Monday, December 6, 2010

Find the Perfect Name for a Fictional Character Part 1

In my work in progress, Vengeance Is Mine, I discovered last week that I had two characters named Paul. I always liked that name, and I know at least six Pauls in real life, probably more if I sat down and made a list. But two Pauls in a novel is not acceptable.

I'm usually pretty careful about selecting names, so I was surprised it happened. In fact, I use an Excel worksheet to track character names to make sure it doesn't happen. My worksheet is simple, and has these columns:

  • Last Name
  • First Name
  • Comments

By separating the last name and first name, I can use Excel's Data tab to easily sort by first or last name. I try not to have two characters that have the same first letter much less the same first name. So what happened?

The double Paul error occurred because one of the Pauls had a nickname. My writing instructor, Bonnie Hearn Hill, always said it was best to have one name for a character and stick with it. Even though, in real life, we have names of endearment, nicknames, and legal names for just about everyone we know.

In my case, one of my main characters (Paul #1) was called Tex by everyone. In my Character worksheet I had included his real first name with Tex in the Comments column. The only reason I had his real first name listed was for backstory and so that I, as author creator, knew him well enough to know his full name. At some point in the process I forgot his real name and knew him only as Tex.

Paul #2 shows up in three scenes and is mentioned in two others. A minor, but not insignificant character. His name rings true to me for this character. He is a Paul.

I found out I had two Pauls when I decided it didn't sound right for Liz, Tex's boss at the library, to call him by his nickname. She might call him Mr. Thompson, or use his first name, but she wouldn't call his Tex. Since I couldn't remember what his first name was, I opened the Excel worksheet, and sorted on first name. That's when I discovered I had two Pauls.

Needless to say I had to change Tex's first name because, as I said, the name Paul was perfect for Paul #2. So, now Tex's real name is Percy. Nothing against the Percys in the world, but the character in my book would welcome a nickname if his parents labeled him Percy.

In the next posting, we'll look at other considerations when it comes to finding the perfect character name. In the meantime, I'd love to hear from you about how you select names.

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