9/22/09

WTT: You Can't Name a White Girl LaQuisha

—unless you have a really, really, really good reason and it better be an integral part of the storyline. Not just something made up as an excuse to have a unique and cutesy name.

Naming characters is important to your story and to your character development. You don't want to spend weeks on it, but you also don't want to just pull a name out of a hat and slap it on your character (even though my parents did that to one of my sisters).

One of the issues I've had lately (over the last 10 years) is weird names for the sake of being unique. I know this is a case of art reflecting life—I shudder at some of the names that show up on the Primary class rolls. But still, you're not naming someone in real life. You're naming a fictional character. You want something unique enough that it will be memorable, but not so weird that it pulls the reader out of the story every time they see it.

Here are 10 things to consider when naming characters (not necessarily in order of importance). When you break these rules/suggestions, you must do it for a really good reason that works with your story, not against it.
  1. Personality. I just read Vampire Academy last week and the main character's name is Rose. It was not a good fit for me—too soft and sweet, even though this girl was definitely beautiful but with a thorny side to her personality. Every time I saw it, it pulled me out of the story line. Your name needs to fit the personality of the character. If you've got a vibrant, fun-loving character, something short and unique is a better choice than something long and traditional. If your character is morose, pick a name that's slow and languid.

  2. Age. Fit the name to the age of the character. As a general rule, children usually have shorter names, while adults have heftier names. If you break the rule, do it because it's right for the character. For example, Charles Wallace (Wrinkle in Time) isn't usually a name you'd want to saddle a child with, but due to his personality, it works. If you're writing about an 18 year old, you might want to Google popular names from 1990. If you're writing about a fifty year old, Google names from 1959.

  3. Gender. Don't give your hero a sissy name or name your heroine "Bob." It's more distracting than memorable. There are a lot of gender crossover names now. If you use one of these, make it clear what gender your character is way up front. I can't remember the book now, but I encountered one of these recently. I guessed wrong and was in chapter three before I realized the main character was a girl. Not a good thing.

  4. Ethnicity. I love ethnic names when used appropriately. I think there needs to be more characters of color in our mostly white-bread LDS fiction. We're slowly adding ethnicity to our stories. But as we do, it's important that we pick names that match without stereotyping. (I mean really, not every Latino woman is named Maria.) To find a variety of ethnic names, just Google (ex: Latino names).

  5. Regionality. Be aware of your setting when choosing names. Did you know that in the south, Ryan is a girls name? In the west, it's a boy's name. Speaking of vampire stories, Sookie* is a great name for a psychic, southern, vampire-dating waitress. It's memorable. I don't think I've ever seen or heard it before, but it works. Again, Google is your best friend for finding regional names.

  6. Historicalness. Okay, I know that's not a word but I'm in a hurry. This is a two-parter. First, when in history is your story set? You'll want to find a name that was in use during your time period. Google popular names from 1830, or whenever.

    The second part of this is how has this name been used in history. History colors names with certain character traits. For example, if you name a character Adolf, it may not immediately bring to mind characteristics of kindness, love and gentleness.

  7. Spelling. Don't make up a weird spelling of a name just to be unique. I am so tired of seeing this in realistic fiction. I know that's the trend in real life, but just show a bit of restraint. For example, Melynda is okay. As is Malinda. But Mylynda is a bit too much. Unless you're writing SFF.

    When you come up with an unusual spelling of a name, run it past a few people and see how they will pronounce it. For example, Ginny. Most Americans will pronounce that with a hard g. Which is fine, unless you want it to be pronounced like Jenny. Which leads us to. . .

  8. Sound. What does the name sound like when you say it aloud? Another two-parter. First, will your readers pronounce it correctly. If your test readers don't, you may want to clarify it in chapter 1 (rather than in book 4 of the series; but we forgive Rowling because she was writing for British readers, all of whom know how to say Hermione).

    Second, is it too hard to say out loud? Does it sound as pretty as it looks on the page. Again, this is something that is more critical for those writing SFF, but if you're using unusual names for any reason, take this into consideration.

  9. Likeability. All of us have names we love or hate because of someone we know in real life. There are other names that stick in the public consciousness. For example, Flo. Who'd you see? (A red-headed southern waitress, right?) Be aware of the social connotations of names. You might want to avoid last names like Manson or Dahmer. Bundy might get your reader thinking of a killer or a loser couch potato. Run your names past a few people and see what image gets conjured up.

  10. Common. How common is the name? If you're writing a realistic YA, stay away from names like Brandon and Tiffany. Find something a little more unique. Also be aware of names in popular books in your genre. This is when a writing critique group really comes in handy. A woman in my writing group once chose the name Alex for a young boy involved in a spy novel. She'd never read the Alex Rider series. Also, now is not the time to name your romantic hero Edward.
These are general guidelines to get you started. All of them can be ignored—if you have a good reason. Just make sure that reason works for your story.


*The "Dead" series by Charlaine Harris. I've only read one of these books. Too much sex for me.

10 comments:

Carolyn V. said...

