Getting past the A’s

“Always end the name of your child with a vowel, so that when you yell the name will carry.” — Bill Cosby

I have over a dozen stories/WIPs/scribbles/drool-on-the-page, most written during high school, that feature the lead and/or a main character whose name begins with “A”. Why? Because when I would look for a name, I started at the beginning. Of the alphabet.

I never got very far. I tried branching out, tried starting at the other end, but I couldn’t get away from it. I just liked “A” names!

Until I started actually trying to analyze the names beyond the fact that the spelling looked cool. Was I naming them that because I liked it, or because it was the right name for them? I realized that names should be age appropriate. I tried to get close to my characters by asking questions of the [fictional] friends/family/acquaintances around them. Did Mom still call him by his childhood nickname? Did she realize that he was grown up now? Was she named after her grandma? How did she feel when that grandma died last year? Do her closest friends call her the same name that her family does? Does he like the stigma/class association that his name comes with?

I realized that a name is a lot more than just a place-marker in an alphabetized list. A name is your title, your label, your demise, your cover, your true face, your past, your expectations…

And then another realization: a name can mean something to you that you never communicate to your reader. This isn’t a bad thing. There are hundreds of hours of research and backstory and scene-telling and all else that never makes it into the final draft. What matters is the understanding and the nuance that it gives to you to be able to write.

Maybe your readers will never know that Trish was named after her Grandma Patricia. But it’s the extra layer that reminds you of Trish’s close bond with her family. Maybe they won’t know that Elizabeth’s childhood nickname of “Liz” turned into taunts of “Lizzy, lousy, lazy” in middle school (Little Town On The Prairie, anyone?). But you know that she can’t stand the boy next door for calling her that “Liz”, even though he doesn’t know.

Maybe this is why writing can feel so selfish sometimes? Because it’s like we are sharing secrets with ourselves–one of those hundred little things that’s an in-joke with yours truly.

So, how do you choose your character names? What goes into the consideration of a name?

…Are you past the A’s?

As a postscript:

I’ve really enjoyed using some of the name lists online as a research base for many of my names. Here are a few…

behindthename.com

Pros: The name entries are very detailed, with diminutive, feminine/masculine versions of the names, a detailed history, instant popularity stats by country, etc. The site also features many different name lists by meaning, ethnicity, color, theme. It also has popularity lists by year for many different countries.

Cons: The detailed histories/explanation behind the name aren’t very concise.

(For surnames, you can check out their related website: surnames.behindthename.com)

babynames.com

Pros: Simple explanations, popularity lists, some name lists (including ethnicity ones).

Cons: Too simple? It doesn’t have all the detail level like behindthename does.

wolframalpha.com

This isn’t a name generator. But this is a great place to learn about a name. For a stat geek like me: the rank, most common age, history for US births…I love it. It’s a good place to find alternates of a name you like, and also to check what age your name is currently associated with. You can do this for surnames, also.

What do you use to help you find names?

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2 comments on “Getting past the A’s

  1. lly1205 says:

    I use babynamesworld all the time! I think my boyfriend saw it open once, I hope he didn’t jump to conclusions… 😉

  2. Rae says:

    My family would think I was crazy if they saw my browsing history. Just another one of the side effects of being a writer… 🙂

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