08 January 2013

What's In A Name?

"What's in a name?  That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."  Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (as if I needed to tell you that).

Easy for Juliet to have said, after all who doesn't know her name?  I often think when I'm writing that all the good names have been taken.  If there's one thing I find vexatious when conjuring up characters it's the naming of them.  I blame Shakespeare and Dickens mostly.  They got all the good ones.  Let's face it, how are you going to top names like Romeo?  You can hardly think of young love and lovers without it popping unbidden into your brain.  As for villainy, how about Iago, or better yet in my book, the obsequious and insinuating Uriah Heep of David Copperfield?  If you give a thought to pick-pockets what name jumps up at you?  The Artful Dodger, perchance?  Indecisiveness--Hamlet, anyone?  Decay and bitterness?  Need I say Miss Havisham?  Need I go on?  Those two guys used up all the good names!  Never mind that they actually had to think them up.  I'm sure any of us could have done it given enough time.

I'm seldom satisfied with the character names I come up with, they're all so ordinary and common.  No Prosperos or Micawbers amongst them.  I blame my generation.  We all had common, ordinary names, nothing special to distinguish us.  Every kid I knew was named David, Ricky, Susan, Rita, Mary, Tommy, Terry, Steve, Laura, Keith.  Of course this was in the era before color was introduced into the world.  Everything was in black and white, so our names had to be suitably bland as well.  We didn't know any better during that gray time and thought it was just fine.  As a result we are name-challenged...or at least I am.

I've tried different tactics with only low levels of success.  In the beginning I worked the names of family into my stories.  It was sort of an inside joke and they seem to get a kick out of it.  But sometimes a name borrowed from one of my kids didn't fit the character I was creating.  Then I was thrown back on my own creativity--not a happy place for me when it comes to names.  So I would sit in front of my computer listlessly staring at a cursor pulsating with impatience for the "name".  Lacking true inspiration I fell into lifting names from the authors of the books stacked up on my desktop.  I would mix and match them.  Clever, no?  No...not particularly.  None of them rose to "Ebenezer Scrooge" status and distinction.  When I penned the suspense-filled actioner, "Tomorrow's Dead", the best name I could come up with for it's rugged protagonist was Byron.  Byron?  I ask ya.  Not even a second cousin to a Mike Hammer, or a Sam Spade.

Mostly, I just stick with the near-generic names of my youth and experience.  A story due out this year features a Terry, another a Helen.  You can see my problem here.  I did kinda go out on a limb with "Mariel" in a recent work--downright exotic for me.  One of the few times I thought I got the name just right for the character.

So these are my trials and travails when it comes to the damnable name game.  Don't even get me started on the more minor characters!  I'm considering going to numerical designations when it comes to them, sort of like the bad guys in a 60's Bond film.  I'd love to hear your thoughts on this subject, as I know from reading many of my fellow SleuthSayers works, no one has this problem but me.  Everyone else is clever at naming.  How about a little support? 

Brother, can you spare a name?  Got some loose monikers on ya?  Hey, don't walk away from me...I know you got a few extra handles in your pocket!


  1. David, when reading, I don't like strange, unusual names. They slow down what the author's saying. Also, they sometimes bring the reader to a complete halt to figure out how to pronounce the name.

    Most of my characters' names kind of appear with the person in my mind. I used to have friends ask me to use their names until I named a psycho killer after one of them. When I do use a personal acquaintance's name, I change the spelling. Example: Shawn becomes Sean or Mary becomes Marie.

    I've also been known to do things like name a character in the new book Dr. Sparrow when my close personal friends know that one of the few people in the world that I despise is a local doctor whose name is a bird.

    When I first ventured into fiction, a very successful writer cautioned me not to give characters in the same piece names that begin with the same initial letter (like Jack and Jill) unless they were twins.

    Your names all fit the characters in The Thirteenth Child, so whatever you're doing, it's working. Right now, I'm getting back to my Christmas book. I think I'll name the newest law enforcement officer Dean Davidson.

  2. I agree completely about difficult names, Fran. It's very jarring to have to wrestle with the pronunciation of a name.

    Please make sure that Officer Davidson is heroic and resolute. By the way, now I'm thinking Fran Parrish for a character. Or, how about Callie Rizer? I like them both already.

  3. Sometimes good names are the gift of the gods, but I find team rosters are often an inspiration, especially with foreign names, as one can select different given and surnames.

  4. I have a list of all the names of South Dakota rivers, mountains, parks and counties - I use them for last names. For first names, I fall back on the old stand-bys of childhood, but I also use the Social Security Administration website, that gives you the most popular baby names for each year.

  5. More useful info, Eve. I'll take a look the next time around.

  6. I like powerful names. After I started writing but still maintained my software skills, I wrote a program which walked the web and harvested names, their origins, ethnicity, meanings, type (place name, guild, religious, etc) and cognates, and plunked them into a database. Thus if I want a Navajo name, feminine, with a meaning related to 'flower', I plug that search into the database and out pops choices. I've thought about distributing it, but too much is happening and, thanks to a new(ish) computer, I'm behind with the software upgrades. (sigh)

  7. David, for my historical series, I Google foreign names according to ethnicity and place them into my research notes in advance so all I have to do is refer to the notes and pick out a name from a list that's already there. For my other series, I sometimes use my local newspaper's listing of wanted criminals and then mix and match first names with other last names. This option also gives me a photo or mugshot to go with the name for that visual inage, but then most of my characters are criminals anyway, some merely more criminal than others.

  8. David,

    Some time ago I attended a meeting where naming characters in a story was discussed. We all agreed that the name should fit the character, unlike real life where "Herschel" for instance, could be a rugged football player. (Not to mention Jethro Pugh)

    As a result of that meeting, I wrote the following which you might enjoy.

    A rose by any other name
    Would somehow never be the same.
    Suppose, for instance, we referred
    To roses by another word,
    Like “stinkweed” or a “Dead Horse Plant”.
    And sent them to our maiden aunt.
    “Dear Auntie, may this stinkweed say,
    How much we think of you today.”
    I fear that such a connotation,
    Won’t lend itself to inspiration.
    Would Carmen hold the same attraction,
    And stir men’s passion into action,
    If in her teeth she gaily wore
    A long stemmed fragrant albacore?
    Could loving feelings we evoke,
    For Abie’s Irish artichoke?

    And so, dear Shakespeare, while your prose
    Was meant to glorify the rose,
    And though your rationale be blameless.
    A rose, we know, will grow if nameless.
    I have a feeling that you can’t
    Convince my dear old maiden aunt.

  9. Leigh you could probably make a fortune on that program!

    R.T., I love the idea of the wanted criminals list with photos.

    Herschel, the poem is terrific. I also happen to agree with the sentiment.

  10. David,

    You and your story "Awake" are mentioned to day in Barb Goffman's guest post on Jungle Red. http://www.jungleredwriters.com/2013/01/true-story-lots-of-them.html


  11. My characters tend to name themselves. When I start a project I give them each a name that I think will suit them. As the story moves along and the character develops somewhere along the line a character literally jumps from the page shouting, my name should be_______. and so I change the name according to the prima donna characters wishes.

  12. Terrie, thanks for the heads-up on Barb's blog, and what a nice thing to hear!

    On rare occasions I've had a character demand a proper and rightful name. I just wished it happened more regularly.

  13. For my recent story involving a stolen baseball bat I had my fun naming characters after people who had appeared in "Batman" movies.


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