13 March 2017

What's In a Name



by Jan Grape

Naming characters can be easy or difficult depending on your own method of writing. Again, I have to say, every writer does things different. Every book or story can be totally different. That's what makes the good book even better. Naming the characters might not seem too important to readers but if a character lives in your mind forever, then you have to admit, naming them can be important.

Sam Spade, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Scarlett O'Hara, Atticus Finch, V.I Warshawski, Phillip Marlowe, Jack Reacher, Harry Bosch, Sharon McCone, Kinsey Millhone, Rick Blaine, Charlie Allnut, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. All memorable characters that seem so real in our minds.

I decided to ask writers on Facebook to tell me how they choose a character name. Here are responses:

  • EllaDaye Flowers: You name then after your friends… LOL (I used EllaDay's name in a story that never got finished or published. I love her beautiful but unusual name. JG)
  • Jill D'Aubery: They usually tell me their names.
  • Joan Hall Hovey: Yes, I agree with Jill. They tell me their names; I just need to listen, If I've got it wrong, they let me know.
  • Orania Papazoglou: Weirdly enough, with me, the name often comes first. It's as if names have characters attached to them.
  • Janet Christian: Sometimes I mix and match the first/last names of people I've known. If the name is important to the "theme" of the character, I search by culture, history, time period and even actual meaning. In one novel, I gave a character an unusual name that had the meaning of "death." Guess what ultimately happened to him? The site I search is: www.meaning of names.com/
  • Kris Neri: Mostly, characters tell me their names. But when the right name doesn't come, I have some go-to techniques to stimulate name thought. I have a "name notebook" that I've built up for years. When I get a play program for instance, that credits lots of people by name, I rip out those pages with names and put them into the notebook. Anything that lists lots of names, goes into the notebook. I also look at TV credits at the end of shows or movies. Or read the white pages of phone directories. Once at the airport, I heard two names paged and I put parts of each of those together to form one name. Names are everywhere.
  • Lisa McClendon: All of the above for names of characters set in my own country. The book I'm working on now is set in France so I use a site that generates French Names...I just tap through the names until I find one I like. I try to never have similar names which is a challenge at times. At a minimum the top ten characters need to have names that start with different letters and do not sound alike.
  • Les Roberts: I try to use names that are not completely ordinary. Looking back on my third book (the first Milan Jacovich), I could kick myself in the butt for naming the romantic interest "Mary." It's a fine name, and I know many lovely people named Mary, but since then I've tried to name differently. In the book I'm writing now I got the first and last name from a young woman who is the cashier at my local Honda dealer. I'm not going to tell you what it is here, though because it's almost impossible not to steal.
  • Donnie Price: I was writing a short story with my then five year old daughter. I was stuck on naming the characters-she pointed at a phone book and said, "There is a whole book full of names, Dad."
  • Angela Crider Neary: The name of my cats. Of course my characters are cats, so that helps.
  • Jeff Baker: I've scrambled up names from football players in games that were on while I was writing. Then sometimes, I use names that are appropriate, a story I'm working on now has a sweet old lady who practices magic. Her name? Ellie Faye Morgan, a scrambled up version of Morgainne Le Fae... I read once that Eddie Murphy complained that white writers couldn't name black characters, so he renamed characters he played after friends he'd gone to school with (last names anyway.)
  • Jerry Kennealy: Pick an actor you like for his role - check him out on Google IMBD for the roles he's played - pick one of the names from his films.
  • Denise Dietz: For the villain I use names of people who have "done me wrong." Like Kris, most characters tell me their names, but if I'm really stuck I look at the cast and crew of a classic movie.
  • Terrie Moran: Usually the characters tell me what they want to be named. When they don't, I open an old phone book and pick a first name from one page and the last name from another. If the character isn't happy he lets me know and we change. Quite often the phone book name sticks.
  • Dona L. Watts: You can use mine anytime you want, hint hint...lol. (Dona is my niece. JG)
  • Jeff Cohen: Honestly I go by sound. I hate naming characters and wish I could change everyone I've ever written. But I wouldn't come up with anything I liked better and would end up changing them all again.
  • Susan P. Baker: Sometimes from a baby name book. Sometimes from the obits, if I see an interesting name, I save it. When writing about a particular geographical area, then by who lives there. With my mystery novel set in Fredericksburg, TX, I have mostly German and Spanish last names and some first names, too, like Rufina Gonzales is the defendant.
  • Gary Warner Kent: I go back to my high school and college yearbooks, then play with combinations, esthetics, sounds...the worst and best were one and the same. "Hyman Fartzenberry." True name.
  • B.K. Stevens: I taught for many, many years and never threw a grade book away. When I need a name that sounds real, I reach for a grade book. I also have a dictionary of names that I use when I want a name with a particular meaning. Some character names are allusions to literary works with similar themes for plots.
  • Eve Fisher: I do what B.K. does. Use old student lists. Also the SSA has the post popular names for every year for decades.
  • Leigh Lundin: I use a combination of techniques, often going by sound, but especially relying upon the meaning of names. For example, Linda and Belle mean beautiful, Morse and Morris mean dark. I used the Hopi name Chu’si, meaning ‘snake flower’, because a dangerous woman had qualities of both. I named a team of Zimbabwean/Rhodesian bad guys according to their ethnic backgrounds, Afrikaner, Zulu, etc. Both words of a Shona name, Magondo Svitsi, represent two different ways of saying ‘hyena’. (I actually built a database of names, their origins and meanings. Deborah Elliott-Upton tapped me a couple of times to dredge up names for her.)

