The Power of Names and Nicknames: How to choose the perfect one for your fictional characters | Fiction School Podcast #16

The Power of Names and Nicknames: How to choose the perfect one for your fictional characters | Fiction School Podcast #16

“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare asked.

Fiction School’s here to answer and we say, “Brother, a whole hell of a lot.”

On this episode of the Fiction School Podcast, we go deep into the thorny labyrinth of choosing a name for your fictional character.  We talk about subtlety and stereotype, from Ace Diablo to Manly Pointer.  How do names affect the way readers frame a character? How does the poetry of a name’s sound work?  How can a name reveal the way a character interacts with his or her parents? And we even give a little behind-the-No Name Roadcurtain glimpse at the process we used to choose the names of some of our own characters.

SHOW NOTES FOR EPISODE 16

  • Baker starts the show with the anecdote about his character Shoe who plays a big part in The Play’s the Thing–it’s a nickname that came from real life, but once the name was given to the character, the character just kind of came to life.
  • Tommy then talks about the ways that names play in his Messiah Trilogy, since the characters correspond to Gospel figures and have to evoke their persona.
  • But for the character of the Virgin Mary, Tommy chose to name her “Roxy” and go against associations and stereotypes
  • There’s a difference between Beth, Betsy, and Lizzie–each one has associations and poetry and stereotypes that are brought to life with the choice of name.
  • Some writers write stories without naming their characters, and then substitute the real names once the story’s written and the writer knows the character better.
  • Names are intimately related to stereotypes–so it’s fun to play against them with personality traits.
  • Poetry is also part of the naming process; the sounds of the name influence the way we feel on an emotional level.  Soft sounds, or harsh sounds, rough or rhythmical…on a subconscious level the sound and poetry of the name affect how a reader feels about a character.
  • Tommy talks about the Power of Naming, and how our parents name us and we don’t have that power to name ourselves.  It’s a similar process for our fictional characters, too, but its one that has to be subtle.  We can’t lean so far on stereotypes and use over-the-top names like “Ace Diablo.”
  • The name has to be subtle enough that it doesn’t draw overt attention to itself, but it has to be powerful enough that it gets that message across.
  • A great rule for characters: Only give a character a name if they deserve it.
  • NYTimes bestselling auther John Green, while he’s writing a book, names all his characters Leeroy Jenkins, and only changes them later in the drafting process.
  • Some favorite names from Fictionland: Manly Pointer from Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People,” Billy Pilgrim from Slaughterhouse-five, Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye; Boo Radley, Atticus Finch and Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird;
  • The layer of naming can also play into ways characters relate to their parents.  We talk about Stoney Nix from Baker’s The Battle Hymn Blues (who’s named by his father after the Confederate General Stonewall Jackson Nix); and Tommy’s character Jan in Nazareth, North Dakota, whose mother named him after Jan Michael Vincent
  • So much social class evident in name.  Chuck drinks PBR but Charles drinks a fancy cocktail.  Can’t rely on stereotype the whole time, but it can be a quick introduction or go too far.
  • In real life, nobody’s named Ace or Sting or Old Lady McDuffin.
  • What’s the best way to choose a character name?  If you don’t know your character well enough to give them a name, then the character isn’t strong enough yet.  Try on some different names or read great stories and ask why the names are what they are.

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