Saturday, June 04, 2011

Noun Names

Recently I picked up a mid-series novel (which was not written by anyone who visits here, but we'll let the author remain nameless anyway) that I was pretty interested in reading from a technical standpoint. Often I like to see how other writers handle some problems that are inherent to writing series stories. This one did an okay job with the problem in question; a little on the soft-serv side but not anything that chased me out of the book.

There was one thing the author did have in the story that just about drove crazy me, however: a character with a noun name.

Using a random noun to name a character in a story is a tricky business for a bunch of reasons. Prevalence of use is the first hmmmm on my list; since we got over the sixties there just aren't that many people walking around with names like Dancer, Starlight, Saffron or Journey. Of course noun names make terrific nicknames, and as such I use them all the time, but as proper names? No.

Then there is reader reaction, which can't always be predicted or anticipated. The noun name in this case happened to be something that I personally intensely dislike, so you can understand why I wanted this otherwise very nice character dead by page ten. You can't assume that everyone is going to share your enthusiasm for any noun names you use in a story.

If you are determined to use a noun name, consider having it fit the story as well as the character. A cowboy in a romance named Nevada or Buck would not be as glaring or jarring as one named Neptune or Metro. Also, if you don't know what a noun means, look it up. Peyote may sound cool to you, but it's a botanical from which the hallucinogen mescaline is derived. Not really something you'd want to name a DEA agent.

Other things to consider when contemplating the noun name:

Hateful nouns: Of course there is always some dingbat out there who thinks it's funny to name their child Booze, Wifebeater or Zombie. But most parents generally welcome a child into their lives, and choose a name that has both meaning and love attached to it.

Nouns in other languages: be sure you know what that very cool word you spotted during your European vacation translates to in English. This avoids multi-lingual readers being jolted out of a story by characters whose names mean Vomit, Abortion or Toxic Waste.

Pop culture nouns: What is a fad today will be a joke (or worse) tomorrow. Just ask Pop Rocks Smith, Mood Ring Jones and Cabbage Patch Perkins.

Date nouns: Days of the week and months of the year are probably the least offensive noun names, but often they can become visually confusing for the reader, ala On Tuesday Thursday went to the store or "Do you have an opening in July, April?"

If you are determined to use a noun name for your character, first do a search of the noun to see what meanings and connotations are already attached to it. If any celebrities have used it to name their kids that's usually a sign that it's a terrible choice. Another litmus test is to consider if you would use it to name one of your own children in real life. Whatever objections you think up are probably going to be mirrored by at least some of your readers. If you have a trusted writer friend (aka someone who won't steal the name from you) ask them what they think of it.

One final thought: employing noun names for characters is like cooking with cilantro. Don't expect your choice to be popular with everyone; some people will love it, but others will think it tastes like soap.

14 comments:

  1. Oh come on. Now you just HAVE to write that as a short story at least. I can see it now. After a lifetime of drug jokes, Peyote Phillips becomes a DEA agent to put a rest to any further efforts to embroil her in a drug culture she has no respect for ever since it swallowed her parents who never understood the ritual attached to peyote visions. But how can she explain this to her boss, who finds out about the latest attempt and tries to enlist her for undercover work.

    Wow, that throwaway line really inspired me :). I can see her even.

    Regardless, good reminder on name choices.

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  2. ... not sure if it's regional, generational, or what, but I'd have to say that in the northwest US, noun names (and even more unusual things) seem to have steadily increased in number in the last 15 years since my oldest was born.

    All mine have mundane names like Michael and Christopher - and I'd guess that the unusual names are probably running 50-50 around here with the traditional, if not slightly more.

    So while current adults might balk at some of these names now, once these kids are grown, might be a whole different ballgame.

    Just don't go naming anyone Jerimiagee - like a friend's two year old son - unless the name is a focal point of the story. Please. (And the mother won't tolerate nicknames... yeah, that's going to be interesting to see as time goes by.)

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  3. Picking names is so important! I've always found it most difficult when a single novel has five or six odd names... makes me wonder whether the book is actually sci-fi. Even in sci-fi and fantasy, though, names have to be pronounceable. If I can't figure out how to say it, it's going to be hard for me.

