I've been given a continuity with the names already in place and I asked to change them.

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  3. Thanks for sharing how you name your characters. I feel that way about my main characters. I can't write until I understand my characters.

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  4. Yes, I don't like odd names in fiction. They always throw me while I'm reading.

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  5. I love the idea of sitting with a fun pen and a cup of tea to begin your story. It's fun to see how different authors choose names. I've had to change names before when I found Lily, Milly, and Minnie in the same book. Minnie became Irene, and the problem was solved. Thanks for sharing your creative process.

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    1. Angel, I've done that before too! Discovered later on that I had rhyming names--I once gave two secondary characters the same name. lol

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  6. Really interesting! Sometimes I figure out my character's names at the very start. Other times my character's names don't show up until the very last minute, when I'm working on the very last draft. I have an Excel spreadsheet where I keep a list of all my character's names for all my books. After my 5th book I realized that all my heroines names were somehow in alphabetical order (J, K, L, M, N) so I decided to keep it going and make the next two Olivia (Headline Murder) and Piper (Christmas Blackout). In each case the name really shaped the character.

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    1. That's crazy - you alphabetized your heroines without conscious thought.

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  7. This was very interesting and helpful! I do get distracted if I'm reading a book and I'm not sure how to pronounce or "think" the name, so I usually have to find out before I can keep reading. I usually have names that pop into my head, like the characters are naming themselves, and sometimes they are not even names I necessarily like.

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  8. So true! I'm glad I'm not the only obsessive, er, thorough writer. :) Thanks for sharing.

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  9. I struggle with coming up with names for every book. I love your idea to keep programs from recitals, etc. :)

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  10. I like the style sheet idea. My son is currently a substitute teacher, and has sold me on the wisdom of spelling names traditionally.

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    1. Wise advice. There are so many strange spellings, and I often wonder how children handle the difficult pronunciations in school.

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  11. I dream of keeping binders. I start binders. I lose binders. I find the binder two years later and think, "Oh, that would have been a great plot point!" Arg.

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  12. I loved this! I especially loved the idea of a notecard with names and the alphabet on it. Seriously. In my current edits, my editor asked me to change several names of minor characters. I had three characters with names beginning the letter "I". Oops.

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  13. That was very interesting, I picture you with colored pens everywhere. You mentioned finding names, I have been searching my family and have several relatives who all named the kids the same names. That is confusing, Jesse James, Patrick Henry, Francis (spelled several ways)Marion, Sarah, Elisabeth but one grandmother Marshann,had problems with her name being spelled different.

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    1. fascinating! And i DO have colored sharpies everywhere!

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  14. I thought I was the only one who watches the credits of movies for names. I simply can't move forward without the right name. I know when I've hit on it because the character will step right up and introduce him/herself to me.

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  15. Cheryl, I loved learning about the effort you put into naming your characters. I spend time getting mine right, as well. Like you, I once had a misnamed hero who didn't work...until I found his perfect name. Then he came alive. Glad to know I'm not the only one! :)

    I also use an alphabet chart to keep track of the characters in my story and the first letters of their names.

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  16. Early aviation pioneers in Nebraska had some interesting names: Loie, Encil, Eyer, Errold, Octave, Oakley, Jarvis, Calbraith - good company for Orville and Wilbur. You're right - these names are too unusual for a hero, but they might fit a secondary character.

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  17. I like all the ideas of how to come up with names and keep track of them. Thank you Cheryl for a great blog post. When I'm fighting a story I just keep coming up with names until the right one fits. I'm not organized enough to keep track of all the names in the book I always have to go back and look and see the names of the secondary characters. And alphabet chart or something would be very helpful.

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  18. I like figuring out character names but find myself searching for just the right one. Once I get the right name, I can write. The book I just finished came with a named character when the idea popped into my head. Never had that happen before!

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