Though I’ve spent a few years writing my blog on this particular page and in this particular format, it’s likely no surprise to anyone that it wasn’t always this way. I’ve been writing nonsense on the internet for two decades in one form or another. For some that might date them, as no one wants to admit they’ve been writing articles for longer than some of their readers have been alive, but I’ve actually been doing it since I got access to my first computer. I got my start writing lengthy forum posts arguing with other teenagers about trivial things, but eventually moved on to writing in places where that was expected and no one had the ability to ban me for being a nuisance. Ever since then I’ve bounced from website to website and various pen names before eventually deciding to pull the trigger, reveal my real name, and come home.
But even this blog wasn’t originally posted to my personal website. Though I had the website at the time, I kept them separate for a while for reasons I cannot for the life of me remember anymore. And when I first started this blog, since it wasn’t actually hosted directly on my website, I needed to give it a title for people to see. In fact, that title is still there if you look at the top of one of the navigation bars. It was a little joke that I made long ago that some friends thought was amusing as I decided to call it “Dreams from Walnut Dust”.
So, of course, my very first entry had to explain what the hell that meant. (tl;dr – the only mind altering I get is from allergy medication)
Years down the line I’m a little bit better at naming things, I’ve written two novels, working on a third, and have written a lot more short stories and TTRPG campaigns than most people I know. Though a lot of my work toils in obscurity or was never released to the public, I have created dozens, if not hundreds of characters, alien races, countries, and whole worlds that require names. As they say, practice makes perfect. But that practice has taught me something that is difficult for a writer to accept.
Realistic Names Are Generic
We don’t really think of it much in our day to day lives, but there are probably thousands of people out there who have our names. I don’t even mean just our first names, or our last names – I mean people who literally have the same combination of names. You might luck out if you have a middle name, but even then it can get a little close for comfort. In fact, if you look up my name on Google right now you’ll find that there is, in fact, another Jeremy Varner who tops the results and lists himself as Jeremy D Varner because I was around first and landed this domain name. Here’s the funny part, my middle initial is also D – which is why my twitter handle is “@JDVarner“. In fact, at one point I considered “JD Varner” as a pen name before I realized that there were actually a swath of JD [insert name here] who were trying to get some of that Salinger energy. Effectively, though I’ve never met this guy and he’s probably a charming fellow, if we reveal what our D’s stand for there’s a chance, however small, that we may have to sort this according to the old traditions.
Kidding aside, this thought occurred to me first thing in the morning for two reasons. First, I had been watching a “Because Science” video just yesterday where the host, Kyle, mused that there were somewhere around half a million people in his age range who had the same first name that he did. Second, my parents had dinner with cousins of mine and told me that my books came up as a topic of discussion. Though my first thought was, “I hope you gave good reviews”, my second thought was, “oh man, I hope you told them the titles of the books”. Because, while my fellow Jeremy D Varner happens to be an actor, there is actually also another Jeremy Varner… who is an author.
Now some of you are probably wondering at this moment why one of us didn’t get a pen name, and the answer is actually kind of funny. You see, the other Jeremy published while I was still in school and then abruptly stopped with no explanation. He had actually had his entire career as an author in the years before Google became the dominant search engine and long before Amazon became one of our corporate overlords. So when first searching for my name all those years ago, I didn’t find him. In fact, very few people knew the guy existed on the internet until the algorithms stepped in and did something funny.
You see, while the other Jeremy Varner hasn’t written anything new in many years, the computers saw that we had the same name and, despite having completely different author pages, decided we were the same person. All of a sudden, as I wrote blogs like crazy and built up some SEO (which I’ve apparently let slide in the last couple years) – I was accidentally resurrecting his books in the search results. I had to tell Google and Good Reads that there were two of us, but to this day if you look up “Jeremy Varner Author” there’s a good chance you’ll find him.
For the record, if you want to tell your friends about my books, the best way to get them to the right page is to tell them to search for “Agent of Argyre”. I had to make sure at least something about me was easy to search.
But the point I’m making here is that names, in real life, are not super original. Even when you have someone who makes spelling a name nearly impossible so it’ll stand out, the verbal equivalent is generally going to follow the same pattern of sounds as another easier to spell name. And, because of this, realistic names generally sound very mundane even if you find genuine meaning to them. For a writer this is an incredibly difficult thing to navigate because we have multiple competing motives for everything we put into our work.
Effectively, while we don’t want a name to be so original that it becomes a point of ridicule, we still want it to be memorable and identifiable – both to identify them and to identify with them. After all, a name in a story isn’t just an identification of a character within the story but also an identification of a character in potential conversations.
