Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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January 30, 2012

Naming Names

By Laura Drake

In the spirit of full disclosure, the seed for this blog was something I read over on Writer Unboxed about quirky character names. It got me thinking. I don’t know about you, but character names are as important to me as my titles . . . you don’t go messing with them (she sends up a prayer up to the Gods of publishing.)

I spend a lot of time naming my characters. What do I use as a criterion? Danged if I know. But I know a character’s name when I see it. I use Baby Names , or if the name must be ethnic, I use Baby Names Garden.

But really, that’s only a jumping off place. I usually know a lot about the character before I name them, so it’s really a matter of what name resonates with me when I hear it. Does that guy look like a Kale? This is obviously, totally subjective, and some of the logic resides with the girls in the basement, not with me, so I can’t be really clear about some of what goes into my naming.

Did you ever think about memorable names in books you read? I can probably take a guess at why Margaret Mitchell chose Scarlett for her Herone’s name, but why did Fitzgerald choose Jay and Daisy for The Great Gatsby? What made J. D. Salinger choose Holden for his protagonist in Catcher in the Rye?  There were people in the basement in on that those – don’t tell me there weren’t.

I don’t know where the names in my head come from, but I’m finding to commonalities: I like boy names for girls (Stevie, Dani, Sam) and I love, love, love, nicknames. Here’s a few from my books:

Charla Rae (yes, I borrowed it, with permission, from our own Sharla Rae) who goes by Char, or Little Bit.

James Benton who goes by Jimmy or JB.

I even have a nickname for their animals – Char’s horse’s name is Buttermilk, but since she’s fat,  Jimmy nicknamed her Pork Chop.

I’m not the only one hung up on Nicknames, I’m in good company. How about Harper Lee’s  (hey, there's a girl with a guy's name!) Scout, Jem, and Boo Radley?

Are you obsessive about your character names, or is it just me?

How do you choose them? Have you ever changed one?

0 comments on “Naming Names”

  1. It takes me forever to choose character names! And then if it didn't feel right I keep changing it until it does. I think in one of my WIPs the bad guy name changed 5 times so far. Still not sure it's right. Once I find one that does feel right it would really hurt to change it. In my head they are real people and you just don't change real people's names. I also have a running list of names I find interesting to use when I'm stuck for one. If I'm in the grocery store and the cashier has a cool name I'll write it down before I leave.

    1. Oh, I do the same thing, Melinda! I have an index card in a file at home that I jot down all the cool, interesting names I see.

      I don't know about naming a character and then changing it...but then, I have an issue with anything I write becoming stone, and not wanting to change it!

  2. Laura, this is a topic that drives me mad. I use a phone book, sur-name web sites for different groups; Italian, Irish or whoever. Love the Armenians since all their names end in "inian." Get a kick out of some nicknames; fond of Lizzie for Elizabeth and Cat for Caitlin. A kid in a short story named one of the Italian matriachs The Black Widow. There have also been Benny "The Bag Man" Longo, Fatso Paulie, an Izzie, Joey Left Finger, one Fredo, a Pretty Boy O'Hara, and Nikko the Greek God. Character names and titles are fun and can occupy my attention for hours.

    On the subject of knicknames, I am NEVER ... say it again ... NEVER ... Flo ... she is a gum chewing woman with red hair and a flower hanky in her uniform at a highway diner in Georgia. Just a friendly reminder 🙂

    1. Hey, I'VE never called you Flo - although it's tempting, only because it's faster! And I love your description....

      Yeah, I suspect it's just us writers that are obsessed with character names...I've often wondered if it could be a really disguised procrastination technique of mine....


    2. Well, I'll bet I've called you Flo and I hereby apologize and promise to NEVER do it again. 🙂

      I use the phone book too - I can be in there for HOURS.

  3. Since I do high fantasy in a non-earth setting I avoid names in normal use, but I sometimes take a name I see, or think of, and rearranges letters until I find something that sounds right for my world. And I fequently changes them, especially if they feel awkward or just not right for the character. I sometimes spell them in a phonetic manner so the reader will read tham as I hear them in my head. And I use Connie Willis's trick—she only uses a letter of the alphabet once in a work to avoid name confusion. I have too many characters to do that but I do try to spread them out evenly over the alphabet and avoid similar looking or sounding names.

    1. Ann, you should have a conversation with Fae - she does Sci-Fi Fantasy, and comes up with the coolest names - not only for characters, but for in-the-future inventions. I'm always amazed, because they're definately made up words, but you know what they evolved from, in our world!

  4. Oh, Golly. I blogged about this topic last fall. I'd pick one and the magazine chose another which sounded more East Coast than down south. Always, always, always bothered me.

    Oddly, sometimes, the name comes as I'm writing. However, I did write one story all the way through, did the critiques, worked some more and before sending it off, I mean, really at the last minute, I changed the heroe's name. It really was better.

  5. Most of the time, the names just pop into my head fully formed. But once in a while, I really have to dig for them. Or sometimes a character changes and they no longer fit their old name and need a new one.

    I use baby naming books or sometimes an online baby naming website. Occasionally, I'll scour the list of recent graduates' names posted in the local newspaper. 🙂

    1. Sheila, Cool, never thought of the newspaper...

      Have to admit to going through my MIL's white pages in Midland Texas.
      Great source of Western names!

