Tuesday, September 27, 2011

I've Got a Theory: What's in a name? LOTS.

My theory is based on another theory. That theory is called the "Theory of Deadly Initials." Maybe you've heard of it. It was published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, and said there's a link between the lifespan of human males and their initials. Basically, if your initials are positive (like W.O.W. or A.C.E.), then you'd tend to live 4.8 years longer than people with initials who didn't really spell anything. If your initials were negative (like U.G.H. or D.U.M.), then you'd tend to live 2.8 years less.

You write your initials a LOT over the course of a lifetime. Every time you do, if it's positive, it's kind of a You Are So Cool shot in the arm. If it's negative, it's like a You Stink shot, right?

So here's my theory. You write your last name MUCH MORE than you write your initials! So your last name can have a HUGE impact if it is an actual non-name word, or similar to an actual word.

My maiden name is Wheeler. Is it any coincidence that my dad was a race car driver? That he built hot rods, dune buggies, custom cars and race cars, and fixed wrecked cars as a side job when I was a kid? That my sister manages a car parts store? That three members of my family are in a car show club? That my brother restores classic cars? That nearly every member of my family owns more vehicles than they have licensed drivers? Hmmm....

And that's just one example. The one I'm closest to. I'm sure you can think of several others.

So if W.I.N. makes you be more winning, R.A.D. makes you cooler, F.A.B. makes you be more fabulous, D.U.M. makes you feel dumber, O.A.F. makes you feel clumsy, and B.A.D. makes you feel terrible at everything, then what does having a last name that is also a word mean?

How does it influence what you do, or more importantly, HOW PEOPLE VIEW your possibilities, personality, temperament, stability, and a host of other things? If initials make such a difference, than so can having a last name like Hart. Mason. Parker. Woods. Bright. Cross. Twiggs. Feld. Knight. Price. Law. Butcher. Archer. Cook. Young. Stone. Steele. Farmer. King. Singer. Best.

Does it matter? What about that last time you had to pick a doctor? You stare at a list of doctors your insurance covers, knowing nothing about them except for their names and phone numbers. How do you choose? That's right! Their name! (Unless you're researchy and you don't like to go into things blind. Or if you're choosing based on the ease of memorizing their phone number. Both are also entirely valid methods.)

The truth is, it does make a huge difference.

Which means that the names we choose make a huge difference on people's impressions of the characters we write. Choosing a name that doesn't really have connotations isn't a bad thing-- it's more of a neutral thing. But you can choose a name based on its connotations, good or bad, and that can make an incredible difference in people's perceptions of that character.

Choosing a character's last name is pretty incredible. When else in your life do you get to actually choose a last name? Last names can be hugely powerful. We should wield that power well.

How do you choose characters' names? By their connotations, or just by how cool they sound?

25 comments:

Barbara Kloss said...

Wheeler? I love that you've got so many car enthusiasts in your family! Ha.

And I agree with your philosophy on names - which is also why I spend SO much time settling on one, and then it's even subject to change. Sometimes I'll like a name, and then, as the story progresses, I realize it doesn't fit very well. Other times I may want to change it, but my character fights with me on the subject (they usually end up winning...)

I also do a lot of latin-word look ups because it's nice to have a name that means (or sounds) like what the character is (ie Lupin anyone???)

Faith E. Hough said...

Definitely true. My initials before I got married were F.E.W. and I always hated that it made me sound...little.
And I put a lot of thought into character names, too. Certain authors, like J. K. Rowling, Charles Dickens, and Suzanne Collins are so good at names that it really makes you realize how important they are.

Abby said...

This is a fun post. I have never thought about this for my character *slap in the head* okay, at least not as detailed as the initials but I do think of it for last names - usually. I think I need to do it more. This made me think more of myself. I've decided I need to come up with a pen name for my YA's and I want to do a huge contest for it. We shall see... we shall see. :)

Chantele Sedgwick said...

LOL! Wheeler? That is awesome about all the car professions. ;) I love naming my characters. I love different names, but not "roll your eyes" different. I take my time picking last names as well. Not sure why. :)

Kristine said...

