My guest this week is Amy Reade. She has an interesting take on naming characters in books, and it made me stop and think about the process. I generally use names that are fairly common and proper for the time period of the story. Maybe I’d better rethink that. A name really could make a difference.
The Subtlety of Names
Of all the fascinating steps that go into writing a book, I always tell people my favorite is research. And a big part of research, at least for me, is naming characters. I know there are some authors who don’t agonize over names, but I’m not one of them. I pore over name books and websites. I scour newspaper articles, immigration lists, and census findings. I keep a running list of names I hear when I’m out and about and I find interesting. I put as much care into naming my characters as I do into researching the climate, culture, and physical attributes of my book’s settings.
I do this for three reasons: first, I want to make sure the names I choose are appropriate to the time and place of my story (this is a no-brainer). Second, I like to choose names that have a particular meaning to me or to the story. I like to choose names that every Tom, Dick, or Harry (or every Jennifer, Jessica, or Ann) doesn’t have, and looking for interesting names is a fun exercise for me. And third, I like names that are uncommon and, therefore, memorable.
When a character has a meaningful name, it can add a whole different level of interest and even intrigue to a novel.
Here’s an example: in my third novel, House of the Hanging Jade, the main character is named Kailani Kanaka. The story is set in Hawaii and Kailani is from the Island of Hawaii (or, as it’s often called, the Big Island).
If you type the name “Kailani” into a search engine, you’re likely to find that it means sea and sky in Hawaiian. My Kailani is a nature lover. One of her favorite activities is kayaking, and there’s an important scene in the book that takes place in a kayak. I needed to find a name that fit her personality and interests.
Here’s another example from the same book: one of the main characters is the head of a surf clothing company called Kaimana. It took me a long time to come up with that name. I wanted a word that reflected the surfing lifestyle and the spiritual connection between surfers and their world. “Kai” is the Hawaiian word for ocean. And “mana” is a Hawaiian word meaning power or spiritual energy. A company with the name Kaimana would be one that respects the earth, is a positive force for good, and is in harmony within itself and with others.
In my story, the owner of Kaimana is a man who tries to embody many of these characteristics.
I’ve also been known to give readers a tiny clue about the whodunit questions that swirl around in my books, and names are a highly subtle way for me to do that. Take, for example, a character in my work-in-progress. His name, which I’m not going to share and which is of Norwegian origin, means darkness. Is he the killer? I don’t know yet. But he will play a troubling role in the story.
My fascination with names comes directly from reading Phyllis Whitney’s books. She never failed to come up with character names that were out, but not too far out, of the ordinary. I remember one character named Ysobel. Never mind that I couldn’t pronounce it correctly when I read the book- the point is that I never forgot it. There was another character in a different Phyllis Whitney book named Hollis. It’s an uncommon name (and a very pretty one, in my opinion) that jogs my memory of the whole story every time I think about it.
That’s an important point. A really good character name, one that is thoughtful, meaningful, and perhaps a little uncommon, is memorable. And don’t we all want our characters to be memorable? Remember the Nancy Drew books? Nancy had two good friends named Bess and George. I recall thinking, “George? That’s a girl’s name? How cool!” I think George’s name is the reason I remember so many of the scenes with her in them.
Next time you read a book with an interesting character name, look up its meaning. You just might find that the author is trying to tell you something about that character and his or her role in the story. And if it’s a name you find interesting or intriguing, you might just remember that story long after you reach “the end.”
Thank you so much for stopping in, Amy. I really enjoy your books, and it’s interesting to learn the process you use, plus a little extra.
Amazon author page and buy link: https://www.amazon.com/Amy-M.-Reade/e/B00LX6ASF2/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0
Goodreads author page: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/8189243.Amy_M_Reade
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