  6. Vicki,
    Yikes! That would never occur to me. Once I name a character, I never look back - that's their name! It would be like telling your 5 year old, you know, I was wrong - you're not a Paul - you're Zebodiah!

  7. I start with baby name books but the "meaning" of the names are important to me. I write historicals and name meanings were important. Of course character personality counts a lot too. I grew up with a name that no one had heard of until recently. Teachers looked at the front half and called out "Charlie." When I was young my folks called me Charlie but I hated strangers calling me that. Now, I really don't care and like Laura, I love boys nick names for girls. For guys I find, the old fastioned names seem more masculine. But that's just me.

  8. "MC" works for a while, and then I spend weeks obsessively searching babynames.com. Then I write a little using the names I've chosen... and after I've realized their personalities are different from how I imagined them originally, I spend another few weeks searching for their new names based on meanings. It's usually by the third or fourth draft that their names are secure.

    1. Kheryn - you just made me realize why I never change names -- I'm a character-driven writer (as opposed to plot-driven) so I already know my character before I write! I may not even know much of what they're going to do when I start writing...

      I'm weird, what can I say?

  9. I write Regencies. A lot of times, my characters will introduce themselves to me. When they don't I have a book of English sirnames and an another one of common first names through the ages. Frequently, I'll have a letter in mind and a name will hit me. At other times I flip through the book and stop at a certain page. It's sort of like a ouija board.

    1. Leave it to chance? I'm way too controlling for that, Ella!
      You're right though, you're more restricted than us contemp authors -

      Can't see a heroine in Victorian England being called Charlie!

  10. Sometimes I use names I like, such as Susan and Sarah. Or sometimes I use place names I know, like the Vandereveer section of Brooklyn where I grew up, sometimes I'll use the Soc Sec database and pick a popular name from the era. In historical context I'll use real, but obscure, people as models for minor characters, maybe scrambling their names a bit to avoid the litigious. Or I'll choose a name with a modern counterpart that embodies a defining characteristic. Like Brigitte, or Hillary.


  11. Wow, I don't go through a heck of a lot to pick names--first names anyway. When I start a story, I check the list of names I keep in a document on Word. When I hear a great name, I add it. It seems once I pick a name, I write that character to fit the name (my idea of what a person with that name would be like). As far as last names, I work as a substitute teacher, and when I need a name, I pick up the student list for the day and just pick one. lol. Very unscientific.

  12. Naming my characters is, quite possibly, the most fun part of the writing process. there are times I worry and search, check baby names, western era, celtic naming sites, etc. Then, like the other night(midnight), while finishing up a scene, the garage and service owner's name pops in without any thought at all. Sometimes it's a mystery as to what the names will be but, when they're right, you know it.

    1. Ah, a kindred spirit! I'm exactly the same, Carra! If you're going to be with these people for a year, isn't their name a big deal? How could it not be?

      I bet if I added up the hours I spend with them during that time, I spend more time with them than I do my husband....uh....what's his name? Dang, knew it a minute ago! 😉

  13. I used to laboriously go through the baby name books and pick a list of names, then pick a name from that. Once I did it, the name was locked in stone. I stopped doing that with a book that had a cast of 40, because there were so many other things I needed to deal with than spend time on the names. But it did bring out a bad habit -- I tended to pick names like a 12 year old girl, so none of the names in my contemporary fantasy sounded like they fit together. On my revision, I ended up changing all but three of the names!

    1. Not epic -- just the kind of story that needs a large cast. Oddly, I didn't really have a problem remembering who was who when I changed the names during the revision -- it was during the first draft that I absolutely could not spell one of the names, Phannelia (one of the names that stayed).

  14. It changes depending on what I'm writing. For a historical-based (Bronze Age!) romance, I did research on names of the time. I then took my favorites that started with different letters and shortened them into 2 syllables, or else gave the character a 2 syllable nickname. And then I ended up going back and changing several of the names because they still sounded too similar to me! Even the heroine got a name change.

    In my other fantasy/paranormal works, the characters usually come up with their own names. Something just fits, and it sticks. Sometimes, though, a name will be too similar to another, so I'll have to go back and change it at the end. (Sorry, Dale, you're now 'Owen.')

    1. What a revelation - I always assume everyone is like me (thank god for them, they're not!)
      It never ocurred to me that names wouldn't be a big deal to authors!

  15. I have a huge Character Naming book that I consult. It gives the meaning and the nationality or cultural reference for the name. Title: Character Naming Sourcebook, by Sherrily Kenyon.

    For elves or other magical creatures I used an online name generator. Sometimes I piece them together to make them sound better.

  16. I'm character driven and plot driven. Let me explain that. I just went back to my memoir writing; it's painful but healing, and I'm posting it in parts on Amazon Kindle. Part 1 is 20 pages, and Part 2 will be 60 pages. It will have four parts. I also have 100 pages written of a women's fiction, psychological thriller. As soon as I finish the memoir, the novel will be finished. My muses told me to go back to the memoir.

    Anyway, the memoir is character driven, but the novel is mostly plot driven and somewhat character driven.

    I've heard all sorts of things about names as to novels. I've heard one has to combine parts of surnames found in the phone book, that "real" names can't be used in a novel. I haven't been doing any of that.

    Please comment on this reply. All of the replies and the post are very helpful as well. Thanks again for Writers in the Storm and bless you!

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