For some circumstances a not so memorable name is perfectly acceptable if their part in the story is identifiable enough. If someone is a doctor, and they have a generic name, most people will likely just refer to them as “the doctor” in conversation. Because, for as often as people may say names define us, the truth is we generally define our names instead. For great examples look no further than the verified profiles on twitter where you can find two Jon Favreaus and only one of them is behind The Mandalorian. Meanwhile Stephen King (legendary author) and Steve King (right wing politician) also share names – something the legendary author hasn’t been too happy about in the past.
Iowans, for personal reasons I hope you’ll vote Steve King out. I’m tired of being confused with this racist dumbbell.— Stephen King (@StephenKing) November 4, 2018
So, really, what’s a writer to do? Within my own books I kept the “real names are generic” thought in mind and did my best to only give strange names to ancient figures. I still gave meaning to many of the names, because I’m that kind of nerd, but I made sure they were names that would still exist in the modern world. The names that sound peculiar in the modern world predate our society by centuries or come from wildly different cultures. But if a Vampire was born within the last 200 years? Yeah, there could be Vampires named Bob (not that there has been yet, but I feel like I should throw one in now).
Though this is far from a perfect solution as far as people go – seeing as real people will have realistic names and real names tend to have a lot of duplicates. This can often result in some interesting reading in the Wiki disambiguation pages, as you’ll find fictional characters next to historic figures and living politicians or athletes. The important part to these sorts of names is to make sure you’re not using a name just based on someone else. It’s perfectly understandable to have names be similar so long as those names are realistic and you didn’t take traits straight from another person. A careful approach can’t eliminate all of the overlaps, of course, but so long as you’ve made an honest effort just about everyone should understand. Sometimes, the accidental overlaps are impossible to predict and even kind of funny.
A robot has killed a worker in a VW plant in Germany http://t.co/RRdCnNmbsj— Sarah O’Connor (@sarahoconnor_) July 1, 2015
@sarahoconnor_ Guys. I don’t know what skynet is. And I wouldn’t follow me – I tweet really boring stuff about unit wage costs and the like.— Sarah O’Connor (@sarahoconnor_) July 1, 2015
So while there’s an urge to make each of our characters sound as unique as possible, and we’ve all made the rookie mistake of throwing in apostrophes everywhere to make something sound fantastic, a good character name is still more likely to look like Nathaniel than Nat’ani’yel. There was once a rule of thumb that said if you write SciFi you should try to avoid reinventing the wheel for anything that already had a solid name today. You don’t need to rename coffee just to make it sound like the future, just let your characters drink coffee and if you really need to change it up let them get it from some advanced machine. Or, if you want to be dignified – tea, Earl Grey, hot.
But it’s still worth keeping in mind that these will be points of conversation if you do everything else right. A good name in a work of fiction is one that everyone recognizes when it comes up during the discussion. Maybe they shouldn’t be super unique compared to the real world, but in the context of what you’re doing it can’t hurt to make sure that there’s no confusion between the characters. This is obvious, of course, but sometimes easy to overlook. In the first editions of my books I had accidentally named two very different characters only a couple letters apart. For some reason, it just didn’t occur to me, but when going back over the two books with a fine toothed comb to prepare them to release shiny new editions I realized that these characters could be misspoken or typo’d to be confused for each other. Considering one was a little girl and the other was a criminal, the confusion would have been extreme. So, I switched up their names a bit, keeping the meanings while making it impossible to get them crossed.
Though it could be funny to write a story about a little girl starting a smuggling operation selling weird shit out of the back of a truck.
So, in this age of Wikis, social media, and search engines it can be a bit trickier to try to make your characters, titles, and even yourself stand out. it could be fairly easy to spend an incredible amount of time to find the perfect name only to realize that the name you came up with sounds mildly ridiculous. Yet, doing a quick Google search of that very same name, you’d find that no one else had ever used it. Or, you could try to make the name sound realistic and realize that there’s a good chance it’s been used before by multiple people or is actually the name of a real person who may be very cross about it. In the end all you can really do is make an honest effort, keep it reasonable, and try to make sure that the character is memorable for more than just their name. Then again, in the right genres…
You can always give them a number.
(I write novels, the first two books of the Agent of Argyre series are now back and better than ever! If you haven’t had a chance to read them, now’s the time. And in the meantime, don’t forget to follow me on twitter for updates on the third that’s in the works. I need the followers to make the algorithms recognize me!)