Saturday, February 12, 2005

Tantalizing Titles--Noteworthy Names

Tantalizing Titles--Noteworthy Names

Finding the Right Title

Studies show that a book has approximately four seconds to make a good impression on a customer. The title and the cover are particularly important. In most cases, the cover of the book is the publisher's responsibility, but the writer is responsible for the title. A good title will entice readers and make them want to buy your book. For this reason, you want to choose one with care.

Devising a working title

Don't worry about giving your manuscript a final title until you've completed the writing process. Often authors change focus or direction as they write. But in the meantime, you need a working, or temporary, title for your story. This can be almost anything. Many famous authors have used working titles. Bugles Sang True was the working title for the book that eventually became Gone With The Wind.

So if you don't immediately have a burst of brilliance, don't be concerned. Keep writing. You may find that a character, object, or another element of your story will provide the inspiration for a permanent title.

Selecting a final title

Your permanent title will set the mood and even suggest the age of the child for which the story is intended. A good title can be humourous, outrageous, entertaining, or scary. Here are some techniques to help you select a good title for your story or book:

1. Think of a central object that suggests the mood, atmosphere, or plot of your book (The Sword in the Stone, The Magic Paintbrush ).

2. Give a brief, compelling description of your character (Horrible Hannah, Tuck Everlasting).

3. Does your main character have an intriguing name? If so, use it in your title (Cinder Edna, Meet Strawberry Shortcake).

4. Ask a question (Why Did The Underwear Cross The Road? What Shall We Do With The Boo-Hoo Baby?)

5. Pay attention to the sound of your title (Willie Whyner Cloud Designer, Jazz Pizzazz).

6. Combine opposites (My Cat Is Going To The Dogs, The Eclipse of Moonbeam Dawson)

7. Use puns (Bantam Of The Opera, Witch Way To The Beach)

8. Create new words (Bearobics, Dinosaurumpus)

9. Startle or surprise (Beware Of Kissing Lizard Lips, "Hello," I Lied)

10. Inspire with curiosity (The Thief Of Always, How I Survived Being A Girl)

11. Create a particular mood (Danger On Midnight River, Sleepy Me)

Spotting the characteristics of a good title

A clever title is great, but a clear title is better. Some titles are clever and clear at the same time, but if you must choose between the two–go for clarity.

A short title is usually better than a long title. My book Brown Cow, Green Grass, Yellow Mellow Sun is a mouthful for preschoolers. Many younger children refer to it as "the cow book."


Even before you’ve completely defined your characters, you may want to give them names. It can be fun--or frustrating–to find just the right name. You want your names to be suitable and appropriate. But in addition, you may want some names to suggest personal characteristics or hint at the character’s situation. A writer can also use a name to influence readers’ opinions or feelings about a character. For instance, a dog named Goliath will have a different personality than one named Fluffy.

Picking the perfect name

The names you select for your characters reflect your own individual taste, but here are some points to consider when choosing them:

Names usually are appropriate to the time period of a story. Some names such as Peter and Rachel have been around since Biblical times, but others such as Hailee and Dyan have only recently become popular.

Various ethnic groups have different name preferences. If you name your character Luis, Astrid, or Chen, your reader may make assumptions about that character’s ethnic background. You may want to choose a traditional name if you are telling a traditional story.

Names have power. The names you give can bring personality and particularity, depth or humor to your characters. Names can suggest qualities your characters possess (Scout, Felicity, Joy, Buddy). Or they can be ironic (Baby Cakes for a ferocious bull).

Names have meanings. Amanda means "worthy to be loved" and Irene means "peace." While your readers probably won’t know the origin of your characters’ names, experienced writers often choose names with an underlying meaning in mind.

Names have connotations or associations. When a group of teachers was asked to grade a stack of bogus student essays, they consistently gave the highest grades to papers written by boys with common, popular names such as David and Michael and the lowest grades to boys with unusual names. Some names are more formal than other names. Bradford and Chadwick get a different response than Brad and Chad.

