Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Names and Faces

People ask me sometimes where I come up with the names for my characters and how I choose them. It's a mysterious process. Sometimes I have a pre-existing favorite name (Cameron is one that I'm using in Black Box), and sometimes the name just presents itself. Sometimes it takes a lot of fiddling around to get the name to not only sound right but also look right.

Gillard, for example, I have always heard with a soft g. But "Jillard" looks too feminine for the character. Alas, many readers give the name I chose a hard G when they pronounce it, illustrating the frustrations of trying to properly convey the sounds of a name with which readers are unfamiliar.

Sometimes I've tried to rename my characters for one reason or another. Simon, Abramm's uncle, began as Klemnend -- Klemn for short. Klemn? What was I thinking? The shift to Simon was easy in that case.

At another point I decided for some reason (I think it was the similarity to Abram of the Bible) that I needed to change Abramm's name to Alaric. I wrote a number of chapters with Alaric as the viewpoint name, but it never seemed right and finally I went back to Abramm. Then found a way to use Alaric anyway -- as his alias -- so that was fun.

Trap came whole cloth. A strange name but somehow the right one, though some readers have said that it sounds sinister. It never sounded sinister to me, just strong and straightforward.

Anyway, I've often thought this sense of a name "sounding" right seemed to be very mysterious, esoteric and maybe a little silly. But turns out it's not as silly as I thought.

My friend Ed Willett recently did a piece on his blog called The Face is Familiar, But That Can't be Your Name... in which he reported on a recent research project designed to find out if Americans "hold common notions of what kinds of faces should go with certain names." Turns out they do, and furthermore, that it is much easier to remember someone's name if their face matches your concept of what the name implies (they don't always). Which I suppose explains why you can merely give a character a name and a reader can make up a face to go with it. One that often doesn't look anything like the faces that are put on the book's cover.

These conclusions were followed by the reflection on why that might be. Ed's article said that since Bob is a round-sounding name, it makes sense that it would go with a roundish face, and that Tim, being a thin, angular-sounding name describes an angular face. That might be. I think an even more compelling rationale is the fact that "Bob" is a round-looking name, while "Tim" looks tall, thin. To me, that makes more of a connection with how Bob and Tim will look than how the words sound. But I'm more visually oriented than sound oriented. Then again... why not both: round-sounding and round-looking?

By this measure what are Abramm and Trap? Abramm seems tall, commanding and substantial. Trap is trim, strong, deep. And Cameron... hmmm. Softer, but still strong, kind of mysterious, but with substance as well. Or maybe I'm just biased, since I know the characters I've given those names to. (But what's with all the a's and m's? I detect a pattern here. What does it mean? I haven't the foggiest, but you can read the entire article here.)