Monday, February 28, 2005

Naming Your Characters

Astrosmith asks:
How do you go about naming characters?

Truth be told, I've put more energy into this than I really should have, and my philosophy has changed many times over the years. For example, I used to follow Harlan Ellison's practice of naming characters who died horrible deaths after people I hated in grade school, but in 25 years of writing I've still not come up with a suitably awful mise-en-scene for Tom Schwartz. After that I tried pulling names at random from the phone book or baby-naming books, but the resulting characters all seemed to be named Anderson, Johnson, Olson, or Swenson. Maybe I shouldn't have used the Minneapolis phone book.

I have a hard time resisting the urge to use joke names, which is why you'll find the occasional "Enrico Vermicelli" or such in my writing. I've also used a few names which are unremarkable in print but outrageous puns if spoken, and if any of those stories ever get adapted to another medium, there'll be heck to pay.

I like the idea of trying to find some way to encode the character's dominant personality trait in the name. For example, I thought Fred Ward's mopey, hangdog character in Tremors, "Earl Bassett," was brilliant. But when I tried it I came up with "Suzi Pomeranian," which quickly convinced me the Dog Breed naming theory is a bad idea.

Oh, and tempting as it seems, never have your strange alien character say, "My name is not pronounceable by humans" and then reveal that it's spelled "T'Xsql!k" or anything like that. Use vowels. Make the name pronounceable. It makes it so much easier for you to discuss your story with your fellow humans.