There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed. – Ernest Hemingway
There is something to be said for those first moments of writing a new novel or short story, those moments when you simply let your fingers run free across the keyboard with no goal except to get the idea on the page. It is exhilarating. I wish sometimes that I could live in that moment forever. But I can’t, and neither can you if you want to get your work published.
There are many details to attend to after you get the skeleton of your new baby underway. Not the least of which is naming your characters. This may seem an easy enough task, a matter of preference, even, but it isn’t.
Let’s look at three different coming out stories, those of:
Florence and Bertha.
Pamela and Tammy.
Harper and Alexa.
In all three we have two young girls somewhere between fifteen and eighteen who are experiencing new love for the first time. Without knowing anything else about these characters, and before reading further, place them in a decade. Jot down some basic characteristics and features. Dress them. Decide where they meet.
If you know your history even slightly, odds are you placed each of these couples in a different era and had them meeting in very different ways.
Florence and Bertha are living in the late 1880s to early 1900s. Florence is a school teacher (they were often 15-17 years of age during that time) who teaches in a one room schoolhouse. Her family lives too far away for her to walk each day, so she is staying with a local family during the week and going home on the weekends. The family Florence stays with consists of a mom, a dad, and six children. Bertha is one of the six children. She is a sixteen-year-old who is always stealing her aunt’s flour sacks to make beautiful dresses.
Pamela and Tammy were born in the early 1960’s. Both have been conditioned by society to look for a potential husband, to marry, and to have children. Pamela moved in down the street from Tammy two years ago, and now they are always together. Pamela is the more forward thinking of the two and spends much of her time wondering what it would be like to kiss her best friend. Tammy has a funny feeling in her tummy every time she is close to Pamela, but she hates herself for feeling it and forces herself to think about how wonderful it will be to get married and have babies. She is convinced the right man will fix her.
Harper and Alexa are out and proud lesbians who are experiencing their teenage years in 2018. They met at a Pride parade in Denver, Colorado. Harper is an only child who lives with two moms. Witnessing the struggles her parents experienced has led her to a life of advocacy for the lgbtq community and for all women. Alexa is the youngest of three siblings in a two-parent heteronormative household. She has fought hard to be loved for who she is, and refuses to be held down by her family’s conservative values.
Don’t stop here, though. You need to know the heritage of your characters, as well. How do they construct names? Check out Personal Names Around the World for a jumping off place for this one.
There are hundreds of baby naming sites on the Internet today, and many of these tell you when the name was popular and from where it originates. One site that I always refer to when deciding on names is the Social Security Administration’s Popular Baby Names by Decade site. It is the perfect starting point for American first names.Florence and Bertha COULD be out and proud teenage lesbians who met at a pride parade, but there has to be a good reason for your character’s parents to have chosen such dated names and for you to be using them. You will also need to establish early that you are in 2018 and not 1920 or your reader will have created a picture in their mind that will not easily be changed.
Also ask yourself if your characters represent anything else in your story. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown is an example of this. The main character is a young man married to faith (literally and figuratively) whose core being is called into question when his journey into the woods turns up more than the answers he seeks. Take a look at the short story to experience a master at work with character creation.
Creating a spread sheet of character names as you progress is also helpful. You need to keep track of first and last names. Make sure spellings do not change, that characters from the same family are named as such, and that you do not start names with the same letters or sounds. The last part of this is something many of us don’t pay enough attention to in our work. We need to, though, as like sounding names get jumbled up in the reader’s mind and the have to spend too much time sorting out who is who. There are 26 letters in the alphabet and names that can be created from each. It becomes like a game to me to not reuse the same letters or sounds. It should to you, as well.
Spend some time searching, exploring, trying names on your characters as you proceed. Naming isn’t as easy as it first appears, but it can certainly be fun.