    Reminds me of the Chevy Nova, intended for distribution in Mexico and South America. Nobody bothered to see what no va means in Spanish--"does not go." HUGE mistake.

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  4. Great, thoughtful post as ever, Lynn. One thing though: whilst I agree with most of what you say, I think that a DEA agent called Peyote would be wonderfully ironic. Some noun names, like April and Saffron, are so common now that they're not really considered as such anymore, either. I think the point is that any name should be well considered, and not just chosen at random.

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  5. As for noun names in other languages, in "The Hotel New Hampshire" John Irving has two characters named "abortion" and "miscarriage" respectively. There are hints in the text that Irving knows what the words mean, but it's still terribly distracting to read something like: "And then I kissed Abortion, while Miscarriage looked on disapprovingly."

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  6. AnnaM.12:12 PM

    I've noticed a lot of people around here with noun names. We have Mercedes, September, April, May, June, Tuesday, Wednesday, Sunday, Baltimore, Rose, Lily, Iris, Daisy...hmm, there are more and some are really odd. I could break out my kids' yearbook and probably find more.

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  7. While reading this, I kept thinking about that old TV show "Blossom". Not only was the main character named Blossom but her best friend was Six. That name always jolted me - why would her parents name her Six? Was she the sixth kid to come along? Was she born on the sixth? Did she weight six pounds, six ounces? Did she have six fingers or six toes?

    If a character has a noun name that is unusual, there needs to be a great story behind that name.

    And I also think of all of the celebrities who go with the noun-as-name trend. Apple, daughter of Gwyneth Paltrow. Sunday Rose, daughter of Keith Urban and Nicole Kidman. And the mother of all ridiculous noun names, Moon Unit, daughter of Frank Zappa. Of course, she can't complain too much. She has a sister named Diva Muffin...

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  8. I tend to rely on baby name searches, especially for time periods/regions. But now all I can think about is how tragic it is that some people think cilantro tastes like soap. And how glad I am that I can taste it for the flavor explosion it is.

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  9. Lynn you always put in so much insight and thought into the topics you write about. :) Ahh I am in the process of picking the right name for my MC #2 and it is so hard to find one that clicks like it does with my other characters.

    ~TRA

    http://xtheredangelx.blogspot.com

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  10. Keita Haruka5:06 PM

    Noun names are very common here. Several of my co-workers have them. Justice, Precious, Freedom...some others. One can't get away from them here.

    One should also be careful with made-up names. David Eddings had me laughing right out loud a few times. His "Arends" especially. In my native language, "Arend" means "Eagle", so whenever he described the Arends as stupid and blundering, but intensely proud people, I had visions in my head of braindamaged eagles blundering around the countryside. :p

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  11. Oh, boy do I agree with this one because through the whole read, all I kept thinking of was Moon Unit Zappa...

    Poor kid.

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  12. Names are so important. I try to stick with the simple ones although I can't help admiring David Duchovney for naming his kid 'Kyd'.lol You can't get more simple than that.

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  13. Would noun names make more sense if in a dystopian society, everyone had noun name? What if it was the law that your name had to be a noun for some odd reason? Would it be weird or interesting?

    What do you think of the names Sonnet, Chance,Price, and Quest? What gender would you assume that these names would be for? Would these names turn you off as a reader? Do they have any "weird" associations?

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  14. Anonymous9:05 PM

    Personally, I love noun names. I can agree that a cowboy named Metro or Neptune would be out of place and distract from the story. But there are plenty of noun names - not nicknames, but given names - that are fairly prevalent in today's society. In my own experience I've known people named Jade, Candy, Cherry, Faith, Grace, Daisy, Lily, April, Autumn, Willow, Charisma, River, and Phoenix. And those are only a few I could think of off the top of my head. The idea that a given name need be something out of the history books in order to be legitimate is going out. So while it can be a tricky business coming up with the right noun name for your character and story, I honestly prefer it to overused run-of-the-mill names. If I pick up a book and the main character's name is Christopher I'm more likely to put it back down than if the main's name is Cash. I've known too many Christophers and the name has left a bad impression, and that's tough for an author to compete with. I haven't, however, known a single person with the given name Cash, so the author has a fairly fresh slate to work with.

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