Friday, July 16, 2010

By Any Other Name

Growing roses is one of those things you do if you're kind of a masochist, as they can be the biggest pain in the garden. But the payoffs are very nice, and if you're interested you can check into the variety names and find out a little more about them.

Some rose names don't need a lot of explanation. For example, here is my Don Juan:

When you have a lush, romantic, beautifully fragrant red rose that climbs a trellis as quickly and easily as a thief in the night, what else are you going to call it but Don Juan?

Some roses have more complicated names, occasionally in different languages. Take my Rosa Tanabamar Caramba:

I wish I could do justice with my camera to the exciting, blazing colors of this rose. It can't be done; you have to see them in person to get the full smack in your face. Caramba is a Spanish interjection that means anything from good grief to damn it, and that suits the visual impact of this bloom exactly (although I think I would have named it Wildfire.)

Sometimes names have a great backstory that comes along with them, like the Sunset Celebration:

Back in 1988 Sunset magazine celebrated its 100th anniversary, and to help mark the occasion a hybrid rose was named after it. This variety, known as Warm Wishes in the UK, has a fairly wide range of colors (which are all golden-pinkish sunset shades.)

Funny thing about this one; I'm not convinced it is actually a Sunset Celebration. It's pale yellow with a darker apricot center, which fits the descriptions I've read of the variety's many colors, but the shape of the petals and leaves make me think it could be a variety of Floribunda someone mislabeled. I'm certainly no rose expert, so I'm having a more knowledgeable friend who is take a look at it the next time she's in town.

So what do the names of roses have to do with writing? Everything.

One of the most potentially memorable aspects of a character is what you name them. Names can be anything from beautiful, clever, exciting and illustrative to ugly, stupid, boring and dishwater-dull, but they should say something about the character the moment the reader is introduced to them.

I have a very specific process involved in character naming, which almost always includes historic resources, but I invent many names, too. Most of my characters' names have at least two meanings: one for the reader, and one for me. I frequently coin names from anagrams or acronyms; Jayr in Evermore was named after a few letters found inside a worn ring. She was also named after something else that I didn't tell the reader but that had intense personal meaning to me. In a way it's a private brain-jog; every time I used Jayr's name on the page I was reminded of why I chose it. I also like finding or coining unusual/uncommon names because it usually discourages other writers from appropriating them for their books.

What do you think about when you consider naming characters? Do you have a process that works for you, or are you more organic and just let the names come to you? Let us know in comments.


  1. Good post!
    Most names come from the booksheves around me, mixed with my feelings for the name and what memories it conjures. Demons, however, generally have --oim or --iel names

  2. I usually spend a lot of time searching on names and their meanings and origin to find the right one to fit the character. Sometimes I make them up, especially for alien/other characters. It's one of those things I can't get past until I get it right.

  3. Sometimes the name just comes to me (usually MC names), and others I do research to find just the right one (secondaries and villains). I don't know why that is, come to think of it. For this WIP, though, the MC's name was thoroughly researched. I wanted something old-fashioned but strong for her, so I researched popular names of the 1900s for her first name and then tacked on a surname with charm and personal significance. I think the name I came up with works for her.

    BTW, I love Jayr's name. Thanks for sharing how you came up with it. =o)

  4. Protagonists usually tell me their names. Minor characters are harder. Also, in real life, you can have two friends named Cathy, in fiction this is a no-no. You can't even have a Marie and a Marian. Makes it difficult, sometimes. So, I often change minor characters' names, but the protagonists are usually themselves from the get-go.

  5. I'm sure these are not proper writerly sentiments, but I have to admit I find naming characters difficult. It's almost as bad as naming children. I wish they just came with a nametag attached.

  6. I have the worst trouble with picking names. My hero in my current work in progress was called "Hero" for about 30 pages before I decided on how to make a name for him.

    I ended up picking an obscure language, looking up words that described him, then manipulating one of them into something an English-speaker has a chance at pronouncing. It's a fantasy, and I liked the results so much, that I've been using the same root language for other characters that I need to name.

    And then there were 4 brothers that I needed names for, so brother #1 got a name beginning with A, brother #2 got B, etc.

    But sometimes a name just pops in my head and I don't know why, so I use it. I had a name for the heroine of my last sci fi/fantasy attempt long before I knew who she was or what her story was.

  7. organic, for the most part...picking names that suit the story and the characters.

  8. Um... BTW... I love you. You know why.

  9. What beautiful roses! I have what I call a "purple thumb" and tend to kill off many plants. Even easy knockout roses. boo.

