by Claudia Gray
My first technique for naming characters is always to start by asking, “What would their parents have named them?” For one, this is how the majority of us get out names; I never quite buy it when characters all come complete with these deeply symbolic, unlikely names even though they’re supposed to be the child of Mr. and Mrs. McWhiteBread of Heartland USA. If the character’s going to have an unusual name, the character background should support that, whether that means “the name was given by space aliens who adopted the baby” or “the name was given by a mom with a dream”
More to the point, the question of “who are the parents” is a good to ask about your characters, because it tells you a lot. Who raised this person? What kind of expectations did they have for their child? If somebody was raised by nuns/fellow space vagabonds/etc. instead of parents—not only is that going to affect the name, but it’s going to supply you with some critical building blocks for the character.
For the heroine of DEFY THE STARS, her parents were loyal citizens of Genesis, a planet in the heart of a religious awakening. Because her faith is important to her, I felt like I’d be most informed if I wrote her as a member (sort of) of the church I grew up in, which meant she would be a Catholic. So I knew I wanted something from the Bible. The image of her in my head very quickly suggested that she was at least partly Latina. Ergo she wound up with the name Noemi, the Spanish version of Naomi, a Biblical name that would be a natural pick for two highly religious parents.
Abel’s situation was of course very different. Since he’s a mech—an artificial life form—he doesn’t have “parents” in the traditional sense; he has a creator. His name would need to fit in with those of other mechs, while still being unique. Since there would be many different models of mech, I hit upon the idea of using a military alphabet to name twenty-six different models. Now, the US and UK militaries have used a number of alphabets for radio purposes for a long time, which meant I had a few options. The minute I saw the old one that began “Able-Baker-Charlie,” I knew that would be my pick. You’ll notice, of course, that the military alphabet spelled it Able, while my mech’s name is Abel. That’s for two reasons: (1) Never, ever, ever name a character anything that is also a totally normal word, because horrible mistakes will happen. This message brought to you by past characters who, in early drafts, were named Hope and Guy. (2) The changed spelling struck me as a humanizing touch that made sense for Abel’s unique circumstances—and added its own Biblical resonance.
The only other character in DEFY THE STARS with a deeply meaningful name? Abel’s creator, master cyberneticist Burton Mansfield. Is it a little on-the-nose, naming a character who creates endless replicas of human beings “Mansfield”? Probably. But I couldn’t resist. Also, it goes along with my own little in-joke, where at least one character in every book I write shares a surname with a classic Hollywood star—in this case, Jayne Mansfield. (Fun fact: Jayne Mansfield is the mother of Law & Order: SVU star Mariska Hargitay!) This is one of those things I don’t think anyone but me has ever noticed—but I think it’s fine for an author to throw in something a wee bit self-indulgent as long as it still adds something to the story. In this case, Mansfield is a great surname for this cyberneticist.
So that’s the method to my madness! There are as many ways of naming characters as there are authors, but this is the one that has always worked for me.