Monday, February 3, 2014

A Girl Called Gus - The Art of Naming Characters

I've always been fascinated by names. Probably because Gae-Lynn is so uncommon. But having a weird first name isn't enough for my family. I'm also blessed with an unusual nickname. Seems my paternal grandfather held me as a howling, red-faced newborn and said, "She looks like a Gus."

And that was that.
Family and friends call me Gus, I'm Auntie Gus to my nieces and nephews, and my husband calls me 'Gus the Destroyer' because it ain't been built that I can't break. In fact, Gus is the one word I hear in any circumstance. (Watching people react to a girl called Gus is pretty humorous.)

My name and nickname are part of who I am, how I define myself, and perhaps how others define me. If I had to choose which name, Gae-Lynn or Gus, suited me best, I'd struggle. Both are me.

Names are important, aren't they? Parents agonize over what to call their offspring. Some believe that a name influences their child's personality and future success and happiness. Some delay naming their kids until after birth. In certain families, the naming of a child can divide loyalties or guarantee inheritances.

Sid and her first calf

[We have no kids and there's no money hanging in the balance, but the name game affects us, too. Our cows have names, usually influenced by their personalities. Sid Vicious has a quiff and an erratic personality like the late punk rocker. Sweet One simply is. Our bull is Elvis because of the peculiar way his lip curls when he's chasing the ladies.]

Just as in 'real' life, choosing a name for your characters is important. It's heady stuff, bestowing a name that will live on as long as someone is reading your books.

Rightly or wrongly, names paint an image of a character's physical or emotional characteristics in my mind. Because this imagery is so powerful for me (and possibly for others), I let it influence my character names. For example:

Scott Truman - an honest, loyal, hardworking young cop
Judge Shackleford - a tough minded judge
Hugo Petchard - a distasteful cop who relies on his daddy's money to buy influence (he also isn't huge, which bothers him greatly)

I try to pick names that don't look or sound alike, unless it doesn't matter that they do. The Cass Elliot Crime Series includes teenaged twins, Matt and Mark Grove. They're always together, always in trouble, and it doesn't really matter who is who.

In cases where it does matter, I like unique names. It helps me set the stage for 'who' a character is and what he's about, both for myself and for the reader. Names are one way to give characters an identity, and they're an easy touchstone to help the reader stay focused.
The name thing matters so much to me that I've abandoned books if I can't keep the characters straight. I'm about to shut down a story now because two characters have names so similar I get confused: Mark and Marcus. Their roles are also similar (police / security guys) and that makes it even harder to keep them straight. about you? Do names resonate with you? Have you ever stopped reading because the names were so similar you couldn't keep them straight? Is naming an important part of your writing process?

photo credit: abbey*christine via photopin cc

photo credit: elisabet ottosson via photopin cc