On Names

March 23, 2017

Until I started writing novels, I didn't realize I had an issue.  An issue with character names.  My short stories often involve characters that are never named, or there are only a couple in the story.  I didn't have to spend a lot of time working on names.  Longer forms require more characters.  And, most annoyingly, they all seem to require names!



I'm working on a murder mystery project right now.  After months of work, I've finally come to grips with the fact that I have to name my main characters.  Yes, I'm some 20,000 words in and the main characters are nameless.  so is pretty much everyone else.  There's a sister with a name, and a priest and an old lady.  I think that's it.  While they all have important roles in the story, none of them are the main characters.  Until this past week, I referred to those two by their jobs.  Plus there are all these OTHER characters that seem to feel they need names as well.


So just give them names, you say!  Ah, but it's not that easy you see.  At least for me, the names have to be correct.  I read other authors who seem to have characters who show up and introduce themselves, names included.  Like Athena leaping from the brow of Zeus fully formed and fully named.  Some of my characters seem to be a bit more reticent.  Apparently, their mothers taught them not to speak to strange men.


Because they have to be the correct name, naming characters is a challenge.  If I don't find the correct one, working with the character will be a struggle.  If you want to know why that is (setting aside that it's some form of mental illness on my part), my bet is that it has to do with my own name.  People have struggled with the family name my whole life.  It gets mangled on a regular basis.  For the record, it is pronounced "FILL-ih-pee".  Unlike some people, I like my name.  In my career in radio, I had several people try to convince me to use an "air name".  With the exception of one boss who pushed the issue, I successfully resisted.  That name is part of who I am.  To lose it, even temporarily, is to lose part of myself.  When people get it wrong it rankles.  So, getting my characters names right is important to me as well.


Finding those names is hard. It feels like it ought to be simple, but it never is.  What it can be is time-consuming.  So when I discovered my favorite writing software included a name generator, I rejoiced.  Now I would be able to page through as many names as I wanted until the one I was looking for showed up.  No more effort for me than hitting the "Next" button.  Why I'd have more names than I knew what to do with!  It sounded like a quick trip to authorial nirvana.


Except the name generator and I don't get along.  Quite simply, I hate all its suggestions.  For my books, I need straight forward, even boring, names.  And it wants to be creative.




So I had to try other avenues.  After an hour's work, I finally found names for my two main characters in the new project.  That was very good.  You see, without their names they had begun to fade on me.  Without a name, they were ghosts.  As soon as I found their names, they became firm again.  I could see who they were and where they'd come from.


So let me introduce to you: Zachary "Zack" Taylor and Jon Parker "Park" Matthews.


They may not seem like much to you.  But they're everything we need to keep telling the story.




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J.D. Phillippi, Richmond VA, JDPhillippiAuthor@Gmail.com


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