05 June 2017

Shirley, Birly, Mo Mirly

If you write mystery, there's a good chance you write a series with a continuing character. People may even refer to your books by that character's name: Jack Reacher, Stephanie Plum, the Hardy Boys (Would that series have survived if they'd been called the Sickly Boys?).

Your character is your brand, so you have to give him, her, or them a memorable and evocative name to help readers remember it. Sometimes, I don't find the right name until I'm struggling with the fourth or fifth draft, and I may change it several times before I find the one that sticks.

Yes, you can be symbolic, like Faithful in The Pilgrim's Progress or Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. For years, I've said the ultimate victim name, especially in a book about a con game, is Patsy. Allusions are good shorthand, too, like naming a lover Romeo or a martyred character Jesus or Santiago. But symbolism and allusion get pretentious quickly, and then you have to go for the ordinary without succumbing to the mundane.

Postcards of the Hanging, originally my sixth-year thesis/project at Wesleyan University under a different title, teems with symbolic names because I was using it to show that I'd read the classics along the way. I thought I was heavy-handed about it, but nobody--including my adviser--has ever mentioned them.

Maybe a lyrical or pretty name--I know, that's subjective--or very unpleasant. Flannery O'Connor's protagonist in "Good Country People" calls herself Hulga because she wants to sound ugly. The name almost rhymes with the adjective. And what does that tell us about her as a person? Naming dictionaries for babies abound, and some of them sort the names by gender, language of origin, culture, or meaning. Pay attention to sounds, too.

Many heroic characters have short names with strong consonants. Shane, Sam Spade, Shell Scott (Shell suggests a bullet or armor, too), Joe Pike or Carlotta Carlyle. Sara Paretsky's V.I.--Victoria Iphegenia--Warshawski gives us an interesting rhythm and a fully-realized symbolic and allusive name. Victory and a sacrifice in one person.

I keep a spreadsheet with all the names I've used for novels and short stories. It serves two purposes. First, if I want to return to a location in a later book, I can check on the characters who were there quickly (My fourth Zach Barnes novel returned to a setting from the second book, and several of the characters showed up again) and easily.

The second reason is to be sure I don't repeat a name or sound too often. Left to my own devices, most of my characters would have names starting with "M." Don't ask me why, but in various drafts of the Guthrie series, my main characters were Morley, Maxwell, and Megan Traine. I eventually changed Morley (My great aunt's married name and sounding like "morally") several times, and Maxwell became a supporting character who shows up less often now, replaced by Eleanor "Shoobie" Dube. Megan is still my female lead, and more about her later.

When I find the right name, I know how and why the character has it, too. Taliesyn Holroyd in Who Wrote the Book of Death? is a man writing romance under the pseudonym, and Taliesyn is an over-the-top romantic name. It's also originally King Arthur's male bard, so it suggests the gender, too, even though most people wouldn't notice that. It was my ninth choice for the character and occurred to me while I listened to an old Deep Purple CD in my car: The Book of Taliesyn...

Zach Barnes became the protagonist in the revised edition of that book and the ensuing series. I had him in an unsold Detroit series, too, and changed his name in that first book with a global edit to save time. He became Greg Nines, but I didn't like the softer consonants as well. Neither did readers who told me so on my website. Besides, spellcheck went crazy because it interpreted "Nines" as plural.

Blood On the Tracks introduces my Detroit PI Elwood Christopher Guthrie (My daughter pointed out that "Elwood" suggests the Blues Brothers and Guthrie does play guitar). Over the course of 115 rejections and subsequent revisions, he was Rob Daniels, Erik Morley, Zach Barnes (see above), and at least one other name I no longer remember. Now he goes by Chris, but everyone else calls him "Woody," which is fine because of the guitar-playing. Megan Traine, his companion, is smart, feisty and gorgeous, and her name rhymes with the name of my high school classmate, the female session musician in Detroit who inspired her character in the first place.

Zach Barnes got traded to my Connecticut series, and he often encounters two Hartford police officers. One is Tracy Hendrix. His grandfather admired actor Spencer Tracy, and his father liked Jimi Hendrix enough to change the spelling of his own last name. When he played high school basketball, Tracy had a bad mouth that led people to call him "Trash." His detective partner is Jimmy Byrne, and the other cops call the duo "Trash and Byrne."

