Margie Lawson

Changing your Writing World

What's in a Name?

How do you feel about naming characters?

It’s NOT drudgery. It’s all about finding out your character’s backstory and using that to find the right name.

The first thing that authors need to consider is: Names are language. In fact, it is special branch of linguistics called onomastics. Here is just a sample:

Neologisms

A neologism is a created word. So if you do this for your characters, then you have to think about the original names and what THEY meant and then to come up with pleasing combinations of the names. For instance, some of you may know author Preslaysa Williams. Her name is a combination of her parents, Preston, and Lysander. Her Black father, Preston's name is a long time family name that has been passed down for generations. Her mother Lysander, is a Filipina whose parents enjoyed Shakespere and named her that. 

Pretty cool, huh? If you have young characters you might want to think of names in this direction. The tendency now is to name children something singular, unique and special. This was not the tendency even ten years ago.

Nicknames 

Another consideration when you pick your names are how the character could be nicknamed or if they want to be nicknamed or if they resist nicknames. All of that will contribute to the way they see themselves. There was a website (I wish it still was around) of all of the ways someone could make fun of a name so you could type in your child's name and think about whether or not you would want to name your child that.

So, say I wanted to go with Barbara. What would people call her? Babs? Bar? Barbie? *shudder* So, although I like the meaning, these nicknames are not striking the right chord with me for my character who is a very strong woman with a mind of her own. Go to other naming sites and feel free to think of the way your character can be nicknamed. 

In my family, when they want to poke fun at me, they will call me Milly. How did Milly come from Piper? Well, we have a great love of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in our family. I’m the one who gets up to make a grand breakfast spread when we all get together, so I’m called Milly after the main character who had to cook big heaps of food for the men in her restaurant job. There is a whole story there and nicknames can reveal something about your characters if you think through them enough.

In my book Sweet Tea, my heroine’s real name is Althea. Her parents named her after Althea Gibson, the great Black tennis pro. Growing up, her grandmother called her Tea. When Althea moved to New York for boarding school, to fit in with her white peers, she insisted on being called Allie, because she felt that Althea was too ethnic. She did not want to be reminded of her family by embracing her nickname of Tea. So at the beginning of the story, she’s called Allie. The story is all about her journey when she returns home and becomes Tea again. 

And yes the title is a tie-in to her name and another element of the story. Names are language.

Behind the name is a website that shows you some nicknames, sometimes called diminutives. 

Unique or to fit in

What if your character has a unique name? Well as someone who had a unique name for a long time, I will tell you that certainly shaped my personality. I would say that it made me more defensive as a person. People, like even my future mother-in-law (sigh) seemed to judge my name, rolling it around in their mouths before they accepted it. I really didn't like that feeling. The trend within the past 10-15 years has been to be as unique as possible.

Here's a young woman who took some time before she came to appreciate her unique cultural name. 

It took me 18 years before I embraced my name.

Let's not leave out the thoughts of our vice president when she reacted to a colleague who made fun of her name

She started to talk about it at 12:00 minutes in, near the end of the interview

Making fun of how to say Kamala.

Aspirational or hopes for the future

Some parents name their children in anticipation that they become something or in defense of something. 

Did your character's parents do this? What names, in the time of your character's birth sounded "rich" or like a celebrity? In recent years, celebs have named their children some VERY unique names. I recall the controversy when Gwenyth Paltrow named her daughter Apple. But when you think about it, Gwenyth knew that Apple doesn't have to fill out applications to work at Mickey D's. She has money. Did your characters' parents name your character like this? 

What about unisex names?

Remember Johnny Cash's song "A Boy Named Sue?" Will the gendering of your character's name matter any more? Authors have to think about when, where and how their characters exist. If you have younger characters, then consider unisex names. This used to be a big no no in writing fiction, but with changes in society, this will also change. As recently as 20 years ago, parents seemed pressed to name their boys something "masculine" or as we say in onomastics a name that won't "cross over." After all, Leslie, Joyce, Shirley, and Beverly were all male names 100 years ago. Now they aren't. 

The Madison craze in the 1980's really kicked off the use of surnames as girl's first names, a territory that used to be exclusively male. Now these names are unisex. For anyone in the so called Gen Z, like my cousins Kingston, London, Bryce, and Chandler, (Kingston is a young man and the other three are young women) no one can presume their gender just by looking at their name. Does a unisex name impact your character when they come across an older character? How unisex can a name be? I almost got drafted when I turned 18—based on my name. All of this can be fruitful and rich backstory for your characters—if you give it the time and thought it deserves instead of naming in a stereotypical way.

Teacher

Piper Huguley

Piper G Huguley is a two-time Golden Heart ®finalist and is the author of “Migrations of the Heart,” a three-book series of historical romances set in the early 20th century featuring African American characters. Book #1 in the series, A Virtuous Ruby, has won Best Historical in the Swirl Awards. Book #3 in the series, A Treasure of Gold, was named by Romance Novels in Color as a Best Book, received 4 ½ stars from RT Magazine, and won an Emma Award for best historical romance.

Huguley is also the author of the “Home to Milford College” series. The series follows the building of a college from its founding in 1866. Book #1 in the series, The Preacher’s Promise was named a top ten Historical Romance in Publisher’s Weekly by the esteemed historical romance author, Beverly Jenkins and received Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Digest Contest of Self-Published e-books.

She blogs about the history behind her novels at http://piperhuguley.com. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her husband and son. Her biographical historical novel about Ann Lowe, the Black fashion designer who created Jacki Kennedy’s wedding gown, will be released from William Morrow in Winter 2022.

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