Thursday, September 5, 2013

A Rose By Any Other...

Writers are fascinated by names.

There’s a whole science to the study of the origin and history of names. It’s called onomatology. As writers, we’re more interested in finding the right name than in delving into its origin.

As we create our characters—unless they whisper in our ears and tell us what they want to be called—we often struggle to find an appropriate name. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has changed a character’s name in midstream because the first simply did not click.

I’ve often wondered why Fran Striker, creator of the Lone Ranger, chose the name Tonto for the masked man’s companion, since the term means foolish in Spanish, Portuguese and Italian, surely an affront to the Native American community. Some sources indicate the name was proposed by James Jewell who contended it meant “wild one” in an unspecified indigenous language. Jewell also came up with Tonto’s trademark term, “kemosabe,” which he based on the name of an Upper Michigan summer camp. At least they did select Jay Silverheels, a genuine American Indian (Mohawk), for the radio and film roles.

Writers use a variety of means to select names. Some rely on the phonebook—just open to a page at random and take your pick. Others hold contests, offering readers the opportunity to have a character named for them. Not sure why anyone would want their name attached to a murderer—even a fictional one. I guess the quest for fame (or notoriety) takes us down some strange roads.

One thing we must strive to avoid is having characters with too similar names. This has a tendency to confuse readers. One way I’ve found useful to prevent this is to keep an alphabetical list of characters.

Names are important in my other life as a genealogist, too. I’ve found my work in that field a good resource for harvesting names. I keep a list of those which appeal for future use, forenames, surnames and even nicknames.


Frankly, I can’t think of a better source for a variety of common and unusual names.

13 comments:

  1. Good info. I use names familiar to me, sometimes, family members. If I need a name for someone from a different culture, I use a name generator.

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    1. I've used family names, too. Just have to be sure they don't object. Thanks for commenting.

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  2. You're absolutely right, John. We writers are fascinated (obsessed?) with names. I like to use a "Name Your Baby Book" when I have a name for a character in mind. The book tells the derivation of the name and the meaning.

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    1. Yes, that's a common source. Thanks, Pat. I should have included it.

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  3. Like Patricia I used a Name Your Baby Book; I can't write a word until I have the characters name and I do like unusual or old fashioned names.
    Did not know that about Tonto, very interesting and I am surprised Native Americans did not complain because the one thing Tonto is not is foolish.

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    1. Definitely not a fool. Sometimes I think he comes across as smarter than the ranger.

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  4. I have often dug into my own family ancestry for first and last names for characters. Another great place for names is the credits at the end of movies.

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  5. Since I often have ethnic characters in my inter-racial romances, I do an on-line search for, say, "Russian boy names", then I choose one based on what jumps out at me. I do this for surnames also. Usually by then the character has already told me what race/culture he/she is from, and I go from there.

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    1. I live in a multi-ethnic area, which gives me a wide choice of those names. I agree, the character usually does have the last say on the name and associated factors.

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  6. I have characters of varied nationality in my stories. It seems a good idea to use names that sound familiar, so I often choose the name of a famous historical character, king or queen.

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  7. My problem is usually not with names that have the same first letter, but with names that have similar ends: Kara, Tara, Dana, that kind of thing. A writer has to keep on top of that to avoid confusing the reader and, sometimes, himself.

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