Trash and Byrne star in The Whammer Jammers, a crime novel built around roller derby, in which I gave all the skaters a rink name that suggests what they do in the "real world." That got to be far more fun than it should have been.

Grace Anatomy is a physical therapist. Roxie Heartless is a divorce lawyer. Goldee Spawn is an OB/GYN. Tina G. Wasteland (Hendrix's girlfriend) is a social worker. Annabelle Lector is a nutritionist. The bank president from the Deep South is Denver Mint Julep.

That book's sequel is Hit Somebody, due out next week, and it continues the joke/conceit. The announcer at events is Lee Da Vocal.

I've added twin sisters who run a bake shop, and their names are Raisin Cain and Ginger Slap. The original Ginger Slap works out at my health club and gave me permission to use her name when I told her how much I liked it. There is even a data base of all roller derby names: duplicating a name is a serious no-no, akin to a circus clown copying another clown's make-up design.

My daughter, once the captain of the Queen City Cherry Bombs in New Hampshire, likes to bake. Roller Girl (check it out, it's terrific), skates on the West Coast as Winnie the Pow. Who says you can't make this stuff up?

Her rink name was Hazel Smut Crunch. And Victoria Jamieson, who wrote the Newbery Award YA graphic novel

My roller derby books have that Greg Nines problem again, too. Tina G. Wasteland's real name is Tori McDonald, and spellcheck thinks "Tori" is the plural of "Torus."

It could be worse. When I bought my first computer decades ago and worked on a mythology unit for my classes over the summer, that primitive spellcheck flagged the name Achilles and suggested the alternate: asshole.

How do you come up with names?


  1. Fun post, Steve. Sometimes names just pop into my head and they work and I stick with them. Other times I'll change them several times (with a global change) in the course of a project. And if I can't think of a name for a character I'll just put in a movie star's name as a placeholder and then change it later.

  2. My characters tend to name themselves, but when the name is wrong, the story doesn't go anywhere until it's corrected. When I wrote the first Callie book, I had no problem with first names, but wanted to be sure the last names were all "southern." I got them from the telephone book of a neighboring small town. That wouldn't work these days because we no longer have telephone books. Finding your names sounds like more fun than mine and I'm looking forward to meeting more of your characters as I continue reading your work. Thanks for a fun post that brought a couple of lols this AM

  3. Sometimes, I find character names by going through old grade books. I've never dared to use the name of one student I taught many years ago, though--Dale Hazard. It was his real name, but it sounds like something a writer made up.

  4. Names are so terribly important, even in real life, LOL. After a health scare as an adult I finally did what I should have done years earlier. I changed my first & middle names, which sounded childish & harsh both, to names I could live with!!

    When naming characters I always look at what anagrams reveal:


    And for Warshawski & other Polish last names ending in -ski, a man told us once that it stands for: Skill, Knowledge, Intelligence.

  5. A spreadsheet of all the names I've used in my published fiction. Excellent idea. Lotta work.
    As for where I got the names of the lead characters of my series books. Well, LaStanza was named for a shopping area in Verona, Italy where I lived when my father was stationed there in the army. John Raven Beau is half-Cajun and half-Sioux. Raven is a favorite bird (from Poe's 'The Raven' of course) and Beau means beautiful in French. Jacques Dugas, well a De Noux family is related to the Dugas family. As for Lucien Caye, I got his name off a sidewalk in New Orleans. It is still there, blue and white tiles embedded in the sidewalk. I thought it read Lucien Caye but it is actually Lucien Gaye. It was a restaurant.

  6. That's a clever article. I can barely stand up on skates, so I have to admire the derby girls. I love the Annabelle Lector name! Others are clever too.

    I’ve use most of those techniques, although I hadn’t thought of Elizabeth’s notion about anagrams.

    I keep– actually kept, because my software is out of date– a database of, um, I think 60,000 some names I harvested from the internet, complete with ethnic origin etymology, cognates, and several other attributes. When I needed a name, I could search by gender, meaning, ethnicity, sound, etc. Deborah Elliott-Upton used to ask me to look up names for her.

    For stories of any complexity, I also keep a spreadsheet, often with a lot of detail. I just created one for a project I’m working on with Dame Andrews. I just realized we have two characters starting with ‘Ev…’ (Evelyn and Evander), which is a no-no.

  7. Referring to Bonnie's comment above, an office worker asked if I had a 'Hollywood' made-up name.


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