Proofreading Tips: What's in a Name?

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The SCBWI Conference Fringe is a series of popular sessions held on the afternoon before the Conference commences. For the November 2016 Conference I hosted What's in a Name? - a ‘guided chat’ on what you might consider when naming a character.

An inspiring group of participants got together at Winchester’s Discovery Centre and over coffee looked at aspects of character naming and discussed our experiences. We kicked off with...

Which is Bouba and which is Kiki?

There is a 90% bias in choosing between these names for these shapes... can you guess what the bias is?

“Which is bouba and which is kiki” has been asked in countries around the world, including China, France, Finland, Jamaica, Singapore, UK and USA. Toddlers have been asked, and also non-users of the Roman/Latin alphabet.
The SCBWI Fringe group answers conformed with those in international experiments described here by Science Friday:

There are three theories about the bias:

1 It’s innate – we’re all a bit synaesthetic
2 It’s your mouth – the way you shape your lips and mouth cavity
3 It’s learned – think of the sound a ball, and then a pine cone, make as each is rolled across a tabletop.

That got us all thinking. Then we moved on to the need to always read your character names aloud. UK regional accents affect names. Olympic boxer Nicola Adams is frequently referred to as Nicolaradams. You might want to avoid a vowel bump between first and last names... for the audio version of your book.

We thought about syllables, alliteration, cadence, rhythm, metre and compared how much prosody we’d done at school... Boasting? Complaining? A couple of examples:

Katniss Everdeen (trochee dactyl)
Timothy Greengrass (dactyl spondee)

Of course you don’t have to analyse your anapaests and iambs. Read aloud and you’ll hear a successful rhythm.

Pronunciation and gender was the next prompt. There used to be very definite gender differences for some names. With Evelyn (f) ‘ev-lin’ versus Evelyn (m) ‘eev-lin’ the difference was in the pronunciation. With Lesley (f) versus Leslie (m) the difference was in the spelling. These differences are not always adhered to now, and there’s a load of gender neutral names in use: Tracy, Courtney, Billy, Charlie, etc. Just be aware of the possibilities when choosing a name.

Nominative determinism was next, with Mr Bones the Butcher and the rest of those happy families. We also touched on a topic I looked at here:

Remember Tom Marvolo Riddle? I also introduced the group to another potential pitfall: spoonerisms. Should your character name include an awkward anagram or spectacular spoonerism my warning is just... be aware. Then it won’t be a child, a troll or the Press who notice first.

With the importance of hashtags and domain names in book publicity we also looked at running firstandlastnames together to check for any unfortunate intersections. This is important in book titles too. I looked at this in more depth here: If your character deserves a website or starts #trending you want the name to be memorable for all the right reasons.

We brainstormed a nickname for a work in progress, and we pondered source material for character names. Memorably, these included research into old names for vegetables and Scottish names for fish!

Thank you Barbara, Cath, Camilla, Dale, Jane, Joseph, Justin, Michelle, Sharon and Sue for your participation.

Next month in Proofreading Tips: Thoughts on choosing an ‘age appropriate’ name.

Catriona Tippin has been a member of SCBWI since 2006 and helps organise venues for SCBWI North East. Details of her writing and illustrating here. She proofreads study guides, house magazines and publicity material for national educational organisations, in addition to working on a variety of proofreads and copyedits for the growing self-published world. Her monthly column is intended to give you food for thought, remembering “Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling or typographical error” (McKean’s Law, named after its inventor Erin McKean, editor of the Oxford American Dictionary).

Louisa Glancy is the Wednesday Features Editor for Words & Pictures. Contact:

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