Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Name by any other Moniker can still be a bad Cogomen

I was thinking about names the other day. Names in literature or movies. Some of my favs? Ford Prefect. Han Solo. Samwise Gamgee. (One of my latest favorites is Margherita Dolce Vita.) How do authors go about choosing the names of their children? And they ARE children. An author will live with them intimately for a while, watching them grow and learn and change. Then they will be sent off to fend for themselves- to survive in the Amazon (hopefully at a respectable three digit number or better) . They may end up retired (after a successful life of being read) on a dusty bookshelf or in a sparkling Kindle. Or they may be forever lost in a discount table or left to languish with the millions of never-to-be-known characters at the far end of the non-seller lists. Such is life.

I guess we all have our own methods for choosing names. My wife and I do not have any kids but we have always had cats. Our current fuzzy wonderboy is a four year old gray tabby named Cosmo. Cosmo: the all encompassing existence around and within us. Also a crazy, off the wall character from Seinfeld.
Yeah - that about describes him. But a name for a pet or a child or a villain in a novel needs to do more- I feel - than just describe them. The name itself should feel right. It should in itself be a character. So what methods do authors use to pick names? I hope some fellow writers will comment on this blog with their naming schemes. For me - well - I have no clue. Sort of. Let me examine a few of my own character names and see if I can figure out their origins.

My first novel (and so far my only one until 2011 when my first mid level/YA novel will be published by Zumaya) is called Milky Way Marmalade. It is dear to my heart. It won a Dream Realm Award and received great reviews but the poor bugger struggles at the very deep, tangled reaches of the Amazon. It will finds its way. It is too bloody funny and entertaining not to. Our hero in MWM is named Caffrey Quark.

Hmmm. Caffrey. Quark. I like the flow. If feels good to say it! Caffrey: a Scottish beer. Quark - nice, scifi feel- but funny- not pretentious. Viola. A name. Fits him to a T. The villain in MWM is called Nefarious Wretch. Ok- pretty damned obvious. Yet it was not random. It needed to sound BIG. Meglo-maniacal. Yet it also needed to show a lack of thought and depth. An immaturity. It had to wreak of a "my name is bigger than your name" machismo. And, of course, it had to be funny.

Other times names are born of the left brain. Take Ken "Mecca" Rennet- the psychedelic researcher in my latest feature film, Triptosane. He was inspired by the brilliant 20th century philosopher/enthnopharmacologist, Terrence McKenna. I wanted his personality to be different - but I needed to somehow give TM a nod. How? The magic anagram generator! Yep- take T-e-r-r-e-n-c-e M-c-k-e-n-n-a and rearrange the letters and you get (amongst other things) Ken "Mecca" Rennet. Came with its own nickname (which had to be explained in the screenplay). I use the online anagram generator ( often. It's a blast. (It can also be an ego tamer. I ran "Triptosane" through it and got: "A Rotten Pis". Yikes.)
There are other online tools. Databases of baby names. Mythology sites with endless lists of gods and demons. Use them! They are very helpful.

Bad names can ruin a work. Take the name "Rowsdower" from the inept film A Final Sacrifice (wonderfully lampooned by the wits of Mystery Science Theatre 3000). What is a Rowsdower?? A first name. A last? It sounds like a bad anagram.

But I think a bigger crime than a bad name is a lame name. A name that sounds made up. Like "Art Vanderlay" - a brilliant choice (from a brilliant TV Show) for a name that was supposed to sound made up. Imagine naming your child (or your dog) Peter Rundersmith (I literally just made that up) BARF-O-RAMA.

The naming of your character is its birth. Let their be a method to the madness! Have fun with it. I hope Rupert Starbright, of my soon to be published mid level/YA novel, Rupert Starbright: The Door to Far-Myst- will fair well in life!


  1. LOL. Love this post. I never knew choosing your character's names was so complicated. Most of the time my characters either tell me their names or one pops into my head. Usually this little voice speaks to me and tells me something about herself/himself. Since most of my stories are contemporar, just regular names work for me. In my historicals, I do go back to the time period to see what names were used.

    I enjoyed reading about your characters. Looking forward to meeting Rupert Starbright.

  2. I keep a list of names I find interesting or that I've heard that sound neat, and cross them off once I've used them. The unpublished, finished manuscript, I used names from my ancestral tree. Which was cool :)

  3. Thanks for the post, Michael! I love some of your names, including the duds you mention.
    Caffrey Quark is great. And I can just hear people saying dramatically, "You Nefarious Wretch!"

    Generally speaking, all of my villains have names which would score high in Scrabble, like Wenos Zex.

    I have a villain in an upcoming book, named Hextor Nigragr. I began with Hector and threw in the "hex", and the last part of the name is supposed to imitate a growl.

    I've seen the anagram generator, but will have to check out the other sites. Thanks!

  4. Interesting how you come up with some of your characters names.

    I keep a list of ones I find interesting and I've also been know to look through the phone book. Baby name books is also a good place to look for names.