Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Name Neuroses

Truth: I'm not a very organized writer.


I’m fascinated when I hear fellow authors talk about the way they handle drafting or revisions—complex processes that involve outlines, Scrivener, color-coded Post-it notes, or a combination of all three. Those methods sound incredibly smart, but they don’t work for me. I’m a pantser. I’ve tried outlining and it stifles the story I’m trying to tell. So far, I’ve even managed to get through edits for A POINT SO DELICATE without outlining, though I don’t know how long that can last.

But when it comes to character names, I am meticulous. Besides the plot itself, they are the most important part of the story I’m writing, as I think names can be so indicative of a personality. I’d imagine my particularity about spelling can be traced back to my journalism days, where the first rule you learn about interviewing is to ask your source how to spell their name. Even if it’s Jane Doe, you verify, because you can never be sure. But I remember being infuriated as a child (okay, maybe even a little bit today) when people automatically spelled my name as “Brandi” without asking. To me, Brandy is a completely different name than Brandi, and when asked, I verbally spell out my name as “Brandy with a y” though I know it doesn’t matter as much to anyone else, if at all.

When I was in elementary school, I purchased a thin paperback book of name origins and their meanings from the Scholastic Book Club and pored over it constantly. Even then, names were so important to the stories I was writing. I still own that little paperback, but now my primary method of research is a baby name website called Nymbler.

Before I begin a story, I have to choose my character names. I may have a few in mind that I want to use for supporting characters, but the protagonist is always much more difficult. Nymbler allows you to plug in names you like, then generates literally hundreds of suggestions, separated by gender and based on the initial name submitted. You can make a list of favorites or continue asking for more names if you’re as picky as I am.

I automatically rule out names that have any negative associations from personal experience. I’m also not interested in using trendy names, and I typically steer clear of using names of close friends or family. (Except for surnames. Many surnames of supporting characters in my books are derived from people I know well.) I lean toward names that have fallen out of fashion but still have flair, and I’m also a fan of traditionally boys’ names for girls. I’ve been known to tool around on Nymbler for days, attempting to find the absolute perfect name. Even weeks. No joke. Once I’ve whittled down my choices to a list of about 10, I send them in an email to my friend and trusted beta reader, Lisa, for her thoughts.

Lisa is a godsend for many reasons, and not least of all because she’s just as obsessed with names as me—if not more. (In fact, she and her husband kept their baby’s name a secret through her pregnancy, which was torture for nosy little me, though I unknowingly guessed it one day after I randomly declared it one of my all-time favorite names.) Once Lisa receives my list, she asks for the mood of the story, character traits—basically anything that will help her form an opinion. Then we go back and forth – sometimes for weeks – about the pros and cons of the names and narrow it down until I choose one. Surnames are less of an intense process, but I still run them by her if I have trouble deciding. This method sounds a little convoluted - and, yes, perhaps just a tad bit neurotic - but it works for me. It’s almost like having a specialized critique partner, one who understands the importance of names in the world I’m building.

I’m very happy with the character names in POINT, but the funny part is that I can’t remember how most of them came to be. Two of the characters had been recycled through drafts of several novels I failed to finish, so needless to say, I was happy they finally found their home in my debut. As for the main character and the boy she fancies, they are two of my favorite names that just happened to work and came to me quite easily. Overall, from protagonist to the most minor supporting players, I’d be hard-pressed to think of names that fit any better. I’m currently in the middle of revisions for POINT, but I can’t wait to share my character names (and their stories!) with you as the process moves along.



Brandy Colbert was born and raised in the southwest Missouri Ozarks. She graduated with a journalism degree and has since worked as an editor at several national magazines and a business writer at an investment banking firm. Her debut novel, A POINT SO DELICATE, the story of a ballet prodigy whose life begins to unravel when she's forced to admit to the role she played in her childhood friend's abduction, will be published by Penguin/G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers in fall 2013. Brandy lives in Los Angeles where she eats too much cheese and never goes to the beach. You can find her at her blog or hanging out on Twitter.


8 comments:

  1. I can't wait to learn all your meticulously chosen character names, Brandy with a y! I'm glad I'm not the only one who agonizes over picking the perfect names.

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    1. Thanks, Cat! And yes, after our discussion about names on Twitter a couple of weeks ago, I'm not surprised you can relate. :)

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  2. Great post, Brandi. ;)
    hugs,
    Kristina with a K
    a.k.a. Christina (the way my own grandmother misspelled my first name until I was 18 years old...don't talk to me about infuriation)

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    1. KRISTINA.

      Confession: I always thought you were the coolest in school because you spelled your name with a K. You are SO not a Christina, although the story about your grandma makes me laugh.

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  3. Fab post, Brandy. I completely get your meticulousness - the names HAVE to be right!

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    1. Thank you, Emma. :) And I absolutely related to your post yesterday. Can't wait to read more about Jenna Strong!

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  4. I just stumbled upon some early notes for my book and was horrified at some of the names I originally came up with for my characters. I could have used a dose of your name neurosis earlier in my writing!

    What a great post --

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    1. Thanks, Kristen! I'd probably be horrified to total up the number of hours I've spent deciding on character names. Jeez.

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