The sound of the name is important. Here are the names of three characters in children’s books: Ebenezer Scrooge, Sludge, and Petunia Periwinkle. Note how the sounds in these names evoke an impression of each character. Choose last names that go well with the first names.

Avoid names that distract the reader. If a name is too contrived, it calls attention to itself. The best names provide a subtle commentary but don’t distract from the story. Naming a character Obedience Gooddaughter may be overkill. Angela Goodman is better.

Select a name that suggests the age of a character. Girls born fifty years ago were given names such as Linda, Marcia, and Donna. Popular boys’ names were Robert, David, and William. Give your characters names that match the decade in which they were born.

Don’t confuse your reader with names that are too much alike. If you’ve named one character Carol, don’t name another character Caroline. Avoid too many names starting with the same letter of the alphabet. A story featuring Dan, Don, and Dean will probably require a flow chart to help the reader keep track of them.

Choosing names for secondary characters

Name your secondary characters with as much care as your main characters. These include pets, parents, friends, teachers, or other people with less of a role in the story. Because these characters are not as important, their names often assume even greater significance as a source of information about them. For example, readers can easily loathe a bully named Max Wormwood or smile at an obsessive gardener named Calista Crabgrass.

While humorous names are appropriate if the tone of your story is lighthearted, the same names won’t work if you’re writing a serious, young adult novel. Then you would probably choose names that are more conventional. The rule (as always) is--don’t overdo it.

Naming pets presents a special challenge. Do you want a name with attitude such as Caesar, Snapper, or Napoleon? Do you want the name to suggest a physical feature? Peanut or Ant would work for a small dog (or a really huge dog). If you’re describing a white cat, you might name it Snowball or Alaska. Think of the main characteristics of the pet and find a name that fits the animal and works with the atmosphere of your story.

What if you’re writing a story for young children in which all the characters are animals? If so, you may be tempted to give your characters alliterative names such as Tommy Turtle and Wanda Wolf. Try not to do this. Editors frown on animal alliteration, which inexperienced authors have used too frequently. This device is now considered a cliche.

You may also need to provide place names, especially if you’re writing a book set in an unfamiliar locale, a science fiction story, or a fantasy adventure. If you’re writing a novel about a family in South Africa, it helps to consult a map, an almanac, or an encyclopedia. If you’re creating a fantasy world, find names with undertones that suggest the place being described. The land of Aurora sounds like a great place to visit, but who would want to be stuck in a place named Bellum Infinitis (Infinite War).

Finding sources for names

If you can’t find the right name for one or more of your characters, don’t despair. Help is available. The following are all good sources for names:

The phone book. Good for finding unusual or common surnames.

Online lists of names. Many web sites provide lists of popular names for boys and girls and give the ethnic origin and the meaning of each name. Others list common names for pets. Still others list names from around the world.

Baby name books. Many of these books list unusual names appropriate for fantasy or science fiction characters.

Sports page of your local paper. Look for the results of high school sports competitions for the names of teenagers.

Historical documents. If you are looking for an appropriate name for a particular historical era, you can consult old census reports or newspapers from that time. Much of this information is available on the web.

The Bible. The Bible is a rich source of names that have religious and historical connotations.

Family and friends. Choose names from your extended family or circle of friends. But be careful. If you name a villain after Uncle George who’s bald and drives a Honda, give the corresponding character a full head of hair and a Mercedes. You don’t want to make enemies out of your relatives.

Ten classic examples of great names

Cherry Pie from Poppleton and Friends by Cynthia Rylant

Violet Baudelaire A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket

Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Ramona Quimby from Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary

Anastasia Krupnik from Anastasia Krupnik by Lois Lowry

Gilly Hopkins from The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson

Pippi Longstocking from Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren

Long John Silver from Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Stuart Little from Stuart Little by E.B. White

Jeremiah Flintwinch from Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens.

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