16 January 2021

What a Character . . .


How hard can it be, nonwriters often say, to name your characters?

Well, I can think of easier tasks. It's one thing to name them, but it's another to do it well.

The other day I started writing a new mystery story, and I'm making good progress--but I've come to the point where I need to start assigning names. So far my characters are S for Sheriff, P for Prisoner, O for Old man, W for Waitress, C for Cook, and V for Villain. I usually substitute letters as placeholders until I come up with names I really like. Even after I choose the names, they might change several times during the course of the story as new brainstorms roll in, in which case I make extensive use of (but don't entirely trust) the "Find and Replace" utility. I dread the day when I'll probably submit a story someplace with the hero saying something like "It's over, V. Drop the gun."

As all of you know, the choice of appropriate names can be vitally important, and at the very least can make any story better. I think The Silence of the Lambs would've been a great novel and movie regardless of the characters' names, but making the bad guys Buffalo Bill and Hannibal Lecter sure didn't hurt. And sometimes "appropriate" can have a wide range. I think part of Stephen King's success is due to the fact that he often writes about ordinary characters that everyone can relate to, and the names of his protagonists usually reflect that: Bill Hodges, Luke Ellis, Fran Goldsmith, Tom Cullen, Larry Underwood, Annie Wilkes, Robert Anderson, Paul Sheldon, Carrie White. One of his main characters (the novel was The Dead Zone) was named John Smith. Having said that, King can also get pretty creative with character-naming when it's needed: Roland Deschain, Gordie Lachance, Randall Flagg, Percy Wetmore, etc.

Looking back on the novels I've read and the movies and TV shows I've seen, I can recall character names that seem absolutely perfect for their stories. We all know some of those--Atticus Finch, James Bond, Ebenezer Scrooge, Luke Skywalker, Ichabod Crane, Indiana Jones, Rocky Balboa, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, and so on. A few have become better known than the stories in which they appeared.

Here are plenty more names, categorized but in no particular order, that I think are wonderful. How many of these can you remember?


Barney Fife, Stephanie Plum, Forrest Gump, Hedley Lamarr, Buzz Lightyear, Milo Minderbinder, Jack Sparrow, Ace Ventura, Hawkeye Pierce, Walter Mitty, Holly Golightly, Arthur Fonzarelli, Ron Burgundy, Mary Poppins, Gaylord Focker, Hoss Cartwright, Jack Tripper, Buford T. Justice, Maynard G. Krebs, Marty McFly, Ferris Bueller, Bilbo Baggins


Frank Bullitt, Sam Spade, Woodrow Call, Will Kane, Ellen Ripley, Jesse Stone, Rick Deckard, Han Solo, Sansa Stark, Thomas Magnum, Dana Scully, Jack Shepherd, Joe Mannix, Philip Marlowe, Nero Wolfe, Peter Gunn, Dan Roman, Rudi Matt, Remington Steele, Thomas Crown, Miranda Priestly, Judah Ben-Hur, Ethan Hunt, Mike Hammer


Keyser Soze, Victor Laszlo, Axel Foley, Vito Corleone, Imperator Furiosa, Boo Radley, Tony Soprano, Daenerys Targaryen, Jonathan Hemlock, Inigo Montoya, Thorin Oakenshield, Wednesday Addams, Lando Calrissian, V. I. Warschawski, Optimus Prime, Dave Robischeaux, Tyler Durden, Jay Gatsby, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Arkady Renko, Tyrion Lannister


Hans Gruber, Gordon Gekko, Francis Dollarhyde, Darth Vader, Uriah Heep, Lord Voldemort, Nurse Ratched, Joffrey Baratheon, Jason Voorhees, Anton Chigurh, Bellatrix Lestrange, Draco Malfoy, Simon Legree, Freddy Krueger, Hector Barbossa, Gyp Rosetti, Black Jack Randall, Amon Goeth, Hannibal Lecter, Kylo Ren, Biff Tannen, Al Swearengen, Lex Luthor

Some of the most interesting names, I think, came from Ian Fleming--

Auric Goldfinger, Hugo Drax, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Emilio Largo, Francisco Scaramanga, Julius No, Rosa Klebb, Irma Bunt, Felix Leiter, Vesper Lynd, Honeychile Ryder, Tatiana Romanova, Tiffany Case, Mary Goodnight, Kissy Suzuki, Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo, Pussy Galore, Gala Brand, Solitaire Latrelle, Domino Vitali, Caractacus Potts

--and Quentin Tarantino:

Vincent Vega, Beatrix Kiddo, Marcellus Wallace, Elle Driver, Bridgette von Hammersmark, King Schultz, Hattori Hanzo, Esmeralda Villa Lobos, Perrier LaPadite, Hugo Stiglitz, Broomhilda von Shaft, Drexl Spivey, Santanico Pandemonium

For anyone still with me on this, here are several more, in no particular category. Remember these?