Great information everyone. Thanks. Most ideas I use myself but the one about looking at credits of movies and TV shows is a great idea that I never have thought of and certainly plan to in the future. I used a grocery cashiers first name once, It was Dwanna. And in a western story I wrote the town I used was a real town between here and Austin called "Nameless." When they first named their town they first sent "Sandy," into USPS service. USPS wrote back and said, "No. There is already a Sandy." This went on for two or three other names the town council tried. Finally, they just said, "Well, dang it, we'll just call it Nameless" and that one passed the USPS. I drove out there to get a feeling for the town which really was only a community now. I wound up walking around in the cemetery and writing down names on the tombstones to use for character names.

I think character names are interesting and fun. You just never know when a name will become famous, like Jan Grape, for instance.

Additional Comment: you never know when something you wrote for SleuthSayers is read by a person who you don't know, but they were touched by what you wrote. I received a sweet note from a young woman who had been surfing around for information on her grandfather, Clark Howard who had passed away the first of Oct. 2016. I wrote a tribute to Clark back in October for SleuthSayers. Amanda Howard wanted to thank me for the nice things I said about Clark. Her grandparents had raised her and Clark's wife Judith had passed away in 2004 and she was Clark's caregiver until the end. I friended her on Facebook and told her I had known Clark and Judith when they lived in Houston, and thought so much of both of them. She was surprised yet pleased to learn I had known them way back that long ago. She is 27 now so she had not even been born then. Sometimes we forget how much good FB can do. And how much good SleuthSayers can do. We are lucky to have this, my friends. Thanks to all who make it possible.

15 comments:

Leigh Lundin said...

Jan, thanks for allowing me to contribute. I love the ideas. Besides the above (going by sound and meaning), I confess one of my bad guys is named after a back-stabbing office worker, his first and last names reversed. But don’t tell anyone.

Leigh Lundin said...

By the way, I love your last comment. You and 15 others make a great team!

Jeff Baker said...

Yes, Leigh, I agree with you! I enjoyed all the comments (mine included!) and your wrap-up of the whole thing. And the last comment about Clark Howard's granddaughter was just wonderful! :)

Bill Crider said...

I check obituaries for names now and then.

Great story about Clark Howard. I knew him when he was in Houston, too, through the MWA meetings, and what a great guy and writer he was.

Michael Bracken said...

I use many different methods for naming characters, including looking at the spines of all the books surrounding me in my office. Long ago, I had a habit of naming secondary characters after old blues singers. One of my editors noticed and suggested I stop because he felt I was overdoing it.

Fran Rizer said...

Jan, I saw your request on Facebook this morning, but it was too late to contribute. This was interesting and gave me some ideas. Personally, my main characters seem to name themselves. Like Donnie's daughter suggested, I've been known to name minor characters by flipping through the phone book, too. That doesn't work anymore because I no longer receive them. Another resource is to Google popular names for the year in which the character would have been born.

Art Taylor said...

Enjoyed this discussion of naming characters--but really want to comment more on the postscript here about Clark Howard, which was a touching coda to your earlier post on Clark. Thank you for sharing.

B.K. Stevens said...

I enjoyed reading about all the different approaches people use--glad you were able to include mine. And the postscript about Clark Howard was touching. I never met him, but one of his EQMM stories made me decide to try writing mystery stories.

Elizabeth said...

I use names of people I've known or read about, slightly altered. Then I check to see what the name anagrams to at wordsmith.org/anagram ... sometimes I change the character's name based on what the anagram reveals.

Jan Grape said...

Wow, Elizabeth, I've never heard of wordsmith anagram and that's fascinating, I love anagrams. I will check it out.

Jan Grape said...

Thanks again to everyone for comments about naming characters.
All the ideas were great.

Pat Marinelli said...

Great post. Short story writers need a huge amount of character names. Most of my characters arrive in my head with names, if not I have a few sources. My favorite is a huge list I’ve compiled from my spam file. If those crazy spammers take the time to make a name that sound good, I’m going to steal it. Each time I use a name in a short story, I check it off so I don’t use it again to soon. I also read TV and movie credits…been doing it for years, no clue why. I’ve also tried the phone book when we had them. I do have to be careful as I tend to use J names often for some reason.

Loved the last comment. So nice to know.

Paul D. Marks said...

A lot of great ideas here, Jan. Some of them I've used myself, but others are on tap for the future.

Barb said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Barb Goffman said...

I use so many naming methods. I often will name characters after TV or movie characters I loved--not the exact name, but a take off. For instance I've two stories in which nearly all the characters had a first name or a last name of a character or actor from the TV show Veronica Mars (in one) and the movie Romancing the Stone (in the other). At other times, I've named characters in tribute to friends (first or last name or something that rhymes the person's name or is a take-off of the person's name). It's fun. Though I keep thinking someone will notice and ask me about it, but no one ever does. (And I love that PS about Clark Howard.)