Sunday, April 26, 2009


This morning I discovered that I named a major character after a car.

"Aveo" is a human-descended alien living on the planet Kular in my recent novel Steal Across the Sky. "Aveo" is also a Chevrolet subcompact on sale in Rochester for $10,181 after rebates, 0% financing for 60 months, 34 mpg highway. Obviously I did not know this when I named my guy, since the last thing I want is for anyone reading about him to also be thinking about the General Motors bail-out. But that's the problem with character names; you can't check out everything.

Where do writers get character names? The phone book, often, or a subset of the phone book. (When I was writing PR for Xerox, everyone in all my stories was taken from the Xerox Employee Directory. None of them have noticed this.) But the phone book only supplies a few million suggestions. The writer still has to choose a name that fits the character's ethnic background, his generation, the specific circumstances, and his personality. "Buddy Steele," "Sunshine Jenson-Taylor," "Carlson McKenzie Adams III", and "Santino Arbaducci" all conjure up a different context in the reader's mind (especially if Carlson is a girl). A girl born in 1940 could easily be named "Janet" or "Angie," but one born in 2000 most likely was not. No female babies were named "Madison" before 1984, when the movie Splash was released.

But even after you've named your character appropriately, traps still spring up. If you've made up the name, what do the syllables mean in Spanish? In Russian? (It's especially bad if the syllables constitute an obscenity.) Have you named your protagonist after anyone who might sue (such as, for instance, your sister?) And finally, is the word a product name -- such as, for instance, a car?

My Aveo lives on a pre-industrial planet, without cars. I'd rather he wasn't associated, even tangentially with one. But it's too late now.


TheOFloinn said...

I was going to name a Civil War character "Lincoln" but the automotive association was just too much.

+ + +

I just named a background character Dalapathi Zitharthan ad-Din. Most people won't notice the cross-cultural thing. Fortunately, he goes by his initials: D.Z.

In The January Dancer, all the crew of New Angeles except January himself are derived from the song "The Irish Rover." Someone noticed. I also kept the class rosters from my work at the UN in Vienna. I use mix-and-match, though.

Usually, I just let my mind go blank -- very easy for me -- then something pops up, like Teodorq Nagarajan or Billy Chins.

ed124c said...

You actually had two car names in "Steal"-- Amanti, which is a Kia. Maybe you need to buy a new car and don't know it.

Matt said...

Thank goodness my character, Stealth Jetfighter, won't have that problem.

Steven Francis Murphy said...

One of my two published stories features a cyborg called a Harvester. It came out last September.

The upshot is that in reading some material on the latest Terminator movie that there is a Terminator called, oddly enough, a Harvester. Does more or less the same job, harvesting people, though without spoiling the story, I think the results are different.

It seems to me, on reflection, that the only appropriate name for a robot/cyborg that collects people is a Harvester.

So I won't be calling out the lawyers. Hopefully the folks at Terminator Salvation will return the favor. :)

S. F. Murphy

Mark said...

Chevrolet had to change the name of the Nova in their spanish speaking markets. No va = it doesn't go.

"But you're in good company, Nancy" mentioned Ford Prefect

Nancy Kress said...

Matt and Mark -- LOL

ed124c -- You could be right. My car is pretty old....

Daniel said...

That's funny, Matt!

For me, coming up with human vs. non-human names (or even Terran vs. non-Terran) have different challenges. For human names, like you said, the name has to fit. But I also have a thing against using the same name as any acquaintance, so it kinda limits my choices a little. For either non-contemporary Earth names or non-human names, not only does it have to fit, but it also has to not be recognizable to me. Generally, I'm unconcerned about how it appears in a different language... in fact, sometimes I lean that way if it seems fitting (my favorite made-up name has been Phirus, which looks a tiny bit Greek to me).

Some of my stories are full of unnamed characters because I just couldn't think of a good name for any of them (and the story sits on my laptop, never seeing the light of day).

TheOFloinn said...

Not everyone needs a name; but if the name would be reasonably known to the POV character, it ought to be in there.

I have sometimes used dummy names just to keep the character real, and then gone back and >find/replace them when the True Names were spoken by my Muse. In the current book, a character named Keela became Watershanks after it became clear that his people used names of that sort [E.g., Crow-feeder, Skins-rabbits, etc.]

Daniel said...

Then again, you could always pull the ol' "you humans can't pronounce it," escape, and just never provide it... :)

rafiqqq said...

Hi Nancy,
greetings from Italy. I red your beggar in spain since nine years I was in school and I really really enjoyed it, is between my favourites book, I think I have to read it again now. COMPLIMENTI

rafiqqq said...

Hi Nancy,
greetings from Italy. I red your beggar in spain since nine years I was in school and I really really enjoyed it, is between my favourites book, I think I have to read it again now. COMPLIMENTI

rafiqqq said...

Hi Nancy,
greetings from Italy. I red your beggar in spain since nine years I was in school and I really really enjoyed it, is between my favourites book, I think I have to read it again now. COMPLIMENTI

Ken McConnell said...

I named four of the principles in my first novel after metric prefixes, so far nobody has noticed. In part because of some creative spelling. ;)

JDsg said...

One of the odd things I've noticed about the names given to Isaac Asimov's characters is that at the beginning of the novel, I would frequently stumble over them ("Stor Gendibal? What type of name is that?"), and by the end of the novel the names would seem perfectly natural.

Alice Kottmyer said...

I named two of my characters after D.C. Metro stops: Farragut West and Franconia Springfield.

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