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  What’s In A Name?
by Cynthia VanRooy

       What’s in a name? Everything! Names have magic. That’s why we spend so much time and angst coming up with just the right ones for our characters.

Remember the first time your significant other spoke your name out loud? How wonderful, how intimate it sounded? Imagine your hero or heroine using the other’s name for the first time, saying it with a smile, muttering it in irritation, forcing it from behind clenched teeth in anger, or whispering it while making love. In every case the name will have more impact if you’ve chosen well.

There are a number of factors to take into consideration. For Silhouette Desire author and Holt Medallion winner Susan Crosby, the sound and rhythm of the name are paramount. Her favorite hero name ever, Gabriel Alejandro de la Hoya y Marquez, is from her book His Seductive Revenge. Read the name out loud to yourself and you’ll hear the rhythm. The heroine in this book is Christina Chandler, a name that’s still rhythmic but a counterpoint to his more elaborate one.

This leads into another concern—only one unusual or exotic main character name per book. Otherwise the story has too much of a made up, author-at-work feel. I have a friend named Theodora, a name I love and will use one day. You can bet, though, that the hero of that book will be named Tom, Dick, or Harry, or the current equivalent.

And speaking of current—NY Times best-selling author and two-time Rita winner Suzanne Brockmann has a trick for insuring her characters’ names are appropriate to their era. She searches websites that have lists of the most popular names for boys and girls born in any given year. If she has a secondary character who’s seventy-five years old, she checks to see what was popular the year they were born.

Giving a character a name congruent with their times makes them more genuine for the reader. It’s like handing the reader a quick snapshot of your character. Ensure you don’t give a character a name that wasn’t even in existence when they were born, i.e. don’t name an historical heroine something like Tammy, Bambi, or Tiffany. Extreme examples, to be sure, but always check to guarantee you don’t unsuspectingly use a name of too-recent origin.

You’ve probably read not to have two characters in a book with names that begin with the same letter because it gets confusing for the reader. The same rule applies to names that may be spelled differently but sound the same like Jack and Zack, Mary and Terry, Sam and Tammy.

And if you want the reader to take your characters seriously, avoid alliteration. Mandy Mathers and Tim Thomas may be wonderful characters for a children’s story, but a little too cute for adult reading. Likewise, be sure that the combination of your hero and heroine’s names don’t sound silly together—Jack and Jill, Pat and Mike, Mark and Cleo (Marc Anthony and Cleopatra for those not historically inclined ), etc. Doing it on purpose as a plot point is fine. Just don’t let your choices be an unfortunate accident. Have one or more of the characters comment on the combination of names to cement in the reader’s mind that the combination was by design.

Be aware of which names have an upper-class, old-money history and which sound like an up-by-his-bootstraps working man. In historical England no blue-blooded family would have named a daughter Molly, a working class name. On a subconscious level we’re aware of these distinctions, and your characters won’t ring true if you give them names not suited to their class.

Along these lines, USA Today best-selling author Christie Ridgway advises that if a character isn’t gelling for you, be open to change. Maybe they just need a new name. Her character, Jacob Cargill, started out a banker. When she decided to give him the more colorful career of monster truck driver, suddenly his name wasn’t working. She changed it to Nash Cargill and voila—truck driver.

A name can also provide a clue to a character’s place of birth. Beau (recently shortened to Bo) is a Son of the South. Also southern are double female names—Bonny Jean, Amanda Marie, Hazel Doris (my very southern cousin),

What do Alan Francisco, Cosmo Richter, and Tom Paoletti have in common? They are all heroes from Suzanne Brockmann’s books. They have a guy-next-door kind of sound. Suzanne picks a first name she likes and then reads phone books for ethnic last names. Because the United States is made up of such a variety of ethnicities, she likes her characters to reflect this broad range. She believes this gives a more believable feel to the book than sticking with the usual standard Anglo-Saxon hero and heroine names. Judging by her book sales, a lot of readers agree with her.

Shorter, one-syllable names have a more macho, masculine feel—Shane, Matt, Jake,  John. Two or more syllables to a name are more feminine than one, but both these suggestions are generalizations. There are always exceptions. To reach your reader on a subliminal level, give your hero a name that uses the hard-consonant sounds—d ,g, k, t. Names like Kurt, Grant, Max, Dirk. Reserve the softer sounds for your heroine—Gina, Sherri, Jennifer, Suzy.

Novelist and writing instructor Marian Jones advises against using names that end in “s.” In the possessive (s’s), the double “s” hisses on the page.

The most important point about character names is to make them something the reader can pronounce. They’ll be calling this character by name in their heads as they read and they’ll hear the character addressed by other characters. Every time the unpronounceable name comes up, the reader will halt, then stumble over it trying to figure out again how to pronounce it. They may just give up and quit reading. Even if they finish your story, they won’t be inclined to rave about it to a friend if they’re afraid of mispronouncing the main character’s name. You can still go for exotic, alien, or prehistoric as long as you choose something the reader can work with phonetically.

When you come across a name that strikes you, save it! Almost every writer I know maintains a notebook of potential character names. The hero of my book Everything That Glitters is named Greydon Cantrell, something I felt reflected his Old South, old-money background. I discovered Greydon on the nametag of a checker at our local grocery store and made note of it. I knew I’d want to use it one day.

If you haven’t already started a name notebook, do. Then when you’re racking your brain for the perfect name for your nuclear physicist, elementary school teacher, virtual assistant, advertising executive heroine you’ll only need to page through the assortment of names you’ve already collected to find one.

Take your time naming your creations. Choosing a name that sings on the page for you will go a long way toward growing your characters. Shakespeare may have believed that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but romance writers know better!


Now that you've written the book, does the hardest part seem to be getting an editor to read it? Let award-winning romance author Cynthia VanRooy, published in both print and electronic formats, teach you in her information-packed ebooklet, The Secrets to Query Letters That Work, how seasoned professionals, even unagented ones, circumvent the slush pile and get their fiction in front of the decision makers. For more information click on http://www.cynthiavanrooy.com.

 

 



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