My first baby is two months away from needing a name, but I’ve owned baby name books for more than a decade. It’s a writer thing. In the first short stories I wrote, way back in elementary school, I think I mainly named my characters for people I knew. Erica. Ben. Mike. Dawn. (My class at school had a lot of Dawns.)
As I got older, I went to the other extreme, picking names I’d never encountered in real life, or even making them up. Kali. Sarajean. Abner. Gillespie. Finally in college I decided I should name my characters the way people name their kids, and picked up several baby name books, some of which I still use as resources to this day.
Now that I have some experience with both, it has become clear to me that naming your children is actually not at all like naming your characters.
In what way? Well, here are three:
The last name, for starters. When you’re naming characters, you’re free to swap around last names until you find something that has the right sound or meaning. Not so with your own name – you’re usually pretty stuck with the last name, and no matter how much you like the name Bryce, if your last name is Pryce, you may think better of choosing it. There are other constraints, too. With characters, unless you have a co-author, yours is the only opinion that matters. With kids, you’ve got to factor in the other parent’s preferences. You love the sound of Magdalena, but it turns out that was your husband’s ex-girlfriend’s name, and he’s got some pretty unpleasant associations? Well, no Magda for you.
Your characters will never second-guess your choices. Sure, a lot of characters complain about their names. But if you name your black-sheep protagonist Sinclair so you can use Sin as his nickname, he’s not going to rebel and call himself by his middle name, Paul. You control him, even if you sometimes feel he has a life of his own. Your son Sinclair? Well, he really does have a life of his own, and his plans may not mesh with yours. It might be a hoot to give your urban fantasy character an unwieldy name like Clytemnestra or Nemesis, but not so with your daughter – on little Clytemnestra O’Brien’s first day of preschool, it may not feel like such a hoot to either of you.
Most importantly: with your baby, you only get one shot. You can name a character anything in the world, and as long as the book hasn’t been published yet, you can change it any time you want. Anna in the first draft becomes Hannah in the second, then back to Anna, then suddenly Gretchen. In my case, the protagonist of The Kitchen Daughter was Gracie Voltaggio for a long time, only to change to Ginny Selvaggio before publication. But you name your child once, within a fairly specific window, and that decision sticks. Only in very extreme situations does that change a few months or years down the line.
So while choosing baby names is fun, choosing character names is, in the end, way easier. And over the course of your life you might have the opportunity to name hundreds of characters.
Hundreds of babies? Not even if you’re a Duggar.
(Photo via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of jetsandzeppelins)