Making Up Monikers Matters

By Eva Shaw, author of Games of the Heart and Doubts of the Heart

Doubts of the HeartRead the following names. Can you picture these characters?

Sissy Evangeline Bryce-Martin
Troy Flint
Moby Egglefunk
Raven Lovelace
Harold Buckmeister

Names matter and when writing a novel, it seems to civilians (that is, non-writers) that we writers spend way too much time pondering who we will name what. They wonder, “Why care if your protagonist is Felicity Foghorn or Jill Jackson?” But we know that characters’ names determine the like-ability, dislike-ability, and yawn-ability of individuals who people our books. Names are telling and help explain a story.

When I wrote Games of the Heart, my protagonist was Pastor Jane Angieski. I chose the first name because I wanted her to be everywoman, a regular every-day Jane-kind of gal. Angieski? I needed a Polish name to connect certain parts of the plot and what better way to do that than to honor her with the birth name of my late mom-in-law, Stella.

Now in Doubts of the Heart, a connected-world novel, my star is Nica Dobson. Yes, there was a method in my naming madness. When a stranger calls her by the horrid nickname she was pegged with in high school, Nica becomes defensive, fighting off her teenage persona of wallflower and nerd. What was my thought process?

First I “tweaked” Nica into Nikky. The book brings Nica back to Honolulu for the 20th reunion of Kukui High, yes, the same one that dreamy Commander Steve McGarrett, of Hawaii Five-O, supposedly attended. Because I wanted the uber-confident Nica to wrestle with her past I made her maiden name Ticky. Adding wikiwiki, Hawaiian for fast, to the middle of this nickname and suddenly the reader better understands this painful time in Nica’s life. Could you imagine going through high school taunted by the nickname of Nikky Wikiwiki Ticky?

According to www.babycenter.com, Emma and Liam are tops on the name popularity list. Grace, Anna, David, John and Michael are always in style; therefore by selecting a “standard” name in your novel, the book won’t show its age by giving a character one of these as it might if you name a protagonist Luke or Olivia, also high on that 2013 list. Likewise Gertrude, Clarence, and Horace could be excellent choices if your story is set in the early 1900s.

Naming characters in a specific way brings to mind the characters’ ages and even personality traits. Names can further the story or give clues to a plot. Let’s say you’re writing a story about a woman who has spent her entire life near Tesuque Pueblo, New Mexico. Pretend that she’s lost everything in the Great Recession and moves to LA to live with a distant cousin. You could call her Starlight Smith except to me I then see her driving an ancient VW camper and eating a micro-biotic diet. However name her Starlight Little Tree Smith and you’ve instantly added history and another dimension to the character.

Triple check that you’re not subjecting your readers to memory mayhem by using similar sounds when naming characters. It’s hard for a reader keep characters straight when their names start with the same letter, such as Steve, Sonny, Stephen, and Sam. It makes me wonder why writers on TV’s Bones called the leading characters Brennan and Booth. Unless you’re writing a hit TV series, avoid the same name/sound concept with one-syllable names, such as Ted, Ned, Fred, Red, and Jed and let’s not forget Ed. You get the picture?

Humorists who know what makes us laugh explain there’s no specific word or name that makes people expect a punch line. Yet you may want to refrain from calling a character Polly Prudence Parnell or Peter Pickles Parsnip, unless you are doing it to embed this character into the reader’s mind. The hero in Doubts of the Heart is Payton Yu. I chose the last name of Yu so that when the happy ending arrives, once the mysteries are solved, I could once more use a twist of the names. I won’t slip in a spoiler here, but when you read the novel, let me know how effective all my naming research has been.

You decide if Shakespeare was right. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But when you’re naming “roses” make sure you’re helping readers get what you’re going for because making up moniker matters.

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Eva Shaw, Ph.D. is author or ghost of more than 70 published books, dozens of which have been bestsellers. She is a sought-after ghostwriter for celebrities, notables and headline-making superstars, crafting their nonfiction books, memoirs or novels. Often referred to as the world’s leading online writing professor, Eva practices what she teaches sharing tips, tricks and techniques with those she mentors. She created and teaches six highly distinct and popular writing courses offered at 2000 colleges and universities worldwide through Education to Go, www.ed2go.com.

Please visit Eva at www.evashaw.com and on Facebook.

5 thoughts on “Making Up Monikers Matters

  1. Becky Lower

    Nice post on naming, Eva. Most of the time, I don’t have a problem coming up with names, but there was an incident with one of my contemporaries where I was writing away and the character (male) wasn’t behaving as I had hoped he would. I couldn’t write him to save my life. I took a step back and examined what was wrong and realized he had the wrong name. I changed it, and voila! There he was, live (to me anyway) and in person. Funny how that happens.

  2. Beverly A Rogers

    So true, Eva. We look at a Grant Stone differently than we look at a Philburn Erk.
    🙂
    My characters mainly come from variations of names of people in my family. Love the Nica moniker. Right off the bat when you hear her nickname you know this gal has to be gutsy and from all the teasing she’s endured over the years… a tough cookie. Loved this post.

  3. Leslie Garcia

    Loved the post–names are everything, although I wish I’d not changed my heroine’s name in Unattainable at someone’s behest. Thought you gave some excellent examples, and I bet most of us who write have changed names because we knew that a chosen name simply wouldn’t be right for ‘that’ character.

    Two random thoughts: If you teach, your names are limited by your or colleagues’ unfortunate incidents with students. A colleague of 20 years swears she won’t read Unattainable because the hero’s name is Jovani–and guess the name of the only student in 30 years she left out of the Christmas field trip?

    Okay–one random thought. It’s the end of the year and I forgot. Again!

    Wonderful post, not one I’ll forget!

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