Tuesday 8 May 2012

Names, and Pain

This is my personal bugbear.

When you write a story, you have to name all your characters. You have to either decide on real locations or invent place names as well. You have to come up with a title. It's a pain.

Naming characters isn't too difficult, even if you're not so good at names. If you want 'real' names, a quick search will reveal dozens of baby name websites. I like behindthename.com, which seems to be more focussed on researching names: it has less cutesy baby stuff than most, it's easy to find names used in a particular language/culture, and there's a link to a surname site. I generally ask the nearest person to pick a letter, and look for names starting with that letter. If none suit, or if I suspect them of deliberately choosing a difficult letter, I demand a replacement until I find one.

Some people also recommend visiting a graveyard and borrowing names from the headstones. I've never tried this; to be honest it creeps me out a little.

If you want names for a fantasy story or something else where you don't want names that are used in real life, it gets a little harder. But there are some tricks. Spell a name backwards - alter the spelling a little if the result looks clumsy. They often sound very name-like; I discovered this playing a pretend game with my brothers when we were little. It involved creating a 'language' by the simple expedient of spelling everything backwards, and I liked my younger brother's and my resulting monikers so much I used them in a story (you know, the one you wrote when you were a kid that you now cringe when you reread). My older brother unhelpfully turned out to be a brand of mints.

Or, similarly, pick a name that sounds interesting and modify it a bit to make it unique. Another approach is to choose a language quite different from yours and pick names that are real but unfamiliar. Although I can see this having drawbacks if you hope to publish in other languages - specifically, in the one you borrowed the names from.

I find places harder than characters. Again, it's easy enough if you're setting it in the real world. Just pick your locations out on a map. I've done a fair bit of location scouting via Google maps, where Streetview is extremely useful and sometimes funny.

For made-up places, I'm afraid I have very little to offer. I really can't do these well. 'Pick a letter' can help a little, especially if followed by 'and now pick a vowel', etc, until you get a decent first syllable, and analogous techniques to the ones I mentioned for made-up character names.

Then there's the title. This is apparently quite an important feature, something you really need to get right. So far I've only found two approaches:

1. Miraculous burst of inspiration leading to the perfect title. Out of my list of Novels I Plan To Write, three of them have titles resulting from this. The big drawback is that this only happens when it wants to. If it doesn't, I resort to

2. Working title. For example, the vampire story I'm currently working on has from the start been labelled on my computer as Vampire Story. This is not a satisfactory state of affairs. To make matters worse, I'm going to need a trilogy title as well as a book title. I'm now in the final scenes of my first draft, and still have absolutely no idea about either.

So, here's a question for you: how do you come up with a good title?

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