Since I’m on this name kick…
Last names are an ongoing bugbear of mine. There aren’t the same resources as with first names — Behindthename.com has a surname section, but it’s scant.
I used to collect last names from movie credits. I worked in a mailroom once — that was a great place to find wonderful last names. I also worked for an insurance company and occasionally mined surnames from physician databases. When I was writing both SSG and Rampant, I worked at a scientific journal — another great place to find names. Not only did every article come with a host of Dr So-and-sos to steal, the citation lists invariably provided heaps more.
(Here’s a bit of trivia. James Orcutt, aka Poe, was stolen lock, stock, and barrel in this manner. INCLUDING his middle initial, though I decided what that stood for.)
Sorry, I’m back. I got totally distracted by the dossiers. Anyway, my goal with those names was picking things that sounded very normal, like names your schoolmates might have had. I did not want them all to sound like bland, generic fictional names.
With Rampant, the names had a different purpose. These were characters whose family histories were intimately tied up with their superpowers, and so surnames, being a way to track those characteristics, should reflect that. Most of the characters, therefore, have surnames that indicate their heritage (many mean “Lion” since they were part of the Order of the Lioness).
I have, with three exceptions, avoided giving last names of the main characters in any of my short stories. With one, her last name fit too well with her character. With another, it was important to the plot. With Elise from “Errant” her “last name” is more like her title, and again, that’s important for the plot. I don’t know if I could sustain that for a whole book, though. It would have to be a very special circumstance.
In For Darkness Shows the Stars, I had a new challenge with the last names. Since I was writing in a post-apocalyptic world, I decided that surnames carried a different meaning than they do here, where many of our names no longer connect with the qualities our ancestors possessed. How many people, indeed, know that a person named Holtz had an ancestor who lived or worked in the woods? My own last name, Peterfreund, is German for “friend of Peter” but my paternal grandfather was not German, and I have no idea who this “Peter” could have been.* I decided that my post-apocalyptic society would be reinventing surnames from the ground up, so they would be recognizable as belonging to their origin words.
I try to avoid being lazy with last names whenever possible. Even when I use a “common” last name (Giovanni Cole, anyone?) I have done so deliberately, as both a surprise to the reader who bothers to look it up and because of what it indicates to the reader who doesn’t. To pair something as recognizably Italian (and ornate) as Giovanni with something so mainstream American (and masculine, cowboy-sounding) as Cole says something about him that no amount of describing can.
Names are important. Tiff said in the comments of the last post that she was at a point in her writing where it was “more important to nail down the story than the names.” That doesn’t work for the way I write. They are one in the same. If the name isn’t correct, it’s as if I’ve “cast” the character wrong. I can’t get the story correct if the characters are wrong.
I think often about great last naming of fictional characters: Scrooge, Havisham, Dumbledore, Malfoy, Youngblood, Day.** It’s easy to go overboard, of course. (I’m looking at you, Dickens). But if you can find that sweet spot of hinting at a character through their name — oh, it’s a beautiful thing.
I’m working on character surnames today. I haven’t decided how to handle it in my new book.
What are your favorite ficitonal surnames?
* I was once told by a French woman that “Peterfreund” is a common Jewish name where she’s from, much like people in America would recognize a name like Greenberg or Silverman as being “Jewish.”
** Yes, three authors tend to spring to mind when I think about extraordinary names.