Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Name Change

It's December. Time to throw out my Writing Tip of the Year!

(I actually don't do this every year, but it sounds better than Writing Tip of the Every-Few-Years-Or-So.)

2012 Tip #1
Always question your first ideas.

The first idea to pop into your head, whether it's an obstacle for your character to face or the solution to that obstacle, is probably your first idea because it would also be the first idea to pop into the heads of many writers. That doesn't necessarily mean it's not an original idea, but it probably means it's too obvious.

Even when a first idea isn't obvious, it can still be problematic. At least, it could be improved upon. I recently rediscovered a file I kept while writing Thirteen Reasons Why. Each chapter in that book is Hannah Baker telling a story about one person at her school. This computer file was a list of those character names.

Names are important. For me, each name needs to sound and feel right in relation to many things. The sound has to match the tone of that character's story. It has to feel right in comparison to other names mentioned around theirs. And the list goes on... As I write, when a new character appears, I need to find a workable name before I can move on. No placeholder names allowed!

When I was almost done writing Thirteen Reasons Why, but before sending it to publishers, I wondered something. What if the names that sounded and felt so right weren't names teens today would hear shouted in their hallways? What if I was plucking names from my high school years? Even though, when I began writing the book, I'd only been out of high school for ten years, name popularity can change fast. (When I was born, Jacob and Isabella weren't in the top five like they are now...for some reason!) And while I didn't want every name to be extremely popular, which would give the book a generic feel, I also didn't want every name to be extremely unpopular. It needed to feel real.

I found a website run by the Social Security Administration, where you can find the top baby names for people born in the U.S. going back to 1879. I figured out the year I hoped my book would be released, then subtracted the age of my characters, checked their birth year on the website, and I didn't like what I saw.

Of the twelve characters Hannah discusses that are given first names, I ended up changing seven of those names. I still liked the sound and feel of their last names, so I found different first names to match with those last names.

Here are all of those names, changed and not changed, in alphabetical order by last name so the order doesn't spoil things for those of you who haven't read it. (But seriously, what are you waiting for?) The first names listed are how I originally wrote them, followed by how that name changed.
  • Travis Bicknell – Brandon Bicknell
  • Marcus Cooley
  • Melody Crimson – Courtney Crimson
  • Katie Davis – Jessica Davis
  • Sam Delano – Zach Delano
  • Harold Down – Tyler Down
  • Carson Foley – Justin Foley
  • Clay Jensen
  • Jenny Kurtz
  • Thomas Shaver – Ryan Shaver
  • Alex Standall
  • Bryce Walker
The character of Travis/Brandon Bicknell ended up disappearing from the book altogether.

Three other major characters had their names changed for reasons having nothing to do with the website.
  1. Early on, Hannah's first name was Anna. I soon discovered three other YA novels about girls named Anna who committed (or may have committed) suicide. That didn't seem fair to girls named Anna, but I really liked the sound of Anna and Baker together. What to do?! I threw an H at both ends of her name and called it good.
  2. Very early on, Clay Jensen was Clay Donaldson, but I didn't like the sound of his name having the same number of syllables as Anna/Hannah Baker.
  3. The teacher and guidance counselor, Mr. Porter, also had a different last name. Thankfully, an early reader of my manuscript reminded me that Mr. Mackey is also the guidance counselor on South Park.
Like I said, always question those first ideas!


Unknown said...

This is really great advice. Thanks for the helpful post!

Mart Ramirez said...

Oh, good, I'm not the only one. I can't seem to start a story until I have found the perfect name. Sometimes it seems harder to name your characters than your own kids. Finding that perfect name to fit the personality and making sure it flows smoothly is hard work sometimes.

And how funny, I use the same site. So helpful. How clever you thought of adding a H to Anna. I like it better! Perfect name for her character.

LOL on Mr.Mackey!

Amanda said...

I actually know someone named Jessica Davis :/