In the months before my daughter was born, finding the right name for her was an issue that my wife and I agonized over. I kept referring to an old Saturday Night Live skit with Nicolas Cage (as “Mister Asswipe” – pronounced “Ahz-WEE-pay”) wherein he and his wife wrestled with choosing a name that was least likely to invoke playground teasing. Is there any name that doesn’t lend itself to ridicule? In the end, we tossed a little bit of caution to the wind and named her in line with our emotional leanings, and leaned as far as possible towards names that weren’t just begging to be converted into punch lines.
So there are three names that I think become interesting challenges to authors, and those are what I wanted to briefly touch on: pen names, book/chapter titles, and character names. These are all problematic in their respective areas, and since I get asked this a lot I felt it might make for a nice post.
So, first – Pen Names. What do you call yourself? Now, at the risk of sounding methodical and Machiavellian, let’s be blunt, here. Your name is your brand. Unless the only people you ever want to have read/see/hold/listen to your work is your close friends and family, you’ll need to think long and hard about the name you’re going to use as the cornerstone of your media empire. It’s your handshake, the verbal and auditory glance across the crowded room – it’s going to be on your book covers, your business cards, your twitter/facebook/google+ accounts… it’s the thing everyone’s going to take a 1-second glance at and say “yeah, that sounds like an interesting person.” So think about it a lot. Google the name you want to use, and see what’s out there. I’ve learned that there is another Ren Cummins out in Ohio who does sculpture. Sadly, if she’s ever interested in an internet presence, her followers will need to wade through 15 pages of me to find her. Sorry, Ren. Truly.
Look at other authors in your genre of choice – look at patterns to see if your name will fit into the anticipated realm of writers. I look at this the same way I look at news reporters and rock stars. First names as last names, double initials, alliteration, use of heavy consonance for impact, or even invented names – nouns, verbs or adjectives as proper names, and so on. Misty Steele is probably going to write romantic fiction (or be an exotic dancer, now that I think of it); S. W. Barrister probably would not. If you’re going to write across dramatically divergent genres – potentially conflicting ones (say, if you wrote children’s books and erotica, this might be a good thing to consider. Just saying – we can’t all be Roald Dahl) – you may want to establish different pen names to address your distinct genres. Your choice. After all is said and done, your name is your brand. It’s your business. It’s the one thing that all people will search for you by, find you by (or not) and will play a strong part in whether or not they are willing to invest in you. If you call yourself Bucky Malevolent Shinypants, for example, be prepared for a few rejections. Or not, I suppose, depending on your genre. And think about it now, because from the moment you step onto the internet, your name is tattooed to your cyberforehead, and it will follow you forever. Do yourself a favor and plan ahead.
Book titles and chapters. There’s a lot of variety in people’s approaches to naming conventions, when it comes to the books themselves. George RR Martin employs a Main Character model for his A Song of Ice and Fire books, wherein each chapter is named for the main character whose POV is used in that chapter. He even switches it up a few times by relying upon your expectations to refer to them as a different name, just to keep you unsuspecting. Other folks just prefer chapter names, others prefer humorous tags; some don’t like to name their chapters until they’re written, while others set the tone early on by naming the chapters as early as summary/outline development. And the book titles may go through a series of iterations prior to release. So many ways to arrive, so many choices to be made.
In the end, it’s your decision, on what works best for you. But don’t be too married to a title. Most commonly, it/they will change several times along your path to completion, and anchoring yourself to what may in the end be a less-than preference may sink the success your book might otherwise enjoy. Back in 2009, I was working on my first book, which at the time had a working title of “Twilight Gatherers” – named as the English translation for the Sheharid Is’iin, or Reapers that were a central element to the books. Their name came from the notion of death, coming at the moment of twilight, when it was neither day nor night, to lead away the souls whose time it had come. I was only a month or two from publishing when a friend of mine noticed the title and asked “oh, is that like the Twilight books?” Book 2 – “New Moon” had just come out and was experiencing a huge swell of popularity, but I hadn’t even heard of them at that point. So I panicked. “Twilight” books? Ugh. I checked them out, realized that my books were NOTHING like those. And so I had to re-examine the name, and, eventually, discard it completely. In the end, I came back with “Reaper’s Return”, which felt much better anyway. Silver lining! Some good rules of thumb to remember when naming your books and your chapters: use good words; be as pronounceable as possible, avoid clichés (unless that’s the point and you’re being deliberately funny), and be brief. Ask Fiona Apple how well the sales went on her second album, and wonder quietly if it would’ve gone better had she ONLY titled it “When the Pawn”. Again, I’m just thinking out loud here. Personally, I LOVE her music, and was always sad it didn’t get the recognition I felt it deserved. But people don’t like lots of words in the titles. Short and sweet. To the point. Give folks a nice quick taste of why they should read further and THEN lay on.
Following my own advice, let’s move on to the last item – characters.
Character names are tough things. As an avid fan of Dungeons and Dragons in my childhood, though, my favorite part of making a character was coming up with just the perfect name – a consolidation of noise that converted into an auditory sense of who they were. Dessim Wintersbane was my first big character, a fighter/mage who I took all the way up into his late teen levels. As I look back on it, it’s really kind of an obvious sort of name. Thanks to WoW, there’s probably a million Ravens and Bloodmoons and Undercrows and Darkhearts and the like. In fact, “Wintersbane” really makes Dessim sound more like he’s just a really sunny, happy dude. I mean, winter clearly hates him. Did he have magic that focused on fire and light? Well, actually, he kind of did, but not originally. And even if he did, maybe that name would’ve been a bit too literal?
I still loved the name “Dessim”, though, and I repurposed it in my Chronicles of Aesirium books. You get a nickel if you can tell me who it is. Not a literal nickel, though. A virtual nickel. (I’ll imagine a nickel in my head and picture it dropping into your hands. Don’t spend it all in one place.)
Do some research on your character names; find an approach that works for you. Don’t just flip through the phone book (assuming you even have a phone book – do people still have those? Hmm) and slap your hand down randomly on an unsuspecting stranger. I know folks who use numerology – a really fun approach if you don’t mind some non-linear math – to choose their character names. Some use astrology, some people use baby name books and websites (okay, I use that a lot, I admit it). But the name also shouldn’t just be a literal reflection of the character, unless you’re okay with giving too much away. Darth Vader’s big reveal to Luke Skywalker in “Empire Strikes Back” failed to surprise a lot of folks in the world, since “Vader” literally translates to “Father.” If you have a character name Flint Firestarter who has nothing at all to do with fire….well, then that’s going to confuse people. If you’re going with foreign names, do some homework and make sure the naming convention is accurate.
But if you write fantasy books….well, here’s where you get to be creative – only, I recommend keeping a bit of a rein on it. Creating a main character who’s a cybernetic elf pirate created from a laboratory experiment resulting in a temporal shift and depositing her 5000 years in the past – well, that’s a big enough challenge, but calling her either “Susan” or “Anethyne Dukuara’thyllne Praedipalzxxyb” is not only going to make your readers hopelessly crosseyed but also tick off your editor something fierce. Plus, readers like to be able to hear the sounds of your words in their heads. Give them sounds that they like, and can wrap their brainholes around.
Choose wisely, folks. I know people aren’t supposed to choose books by their covers, but we also all know that they do it, anyway. And with your book title and your author name on the covers, (and usually your main character’s name on the back) there’s a lot of good reasons to planning out good names before you go live.
Oh, and I’m calling dibs on Anethyne. That’s actually kind of a cool name. But she probably won’t be from the future.