Friday, April 15, 2011

Names...do they matter?

[slightly edited re-post from my former blog]

So you want to write a book or a short story and you sit down to think it all out before you start writing. What is one of the most important parts?

The characters. Who, of course, need names. Do you pick a random name? Make one up? Find the oddest name you can, or the most common?

Or…do you pick a name that actually means something?

I’ve done it all the aforementioned ways. I’ve made up names (people names, place names, and animal names), I’ve picked strange ones, I’ve picked plain ones.

But I think the last way is my favorite, one that I hadn’t done much until recently. For my current novel, Shadow of Glory, every character that has more than a paragraph or two of stage-time has gotten, or will get, a name with a very specific meaning. A meaning that either 1) describes something about the character, or 2) describes something about the role they play in the story. Sometimes it takes me days to find the right one. Or even weeks.

You might wonder why I go to the trouble.

Honestly, sometimes I wonder why I even bother. The reason I do it is, well, for me. Even if no one else ever realizes it, or makes the connections between the names and there meanings, it makes it different – it makes it better – for me.

Now, I’m not talking about always using names that have a blatant meaning, like “Hopeful” or “Giant Despair” (names of two of John Bunyan’s characters in Pilgrim’s Progress). When used a lot – and especially in modern books – it bugs me. It feels cheap.

I’ll give some examples from my own story…

1: Jerome Steele. The “main” Main Character (MC). Jerome means One Who Bears a Holy Name, which comes into play later in the book. And Steele, well, that one’s a bit self-explanitory. He’s hard-headed.

2: Vince Stanislav. One of the “baddies”, an agent that works for the main government mentioned. Vince means To Conquer, To Win, Winning, Conquering. And Stanislav means Government is Glory. When I found that name…I about flipped. It fits him to a ‘T’, and made the 9+ months he’d gone by the handle/nickname Suit worth it.

For years and years I’ve known that names have different meanings and origins. Recently, however, I’ve found it really fascinating. I love hearing a name and knowing “Oh, that name is Irish and means ‘X’…” or “That name sounds French, from maybe around the 1200′s.” Of course, I’ve barely scratched the surface of names. What with all the thousands upon thousands of names in the world today, I don’t think anyone could remember the facts about even 1/4 of them.

Whichever naming method you chose, you might be wondering: How do you find the “perfect” name?

You’ll know the perfect name when you find it. And I mean that. You might be arrested by it at first glance, or maybe you’ll realize it’s the right one after mulling it over. But it will click. And stick. And you’ll know that it’s “the one”.

As to finding them? For last names, I like using phonebooks.

For first names, I’ve found some helpful websites (disclaimer: the websites themselves have proven helpful, however some of them run adds in the side-bars, and while I don’t remember seeing any that weren’t G-rated, you never know, so please use discretion)

www.babynames.com – this one is nice when you just want the basic information. If you use their “Advanced Search” option you can chose from nationality, number of syllables, etc.

www.babynamespedia.com – this one is my personal favorite. You can search by origin, popularity, etc., and you can run “text searches” and enter a word like “Medieval” and up will pop all names with the word “Medieval” in the name’s history. Oh, yes, that reminds me: this site gives a lot more in-depth information, including origin, a brief synopsis of the name’s history, and other names that are similar.

http://www.ssa.gov/oact/babynames/index.html - The Social Security website! This surprised me! But when I was searching for a list of top 100 names for a certain decade in U.S. history, Google directed me to this website and it is incredibly helpful. It works for any year after 1879.

And for all you historical writers, the book Names Through the Ages has proven absolutely invaluable. I got it for a Christmas present, and love it! It covers a nice swath, from England, France, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and the U.S., and a very broad time-frame from the early Dark Ages until post-WWII U.S. Divided into chapters, each chapter has a several-pages long synopsis and gives a brief summary of the rulers, daily life, religion, surnames, etc., from that time.

Happy naming!

Grace and peace,

~Hannah

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