It's true. Edward can never be used in YA again. Mabey Ed or Wardo. Maybe that would work. j/k Wardo is too weird. =)

Jordan McCollum said...

Great list!

I'm from the South, born and raised, and I can tell you Ryan is not a girls' name there. The only female Ryan I have ever met was in Utah (though I don't know where she was from).

To verify this, I turned to the Baby Wizard's Name Mapper: http://namemapper.babynamewizard.com/namemapper/

In 2004, it was popular as a girls' name in Kentucky (it was popular in 1980 in NH and 1979 in DE). Other than those three states, it has never been a significant regional name, although over the last 35 years, it has consistently ranked in the top 1000 for girls' names from the SSA.

It bugs me when people insist on using a name that's popular today (such as Peyton for a girl) on a character that's supposedly 16-35. Yeah, right. Her parents were name visionaries?

I would list them (I LOVE names and I'm so sad that we've already picked out names for probably all of our future children), but it's just easier to link to my post on my favorite resources for naming characters: http://jordanmccollum.com/2009/07/how-to-name-characters/

(Wait, people pronounce Ginny as "guinea"? The nickname for Virginia? Oy.)

Angie said...

That is great advice. I love naming characters. I'll spend hours pouring over my baby name book, but then sometimes the characters just name themselves and refuse to be called anything else.

Marsha Ward said...

Thanks for the great post! However, I agree with Jordan. My mom's name was Virginia, and her sisters called her Ginger or Ginny, always with a juh sound, no hard G.

Stephanie Black said...

I love the SSA website for names: http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/babynames/

You can get lists of the top 1000 names for many decades, which comes in handy when you need to know if a name was in use at the time your character was born, or need ideas for names.

For surnames I like this list of the top 1000 names in the US: http://names.mongabay.com/most_common_surnames.htm

Tamara Hart Heiner said...

great post! I had to laugh b/c I also was going to comment on the Ryan thing. I'm also from the south. Never met a girl named Ryan. Plenty of girls named Taylor...

Noble M Standing said...

I'm not sorry, who on earth would want to use the name Edward anyway? EWWWWWW!

I have three baby names books and I use them alot. I also get creative every once and a while. I needed a character for a fantasy and I took the h off of Harris and got Arris. It works right? :P

Love your post it made me laugh.

LDS_Publisher said...

Sometimes I just can't defend myself and maintain anonymity. Let's just say that according to my sources, there is a place in the South where the name Ryan is all girl.

As to hard or soft G's, if you know someone who goes by Ginny, you're going to get it right. If you don't, you may not. That name just popped into my head because about 12 years, a friend used it in a novel. I made the hard g comment. He didn't believe me. We took it around work and tested it with about 20 people. All but two responded with hard g.

Tristi said...

Awesome post. I couldn't agree more.

Although, Ginny is short for Virginia, so people really should know how to say it, and I'm not British, but I did know how to say Hermione. :)

Allen said...

I'm going to break in and speak to the article "You Can't Name a White Girl LaQuisha". I suggest that no one name any girl, white or black, LaQuisha. Or any of the other similar names that are obviously ethnicly black and have become so popular. I am a former Peresonnel Manageer. In 1969,my employer, Monsanto Textiles, a large company, required that I mark appications received with a
"1" at the top right hand corner if the applicant was white. If black, I was ordered to mark the corner with a "2". That was so that w could tell the whites from the blacks weeks later and whites would be hired before blacks. That was, and is, illegal. Monsanto was eventually charged with discrimination in hiring. Today, many African Americans wish to emphasize their ethnicity by using names like LaQuisha, and that should be allright. But it can cost LaQuisha a job interview and a job. Employers who want to discriminate against blacks don't need to put a 2 on your applcation or resume to remind them that you are black. You've marked our applicatio or reume for them because virtually no white person will be namd LaQuisha. They can, because of your name, just put your resume or application aside or throw it in the trash because of their bigotry. You won't even get a chance for an interview.It's wrong, but its's life. Don't saddle your kid with an ethnic sounding name unless you're sure that it is in the child's best interest to be discriminated against because of it. In 1973, I left Monsnto and joined Avon Products, a billion dollar company. I was told not to hire Jews. In 1984 I joined Property Management Systems, Inc., the 2nd largest commercial property management company in the country. The President didn't want to hire women and few were hire. The company wa caught and fined. Now i am 67. When i lost my job at age
50, I found it extremely hard to find another job. That was becaus of my age. Not even considering me for a job because of my age was discriminatory and against he law. At 67, it's worse. And I'm caucasian--white. If you think a company owned by an African-American would hire me, a white, you're living in a dream world.Sure the company may hire a few-- a token few.So some of you can go head and cite some company that's black owned and doesn't discriminate against whites. A few exoist. But just because you know one that claims to be non discriminatory doesn't mean that the vast majority are so non discrimintory. Please, use your head if you think that blacks don;'t discriminate aginst whites and vice versa. Discrimination exists. Against blacks, against whites, against women, against men, against the handicapped, against homosexuals, against Jews, against older people on and on ad infinitum. Always has, always will. Don't saddle your child with an ethnic name like LaQuisha or any other for the child's sake.