Very interesting!

David Powers King said...

Ah, great. My initials don't really spell anything. I'm a goner!

But your post is very pertinent. I spend more time on character names than any other part of the pre-drafting process than anything for this very reason. Loved your thoughts on the matter. :)

Taffy said...

Good post! I asked my critique group for help on naming my main character in my YA horror. They came up with Angelica Savage. Creepy!

Kelley said...

Hmmm... I guess I don't really spend a whole lot of time on names. When I write I just let them pop out and usually they never change. I guess it's more of a feeling for me so I let my gut take it away :)

Interesting post

Carrie Butler said...

Hey, don't expect me to serve you, just because I'm a Butler. :P

As for naming characters, I usually get an idea of what their names should start with (strong sounds v. soft sounds) and then start reading lists out loud. I choose a few names and look up their meanings.

Ya know, I guess I spend more time on names than I thought. Huh. Who knew?

Great post!

-CAB

Janet said...

For the record I own 2 vehicles!! but the theory is pretty interesting though, good job

elizabethreinhardt said...

My initials were EGG. Funny how something as innocent as an 'egg' could wind up such a laugh fest! My mother was very young when I was born, so she purposefully chose the most distinguished name she could think of. No one can argue that Elizabeth is trendy! I actually gave the character in my novel the name my mother had wanted for me, but felt might be too trendy; Brenna.

Awesome post!

Elle Strauss said...

There is something mystical about choosing character names, first and last. Not always easy. I often go back and change a character's name, because the first one I picked just didn't work. I actually did that with one of my kids when he was 10 months old! :)

Jenny S. Morris said...

My initials don't spell anything.

For character names I usually start with meaning. Like Kella, I typed in warrior and that is one of the names that came up. I also love the sound of it. Last names I usually go with the country background I want to give the character, and see what sounds good with the first name I gave them. I've never thought of the inital thing.

Great Post. J.S.M.

Elizabeth To’oā MacDonald said...

Like J.K. Rowling, I also wanted to the do gender-neutral thing by having my first two initials + surname as my official pen name. Unfortunately E.T. MacDonald reminds me of the extraterrestrial in the Spielberg movie so that's a no-no.

As for my characters, a lot of them are based on mythical and legendary Polynesians with names that might be too long or difficult to read. So to accommodate a wider audience I have to think of changing them to shorter names that would be (relatively) easier to pronounce/read.It is difficult because all Polynesian names must have a meaning so I can't just jumble up a few letters and make up a name. Some examples: Toa (warrior), Masina (moon), La/Ra (sun), Manu (beast).

Jeff King said...

I like to say I don’t chose them, the character does… but I know deep down it really is me, I guess I just don’t know.

CherylAnne Ham said...

This is so interesting. Just last night I was thinking about doing a blog post on last names. Mine is Ham, which is kind of a funny one, right?

I wish my initials spelled something cool. Hmmm I'm from New England and my initials are CAH which is pretty much how we pronounce car. Does that count? LOL

Marewolf said...

They talk about names and the effects on people (and the statistics) in "Freakonomics". It's really interesting. There's a book and a documentary (streaming on Netflix if you have it!)

When I got married, my initials became MF (and MTF) and I like to think it's because I'm one Bad A** M***** F***** :)

You just gotta take the negative, and turn it into a positive :)

I like to get a feel for my characters before I name them. I don't look up the meanings of the names or anything, it's just the character "seems" like someone with that name. Does that make sense?

Anyways, great post :)

cherie said...

My married name has the initials P.A.L. That's right, I'm your pal!

LOL! Before I was married it was P.E.A. A pea, you say? At least that's better than P.E.E.

Anyway, now you've got me thinking about my character names. Hmmm...better go check. ;)

Alexis Bass Writes said...

ha! This is fun. My last name is Bass. My boyfriend LOVES to fish. Perhaps this is last name fate. :)

Leigh Ann said...

You're so right. I can think a name kicks butt, and then...it doesn't.

