Novel Writing

Logistics, logistics: Naming and dating characters

English: An Entennmann's cake donut, bought fr...
Oh, maybe I could name one of my characters “Donut!” (Just kidding!) | English: An Entennmann’s cake donut, bought from a grocery store four-variety pack. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today it’s all about logistics. The time period of my current WIP has evolved since I started the first draft. Because of this evolution, I realized that many of my character names were no longer appropriate to the times when they were born. So today, my writing activities are focused on charting out a timeline and coming up with new names for several of my characters.

In the beginning, I thought most of my characters were born after the apocalyptic event that changed their world. I was thinking they were born in a time when food would be scarce, and that parents in that time might be tempted to name their children after various food items they missed from the old days. My characters thus ended up with names like Cauli (short for cauliflower,) and Radi (short for radish.) I also had a couple of characters named Apple and Peach (which are maybe a bit too cutesy, but this didn’t start out as the serious project it has become. I was just experimenting and having fun!)

However, I have recently concluded that this generation needs to have been born prior to the collapse. Most of them would have been under the age of ten, but I still want them to have memories of what life was like prior to the collapse. Because these characters would all have been born in the first decade of the 2000’s, I need to change their names to reflect that decade. Not only will this make the story more “believable,” but I can also use familiar character names to help set the time and place in the reader’s mind.

To do this, I first needed to determine exactly which year each of the characters was born. So, I got to work on creating a visual timeline in Word. After I figured out what year each character was born, I then went to the Social Security Administration’s Top Baby Names website to check out the top 20 baby names from each of those years.

For this generation of characters, I want to choose common names that will be familiar to readers who are already familiar with the time frame in which the characters were born. Current readers, depending on their ages, may have younger siblings, or even children who were born in this era. In a few years, my readers may have been born in this era themselves. By choosing names that these readers will recognize in their own lives, I can encourage my reader to imagine that the scenario I am setting up is something that could actually happen to them in their lifetime. I am creating a setting that is just a little bit in the future, but I am trying to keep it immediate at the same time.

For the younger generation, which includes my protagonist, I get to be a little more creative with the names. These children will have been born to parents who were around long enough to get used to the comfortable life we live today. Those parents will have survived some extreme events that will leave them yearning for the old days when they could just go to the grocery store and pick up a tomato for a few cents a pound. So these parents will have ‘luxury’ items from the past on their brains when they are naming their children. That part of the naming process will be fun!

It’s amazing how much research goes into picking character names and figuring out when they were born. However, this is one step you cannot skip or hurry through if you want to create a “believable” story. How do you go about choosing names and birthdays for your characters? Please share in the comments below.

~Amanda L. Webster

2 thoughts on “Logistics, logistics: Naming and dating characters”

  1. I use the baby names for real-world names. For truly not in this world, I use foreign languages to look up root words and then I mess with them to turn them into names. For example, I have a book called Maaneshin, it’s a bastardization of Dutch for Moon and People.

    1. I love making up names but sometimes have a hard time making them fit the characters. It is common for me to decide to change every single name in a WIP. It’s probably one of those little things that I use to distract myself when I should be writing!

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