    I've struggled with names in my last WIP. Poor MC's name has changed four times already and I'm still not sure about it. *sigh*

  10. Keita Haruka11:23 AM

    I don't have any kind of process to naming characters. Most of the time I'll make up a name that "sounds" like the character. I might then at a later stage assign a meaning to the name if it comes up in the story. Part of the reason for this is because most of the time, I create my entire universe from scratch. Why would I then cop out and pick established names? That just wouldn't fit. The other part of the reason is that I genuinely enjoy concocting names. On the rare occasion I do write something where established names would be appropriate, I usually look at some part of my character, then pick a name with that meaning. If he has a fiery persona, I might pick a name that means more or less "fiery". Or if she's an African lady I might pick a traditional name from her culture. I guess it comes down to whatever's long a I like the way it sounds and as long as I feel it fits.

  11. My 4 novels have mostly Irish characters (I'm more Scots). I found an Irish name generator on the Internet which gave "old" names and "modernized" names.

    Found yet another site which showed the derivation of Irish names. Between the two, I could create a name which actually represented the character.

    Worked for me; try it with your characters.

  12. I always enjoy the plot device where the character's name is so inappropriate to their character that they use a nickname and FORBID the real name from ever being mentioned.

    It's like a little mystery, trying to figure it out. And when they do finally tell you, it is usually at the end of the book and you know the character so well that the name doesn't actually seem inappropriate anymore -- it tell s you something about their inner self.

    This probably falls under 'cliche plot device' but I always get a kick out of it.

    As a tech writer all my characters are named with combinations of acronyms and exciting numbers like 9000. The only creative naming I get to do is choose my handle on forums like this one, or name my characters in online RPG games. It is fun to look at everyone's handles and think about what it says about their personality and what kind of conversation to expect from them.

    For example, when I run into someone called Glorthoriel in an online RPG game I can expect some elfy role playing. Whereas when I run across someone named Chickenhugger I have to think hard about whether they could be REALLY interesting or someone I want to avoid completely.

  13. This might sound a bit macabre, but I found my central characters' names in a graveyard. Let me explain before anyone thinks I'm too weird for words.

    I live in Edinburgh, Scotland. My husband and I walk our dog along the river, then cut up through a wooded area into the local kirk (church). We sit on a bench in the peace and beauty and contemplate our day--and our lives.

    One day, as we're sitting there, and I'm randomly reading the names on the headstones, I find this gloriously wonderful name that just HAS to be used in my story. Since many of the people in this ancient kirk were laid to rest in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, I realized I had a treasure-trove of authentic names to pick from.
    For some of my characters, I have mixed and matched first names with different last names, and have ended up with an entire folder filled with brilliant names.

  14. Most names come to me along with the character, fully formed and just somehow "right" for the situation. I've had situations where I tried to change such a name for various reasons, going to the trouble of doing a "search and replace" through entire manuscripts only to realize that I couldn't manage to accept the new name. It just didn't hold the same power as the original name.

    Just this morning I woke up with the idea for a new story in which one of the characters has three older brothers, and all of their names were just there, ready to go. Without knowing anything else about these guys, I knew their names.

  15. I too grow roses. I have them color coded around the yard. Red, pink and purple are in the back. White, yellow and apricot are in the front.

    I dislike having to pick names. I search on meanings a lot of times to get a name that works. Sometimes I'll have a letter of the alphabet I want to use. But it takes hours to pick names for me. (I do try to match historical/ethnicity with the characters as well)

  16. For me, it's a mix of different approaches. Sometimes, characters just show up on the doorstep with a name tag already attached, which makes it easy for me. For those that are stubborn, I have a book on names and their meanings. Those websites showing which names were popular at what times are very helpful, too.

    My current WIP, however, has a character who was really stubborn and just flat out refused to tell me her name. She also nixed any suggestion I made. Then, one day when I was watching TV and the end credits were rolling, the character suddenly popped up and said, "That. That's my name." It was a BBC show and the name was Welsh, which a bit of a problem since the character wasn't Welsh. So I checked whether the name was really female (can be hard to tell with Welsh names) and how to pronounce it. Plus, I came up with a Welsh grandmother for my character for whom she was named.

  17. I just love my entire afternoon, btw. ENTIRE AFTERNOON.

  18. I love the don juan rose! The fact that it climbs trellises cracked me up.

    I name my characters based on their personality and their role in the book. I look through baby name websites and go with my gut instinct.

  19. I love roses. Those pictures are gorgeous. I don't have as many as I did at my old house (well over 100) but I'm getting there.

    I didn't have much trouble with my Hns. Their first names just kind of popped out of nowhere. The heroes were a bit more difficult and I did look them up. The worst is the last name though. I've changed the last names of my characters in one story so many times, I'm not even sure anymore which one I finally decided on.


  20. I love your rose photos. I used to grow a climbing rose variety called 'Golden Showers'. It is a beautiful variety with a lovely scent, readily available back home in England. I'm not sure where it originated though or how available it is elsewhere. Thanks for the memory boost.

  21. This may sound weird, but I do it by color. But then I'm mildly synesthesic. Every character has a color and the name has to match. Sometimes shape matters too.