I always float names by my CPs here, who are 100% honest, and always wrinkle their noses and tease me mercilessly before I pick names that make them happy. :)

Except for one character in my WiP - she's named after my grandmother, because she looks and acts like her. (I really, really really love my grandmother.)

Maeve Frazier said...

I love naming my characters. My initials don't spell out anything interesting. Maybe that is why I got really creative with my middle grade WIP. :)

Lan said...

Naming characters is the bane of my existence. I'm not sure if people are actually aware of names or not (unless they're writer's of course) but one of the things I read most on book blogger sites is whether or not the reader liked the character's name. I've read dozens of posts micro-analysing the names of characters from the Harry Potter and The Hunger Games books so now I've started putting more thought into the names I use in case *finger crossed* the same thing happens to my book one day!

Peggy Eddleman said...

Barbara-- That's how it works for me, too! On my last book, I knew my MC's name wasn't right, but I couldn't figure out what right was until a year later when I was well into revisions.

Faith-- FEW is a great initial combination! The few... The proud... It's all good. And I agree about some author's being able to choose perfect names! Names can be whatever, but when you see an author that really gets it, you can see what a huge difference it really makes.

Abby-- Ooo! A pen name! That could be fun to come up with! Or, it could be even more difficult than coming up with a name for a character. I wish you all the best of luck!

Chantele-- You made me laugh at "I love different names, but not "roll your eyes" different." I totally agree!

Kristine-- Isn't it just, KLD? I think it's pretty cool that someone did a full-on study about it.

David-- You may not have initials spelling anything, but I think you've got it covered with your name itself. Your name is chock full of royalty and power. I think you'll be alright. :)

Taffy-- Great name! I love how much group brainstorming can help. That's amazing.

Kelley-- If they come to you easily, I say run with it! They must fit the character well to come so easily. Plus, it gets you out of a really hard part!

Carrie-- Hey, CAB. Can I fly out for a visit and have you serve me by running me all around town in your car? I tip well. ;)

Janet-- Ahem. And how many motorized vehicles with WHEELS do you own? I stand by my theory. :)

Elizabeth R-- What? What's wrong with EGG? I love egg so much, egg is my middle name. Okay, not my middle name so much as it's the MIDDLE part of my FIRST NAME. :) And Brenna is one of my main characters in the book I just finished! I love it.

Elle-- Mystical. That totally fits. And sometimes a name doesn't, and you just have to make that plunge to change it!

Jenny-- I love that method of coming up with a name!

Elizabeth T M-- Yeah... sometimes the cool thing doesn't work out with your name. I have a friend who, as a nickname, combines the first two letters of her first name and the first two letters of her last name. She gets Judo. An entirely cool sounding name. I do the same thing, and I get Peed. Entirely not cool.

Jeff-- Haha! I loved that!

CherylAnne-- The Ham is in the CAH. Awesome! I love it!

Marewolf-- I'm going to have to check out Freakonomics! I love your initials. And I totally agree that you have to get a great feel for your characters before naming them.

Cherie-- Two things.
1. My maiden initials were PAW. Wanna be my pal? Sure! Let's shake paws on it. And my married initials are so close to yours-- PAE!
2. Um... How is your first initial P when your name is Cherie?

Alexis-- Sounds like a match made in heaven to me!

Leigh Ann-- How would we live without people to mercilessly tease us about our name choices? It all makes it great in the end. :) And I LOVE when characters have special meaning like that!

Maeve-- Ooo! I love really creative MG characters!

Lan-- They are my bane, too! They're something you want to get SO perfect, and sometimes it's hard to find perfection. :)

Dawn M. Hamsher said...

I love names! At work, I have access to every name in the organization. If I see a cool first or last name I write it down. It may end up in a story.

The other day, I found Whitten (last name). I used it in a story as a little boy's first name.

Neat post. Names are just awesome. You have to carefully consider them before using them, they are so powerful.

The Write Soil

Peggy Eddleman said...

Dawn-- What an incredible resource!! I bet you love that. And Whitten is a crazy good name for a little boy. I love it!