Wednesday, October 28, 2009

How I name my peeps: a post in which I am both synaesthetic and schizophrenic

Time for moose blogging! Yay!

This week's topic is about how we name our characters. So, how do I name my characters? The answer basically falls into one of two categories.

The Nice Category:

They arrive in my head with a name.

You have no idea how much I love characters who do this. I love all my characters, but I love the ones who tell me their names when I first meet them very and extremely muchly. Some characters just know what they're called, and dammit, they don't want to leave me guessing and coming up with stupid wrong names.

This method can go horribly wrong. I have a character in a future novel who is adamant that she is called Pandora. There are various problems with this, one being that it sounds like some kind of brand name, maybe for fancy loaves of bread. The second is that I already have a character called Pandora in a different story, and it is a headache to have two similar characters with the same name, let alone two characters with the same crazy fancy bread name.

Generally, though, I love it when my peeps tell me their names. It makes life quite a lot more straightforward. However, everyone who knows me knows that 'Leila' and 'straightforward' are not two words that go together.

And that is probably why about ninety percent of my characters fall into the other category.

The Other Category:

I get a horrible headache.

Fact: I can't just name my characters anything. They usually have specific names that belong to them, and to name them the wrong thing would be the writing equivalent of finding myself a blackboard and running all of my fingernails and toenails down it at the same time. Some characters have more than one name that fits them perfectly, and a few that are a close fit, but for most, it's just the one. There are a lot of potential names in the universe. Finding The One can be hard. (Much like finding true love, if you are into that sort of thing.)

I usually know vaguely what sort of names they have. When I say that, I mean that I know what the first letter is, sometimes. Or that it could be one of three possible first letters. And that can be because I have some idea of what colours it could be.

Yes, I did just say that. And no, I'm not on anything. My brain has some odd wiring.

But anyway, colours tie into letters. If I know I'm looking for a dark green name, then it most likely begins with m or n. If I get a pale aqua colour, then it's probably e. If it's white, then it's probably i or l. And if I get a few different contradictory colours, then that gives me a bunch of letters to try. And sometimes I'll know whether it's a light name or a dark name, which can help too.

The problem is that it's hard to know any of this for sure unless I've found The Name. Because it can also be something nowhere near my original prediction.

I have a book of 1000 baby names, which I inherited from a family friend when she moved away. The cover has the same eerie picture of a staring pudgy cheeked baby repeated over and over in rows, like someone accidentally clicked 'tile' in formatting and decided to leave it that way. It has all the normal names, but also a lot of utterly bizarre ones. (Adolpha, anyone?) I think the friend I inherited it off ended up naming her son Frank, which is not particularly bizarre, so I'm not sure whether she really used the book all that much in her decision making. However, I use it all the time.

It gives roots and definitions, and it lists when names have variant spellings. (I love variant spellings. I don't pay a huge amount of attention to definitions, although I love it when they fit. I'm more interested in the colour and the sound.) When I go name hunting I sit down with my baby name book and a blank page of notebook, and write down as many possible suspects as I can find. I play with spelling and see if a name fits better with a th instead of an f, or change the ending, or try a different first letter. And sometimes, in all that hunting and messing with letters, I'll manage to find something that works.

Although more often I'll get a headache and have to walk away and try again tomorrow, or hope that the character gives up and just tells me what his/her name is. Sometimes I can get it by imagining scenes taking place, and hearing my peeps talk to each other, because sometimes one will accidentally let the name slip. They only do it if I'm not trying too hard to force it out of them, because this is sneaky subconscious stuff. Dealing with sneaky subconscious stuff is like meeting a cat for the first time. You have to approach slowly and put your hand out and convince yourself that you're not even that interested really, and if it feels like it, it might greet you back.

So yeah. I used to think it was impossible, but I managed to find true love. (Right now he's pointing out that it is getting late and I should maybe be sleeping instead of blogging, but anyway.) And likewise, I almost always think it's impossible, but I always manage to find my characters' names. Because in the end, they always want me to write about them. In one way or another, they have to tell me.

One last thing: I wrote at least half of the first draft of my novel without knowing the name of a crucial character. I'm not even exaggerating. He really, really did not want to give it up. I spent ages writing scenes with a little box like this [ ] where his name would eventually be. And this isn't a random character I'm talking about who you don't have to worry as much about precision with, this is a main character, a main character I adore. I felt like a huge idiot for knowing him incredibly well but not knowing his goddamn name, which you'd think would be obvious seeing as I knew so much else. But he happens to be a character who has spent his life hiding, a character whose name is forever linked to a disaster. Understandably, he didn't want to give it away lightly.

After a long, long while, when I had pretty much given up entirely, he let me know that his first name is Elias. He still hasn't told me his last name. I'm hoping he will soon.


Robbie said...

I did not know you had synaesthesia. Three questions:
- What colour(s) is the name "Maeve"?
- Do you have sound-colour synaesthesia, or or sound-grapheme synaesthesia?
- Did my piece based on the Maeve story match up?

Anna said...

This was great! Hopefully Elias will cooperate and give it all up.

I've used names from my favorite band for a trio of brothers, a childhood mysteries series for another novel, people I used to work with in another project. I sometimes try thematic names with whatever comes into my head, recently using American football players in a story I'm outlining.

Otherwise names can be a total drag, but I LOVE how sneaky Elias was, how well that fits into his character!

Amanda Hannah said...

I love how you find names based on colors. Awesome post!

Emilia Joyce Plater said...

Really cool post! In first grade, I was the "color granter" - people would ask me what color their name was, and I'd say it. I didn't have synaesthesia, though; I was just being an oddball. :)

Kaitlin Ward said...

Awesome post! You have such a great name choosing method.

Kristin Miller said...

Oh, I love when my characters come to me, holding their names in their outstretched hands.

Michelle said...

Love the colors thing! And wow, I can't believe how long it took Elias to spill it already! :)

Leila Austin said...

I can't believe how long it took Elias to tell me his name either! I've had characters withold their names from me, but never for that long.

Robbie -

- Maeve = Primarily dark forest green from the M (first letter virtually always dominates), with a slight trace of rose pink from the a.

- I just have grapheme-colour synaesthesia, which means that all letters and numbers have colours to me, and by extension, words. I also have a bizarre thing where a few words have taste associations too. I don't have sound-colour synaesthesia (wish I did though!).

However! My sister has both grapheme-colour synaesthesia, and sound-colour synaesthesia. Next time she's over I will play her your piece and get her to tell me if they match up. And probably get into a debate about what colour 'Maeve' is :-P

John Rea-Hedrick said...

What an awesome way to choose character names! A lot of work, but fascinating.

BTW...Elias is a GREAT name! So long as his last name isn't Beliefoe. ;-)