Randle McMurphy, Tom Wingo, Humbert Humbert, Ignatius Reilly, Yuri Zhivago, Sebastian Flyte, Shug Avery, Omar Little, Fast Eddie Felson, Owen Meany, Holden Caulfield, Hester Prynne, Jake Spoon, Lisbeth Salander, Clarice Starling, John Boy Walton, Norman Bates, Chili Palmer

In closing (and in the "I wish I had come up with that one" department), here are my five all-time favorite character names:

Snake Plissken

Apollo Creed

Primrose Everdeen

Cullen Bohannon

Napoleon Solo

For what it's worth, here are some character names from my own stories: Ferguson Quillar, Pinto Bishop, Ward Grummond, Lou Mingo, Spencer E. Spencer, Bitsy Hamilton, Monique LaBont, Jabbo Harris, Gary Ironwood, Karim Valik, Madame Zoufou (Queen of Voodoo), Rufe Dewberry, Delbert Wooten, Ham Grogan, Cole "Shooter" Parrish, Abe Callendar, Solomon Wade, CollieBaby Johnson, Forrest DeWeller, Della Bloodworth, Punk Harris, Jasper Luckett, Panama Joe LaPinto, Woodrow Temple, Twelve Becker, Randolph Goodwynter, "Ducky" Duckworth, Doogie Sistrunk, Ophelia Reardon, Chunky Jones, Henrietta Allgood, Nicodemo Ross, Dexter Holtzhagen. I remember trying to tailor each of these to fit his or her character; whether that was effective or not is another matter.

What are some of your favorites, from novels, shorts, movies, TV, etc.? How about character names from your own work?

Now, back to trying to figure out what to call the folks in this latest story of mine.

Any suggestions?


  1. Great article, John. You used up most of the great names from literature I can think of. I'll throw out Captain Ahab, Starbuck, Queequeg, Ishmael and Moby Dick, as well as George Milton and Lennie Small, from my favorite novels. Angel Eyes from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Mean Mister Mustard, Polyethene Pam, and Eleanor Rigby from a certain 60's musical group. And you can't forget Harry Lime from The Third Man.

    My own characters? No name stands out. They tend to be Eastern European or Ancient Roman these days, so probably sound confusing to most readers.

  2. Bill, I've read a lot of your stories, and you seem to have no problem coming up with appropriate names. And yes, if you get into names used in songs, that's a whole 'nother matter, because I guess the name has to work in terms of the beat and rhythm of the music (like Eleanor Rigby). The whole subject of character names is interesting to me.

    Yes, I left out a ton of great fictional names--like Harry Lime!

  3. General Jack D. Ripper, Buck Turgidson, President Merkin Muffley, Soviet Premier Dimitri Kissov - all from DR. STRANGELOVE (another great name). Fielding Mellish from Woody Allen's BANANAS. John Yossarian from CATCH-22. Private Babra (not Barbara) from KELLY's HEROES. Maria Teresa Spermatozoa (from the National Lampoon 1964 High School Yearbook Parody).

  4. Good old Yossarian. I watched the remake of Catch-22 a few weeks ago, and included Minderbinder but not Yossarian. There was also Major Major Major Major. And yep, Strangelove had a bunch of great names. Sometimes you wonder just how the authors/screenwriters came up with them.

    Thanks, O'Neil. Hope all's well with you.

  5. Appassionata Von Climax from the Lil Abner comic strip. And Uriah Heep from Dickens's David Copperfield (also a forgotten 70s band).

    When I was starting out, I was told that male protagoni should have a name with strong consonants, and females should have long vowels and softer consonants. I came up with Zach Barnes for one series, and "Woody" Guthrie's girlfriend is Megan Traine.

    Michael Chabon inspired me to color outside the lines, and my favorite character name is a woman who ended up with a much smaller role than I orginally envisioned for her. Megan Traine's housemate and business partner is the daughter of a black GI and a Vietnamese mother. Dad loved jazz and blues, and she is Blue Song Riley (Her brother is Miles Davis Riley). Someday, I may give those sibs their own story or even novel because I short-changed them so badly.

  6. I got Uriah Heep, Steve (I put him under "Evil"), but I LOVE Appassionata Von Climax. I bet Al Capp almost had a von climax when he came up when that name.

    Believe it or not, I'd never heard that advice about creating names for male and female leads. I like that. And I really like Blue Song Riley. (I think authors like you who are also musicians have that kind of creativity built in.)

    Thanks for the observations!

  7. Oops! My lit teacher background kicked in above. I saw Uriah Heep. I meant to say Roger Chillingworth from The Scarlet Letter.

    Yeah, I've always liked Blue Song, too. In earlier versions of the Guthrie books, she had a lot more to do, including a developing love interest subplot. Someday, maybe...

  8. Chillingworth--now that's a name I wish I'd thought of. If I remember, Dickens came up with a lot of memorable character names. Silas Marner (George Eliot?) was a good one too--it sounds like the way that book made me feel, when I had to read it in school . . .

    Thanks, Steve.

  9. Great article.

    Sometimes, Fleming's names are a bit on-the-nose, but they sound great and click within his construct. They particularly work as counterpoint to James Bond, which sounds so much like a cover name that it adds a touch of mystery.

