Character-Naming Advice for NaNoWriMo

A few days ago, I posted some general advice about naming fictional characters. And today I have another character-naming tip to offer, but today’s tip is specifically for name-lovers planning to give NaNoWriMo a shot next month.

My suggestion? Experiment with non-name identifiers for your characters.

Your goal is to hit 50,000 words in just 30 days, so you don’t want to squander any time picking out perfect character names. Because, let’s be honest, that’s exactly what a lot of us would do. :)

Sure, you could use whatever names emerge from your subconscious as you write. And you could tell yourself that you’ll go back and pick better names once the month is over. But if you do this, you’ll be in danger of growing attached to those temporary names, which would make the re-naming process very tricky.

To avoid the pain of having to re-name your characters, consider not naming them at all, at least at first. Here are some alternative identifiers you could use in place of names this November:

  • Archetypes, like: Warrior, Detective, Rebel, Artist, Mentor.
  • Occupations or Roles, like: Mechanic, Businessman, Chef, Neighbor, Sister.
  • Symbols of a dominant personality trait, like: Crowbar (manipulative), Lightbulb (inventive), Sweatpants (lazy), Greenjuice (healthy).
  • Simple Descriptions, like: Teenager, Oldlady, Tallman, Readhead, Pegleg.

Mix and match identifiers from any of the above categories, or create an identification system of your own. Just do whatever allows you to both write quickly and avoid premature name-attachment.

If you’re a name-lover who has participated in NaNoWriMo before, how did you handle character names? What advice would you offer?

The Introduction of Indira

indira gandhi, politics, 1960s
Indira Gandhi in 1966

The baby name Indira not only first appeared in the U.S. baby name data in 1966, but it was the top debut name of of the year.

  • 1970: 20 baby girls named Indira
  • 1969: 14 baby girls named Indira
  • 1968: 16 baby girls named Indira
  • 1967: 17 baby girls named Indira
  • 1966: 43 baby girls named Indira [debut]
  • 1965: unlisted

Why? Because in January of 1966, Indira Gandhi — no relation to Mahatma Gandhi — became the third Prime Minister of India.

She succeeded the former Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, who had died suddenly on January 11 while overseas in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. She was elected on January 19th and assumed office on January 24th.

Indira was the only child of India’s very first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. She was named after her great-grandmother Indrani (a.k.a. Jeorani) and was called “Indu” by family members. The name Indira means “beauty” in Sanskrit.

So far, Indira Gandhi has been the only female Prime Minister of India. She served from 1966 to 1977, then again from 1980 until 1984, when she was assassinated.

Source: Two Alone, Two Together: Between Indira Gandhi & Jawaharlal Nehru, 1922-1964. Ed. Sonia Gandhi. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2004.

How to Name Fictional Characters

three tips on choosing a character name

How-to articles on naming fictional characters are a dime a dozen. But most are a litany of tips — some important, others not so much. So I thought I’d try boiling the best of the advice down to a single sentence. Here’s what I came up with:

“Each character’s name should fit the setting, fit the character, and be distinct within the story.”

The sentence contains three different objectives, so let’s look out each one separately:

Fit the setting

The name should be appropriate for the time and place in which the story occurs. A romance set in 18th-century England could be between an Elizabeth and a Frederick, but not a Nevaeh and a Jayden. Similarly, the protagonist of a 24th-century space opera could be named something standard/plain (John) or futuristic (Loxxan), but probably not something very old (Holmketill), or even slightly old (Clarence).

Fit the character

The name should suit the character, primarily in terms of permanent descriptors (e.g., gender, age, ethnicity), but also, perhaps, in terms of personality traits (e.g., bubbly, gracious, haughty).

Stereotyping in general is bad, but when it comes to character names, it’s very useful: You want the name to give the correct impression of the character right away. A woman from India should be named Padma, not Margaret. A man from Germany should be called Armin, not Oakley.

You could also take it a step further and choose a name that reflects the character’s personality in a subtle way. A friendly woman could be an Amy, while a complex woman could be Demetria. Do this mainly with sounds and associations, which will be picked up instantly by the reader.

Be distinct within the story

The name should not look or sound similar to any of the other names in the story, or else the reader could get confused. Pay special attention to first letters and to repeated sounds. If the protagonists are sisters, name them Mila and Harriet, not Katie and Kelly. Likewise, if the main characters are brothers, use the names Brian and Luke, not Aidan and Adam.

…What are your thoughts on this topic?

Mystery Monday – Chevette

So here’s an interesting case. The baby name Chevette debuted in the U.S. baby name data in 1965:

  • 1969: 5 baby girls named Chevette
  • 1967: 8 baby girls named Chevette
  • 1966: 6 baby girls named Chevette
  • 1965: 6 baby girls named Chevette [debut]
  • 1964: unlisted
  • 1963: unlisted

You’d think it’d be the car, right? The Chevrolet Chevette? Except, the car didn’t arrive until 1975. You can see the corresponding spike in usage in 1976:

  • 1977: 7 baby girls named Chevette
  • 1976: 17 baby girls named Chevette [peak]
  • 1975: 6 baby girls named Chevette

The only pop culture reference I can find for the mid-1960s is, weirdly, another car: a custom-build race car. Created by engineer Bob McKee, it was called the “Chevette” because it was made out of parts from the Chevelle and the Corvette. It was driven in various American road races in 1964 and 1965, but I can’t find any press coverage.

Another (more likely) possibility is that the name emerged naturally, given the stylishness of -vette names during the ’60s. The name Yvette saw peak usage (125th) in 1967, for instance, and the Chevette-like names Charvette and Jevette popped up in the data just before Chevette did.

What are your thoughts on this one?

Source: Pace, Harold and Mark Brinker. Vintage American Road Racing Cars 1950-1969. St. Paul, MN: Motorbooks International, 2004.

Cat-Naming Tip: Think “High-Pitched”

cat-naming tip

Cats don’t often respond when called by name. In fact, they seem to enjoy blissfully ignoring their humans.

So if you’ve recently acquired a kitty and want to increase the likelihood that he/she will respond when called, choose the right name, and remember to say it the right way.

According to Vancouver veterinarian Dr. Uri Burstyn, “cats have evolved to hear high-pitched sounds much better than low-pitched sounds because most of their prey animals — rodents, birds — all communicate in a very high frequency, stuff that humans can’t hear.” He also notes that cats respond more regularly to names that terminate in a high-pitched sound, particularly an “ee” sound.

PetMD.com agrees:

Cats have been noted to respond better to high-pitched human voices … Cats also respond to names containing the long e-vowel, or “ee” sound.

So, to catch your cat’s attention, name it something like Smokey or Missy as opposed to something like Tigger or Shadow. (All four of these names were top-10 cat names in San Diego in 2016, btw.)

And, whatever name you choose, remember say it in a high pitch for maximum effect.

Sources: Cat names that get your cat’s attention – what should I name my cat? (vid), Naming Your Kitten – petMD