Names and Titles: a writer’s thoughts on choosing them well
October 19, 2015
Names. Titles. Sometimes it seems that coming up with the right ones takes nearly as much time as crafting the book itself. I know I spend a long time trying to get my characters’ names, and my book titles, just right.
It may seem to the non-writer that a name is a name. But imagine for a moment if Jo March of Little Women had been called Nancy, or Lulu, Patsy or Parthena — all names that were au courant at the time. Would Lulu or Patsy have seemed such a strong, dynamic character? (No insult intended to the Lulus and Patsys out there!)
The writer needs to not only consider if the name suits the personality of the character, as in the example above, but also the genre, the time period of the story, the ethnicity of the character, the age of the character and what names were current when that character was born — it’s a lot to think about!
I’m grateful for the internet in this task. No longer do writers have to feel embarrassed when buying baby name books! Name listings for every era are right at our fingertips.
I like to figure out when my characters would have been born, then look for names that were popular in that year. This can be narrowed down further by country (or even state!) as well as, of course, boy or girl.
You can also easily search for the meanings of names, if you want to have a name for your character that ties in with the story or with their personality. This goes for first names and surnames.
Don’t be afraid to change a character’s name later on in the revision process, either! You may find as you go along that the name doesn’t suit the character, or that you have three characters with similar names and it’s too confusing.
You may even realize that you have inadvertently used the name of a real person. You can’t get too worried about this, since it’s almost impossible to avoid (unless you name your character Xreaoeurb Wo9qr5 or something equally nonsensical.) But if you discover that your character has the same name, occupation, and locality as a real person, it would be a good idea to rethink.
Titles can be even trickier. Although titles can’t be copyrighted, it’s a good idea not to use a title that’s already been used, just in terms of avoiding confusion.
You want something pithy, memorable, easy to pronounce and marketable. You want it to entice the reader to open the book and start reading, but you don’t want to give away too much of the story. You want to avoid dullness and blandness, but you don’t want to go too wild and totally confuse potential readers.
Titles are another thing that can certainly be changed, and sometimes must be changed for the books own good. Did you know that one of the potential titles for The Great Gatsby was On the Road to West Egg? I’m glad it was changed, although F. Scott Fitzgerald was apparently never satisfied with the title The Great Gatsby.
In thinking about a title that will make the reader to want to know what happens, it can be a helpful exercise to reword good titles and see the difference between mundane and enticing. For example, if you saw the title The Mouse Ate a Cookie on a picture book’s spine, you likely wouldn’t even take it off the shelf. But when you read If You Give a Mouse a Cookie… you immediately want to find out what happens.
I’m partial to titles that take a familiar phrase and do something unusual with it — titles such as Cynthia Lord’s A Handful of Stars (you have to read the book to find out what the stars are, and how you can hold them in your hand) or Kate Messner’s Capture the Flag and Hide and Seek.
I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve reached for the book Turn Left at the Cow before I realize I’ve read Lisa Bullard’s book before. That’s the power of a good title!
Names and titles. Titles and names. They will continue to both plague and delight us, I am sure. It’s definitely worth it to spend time seeking those that are just right. (As we all know from the book The Kid Who Ate Some Porridge. 😉 )
There are more great tips on selecting names at the Writer’s Digest website. Check out The 7 Rules of Picking Names for Fictional Characters and How to Give Your Character the Perfect Name.
If you’re looking for more advice on crafting titles, Emma Walton Hamilton has a great, succinct post on her blog: What’s in a Title?. Also check out Karen Woodward’s 4 Things to Keep in Mind When Choosing a Title for Your Book and 17 Steps to a Reader-Grabbing Title by K.M. Weiland.
If you found this post helpful, you’ll find many more writer-focused posts on my new blog A Word With Beth, launching on Friday, October 24th on my new Flubs2Fixes website. I hope you’ll join me there! (There’ll be a link to the launch post on this blog on Friday.)