    A few names I dig: Steve Zissou, Atticus Finch, Endeavour Morse, Inigo Montoya (doubly so for how used), Hester Prynne, Linus Van Pelt.

  10. I agree, Bob--and we haven't even said anything about Oddjob, Q, or M. Another of my favorite Fleming characters (probably because I've watched Chitty Chitty Bang Bang so many times with my kids and grandkids) is Truly Scrumptious, the love-interest of Caractacus Potts.

    Endeavour Morse--wonderful!

  11. Thursday Next, Miss Marple, Pippi Bluestocking, Cruella DeVil, Kinsey Millhone.

    1. Well done, Liz. As for Marple and Millhone and Next, I should probably also have mentioned Hercule Poirot, Jacques Cousteau, Adam Dalgliesh, Benoit Blanc, Philo Vance, Phryne Fisher, Adrian Monk . . . and Ellery Queen. Great names!

  12. Count Fosco, Sir Percival Glyde, and Frederick Fairlie from The Woman in White. Just about every character in Dickens. Drusilla Clack from The Moonstone.
    I try to give my characters "normal" Norwegian / German names, using either my old student rosters, or old church registers.

    1. Whoa, Drusilla Clack and Percival Glyde. Love it.

      Student rosters/church registers sound like great sources for character names, Eve. I found an old organizational chart from my Air Force days a few years ago, and several of those majors, colonels, captains, etc., have found their way into my stories.

    2. I remember reading that when the old "Dark Shadows" tv show did a story set in the past, they got some of the names from old gravestones!

  13. Some of Donald Westlake's characters: Chief Mologna (pronounced Maloney), MacDough (pronounced MacDuff), and Harry Kunt who, for some reason, grew up to be a practical joker.

  14. Ha! How could I forget Donald Westlake? Especially John Dortmunder.

    Which brings up a point, Rob. As writers we're often advised to avoid character names that might be mispronounced--but Mologna and MacDough work well. I do remember a few characters, though, where that kind of uncertainty threw me off a bit, as a reader. Hey, all rules are made to be broken, I guess . . .

  15. Two of my characters quickly come to mind as illustrations of why I try to carefully name my protagonists (and other major characters). Ruby Dark is a bail bond agent in two novels and a short story. I named her Ruby Dark because (1) the hard-edged name captures some of her personality (a tactic often used for male protagonists) and (2) Dark hints at her cloudy past. In my novel Rope Burn, set in contemporary Wyoming cattle country, I named my protagonist Nick DeNunzio. Why? Because Nick is an ex-detective from Baltimore who comes west to escape his past, and by freak chance is hired to stop a string of cattle thefts (and soon murders). Nick is a fish out of water, and accordingly, his name does not fit in with the common “Western” names I attach to my cowboy characters.

    1. Bruce, I'm impressed. I try to be conscious of the importance of all this, but I doubt I've put as much thought into my character-naming as you did, here. And it paid off--those are great. "Different" can be a good thing, right?

      Thanks for these thoughts.

  16. When naming a character, I go to http://wordsmith.org/anagram/ & type in the name I've selected plus possible variations of it. Anagrams can reveal something else about the character, or possibly a reason not to use the name. 😎

    1. Good advice, Elizabeth. I'll make sure to keep that link.

      Many thanks!

  17. I named a character who was raised from the dead "Eric Weiss," after an escape artist who escaped from a coffin once. (Under his stage name "Harry Houdini!") My 1970s-era runaway who wanders the country I named "Bryce Going," as he is going somewhere, not sure where. And writer Thorne Smith (his real name, by the way!) had a knack for funky names: "Cosmo Topper," "Quintus Bland," and "Honor Knightly."

  18. You and Thorne Smith, Jeff!

    I do think there's a real satisfaction that comes with knowing you've named a character correctly, because there are SO many possibilities, and so many ways you could waste a good opportunity to make a character more effective than he/she might've been.

    Thanks for the examples, old friend. Keep up the good writing!

    1. Yeah, I've been reading Thorne Smith longer than he lived! (about 42 years!)

    2. I'm a little embarrassed that I haven't. Thanks for telling me about him.

  19. Inspiring post, John. Thanks.

    Then, of course, there's Joe Btfsplk from Lil Abner (pronounced like a raspberry/Bronx cheer, according to the author).

    I guess I was lucky when I wrote my first novel and used first names of people I know, almost all of whom gave me permission. I did make up the hero's name, Gordon Olin Donne, and some others, like Wesley Thomas Farley and Leander Oscar LeMille, solely for their initials' slang meanings for some inside jokes (e.g., LOL).

    Recently, for my short stories, I've been collecting unusual real names, like Teagan, Dallas (which she spells Dalyce, and gave me another pen name, Dallas Dalyce, who writes erotica), Hazel Moon, Alex Ray, Zoey Lynn, Seta, and many, many others.

    1. Love the inside jokes, Jake! That's always fun. I too try to collect unusual names, and wind up using them here and there. The whole process of naming characters is interesting, and--as my wife reminds me--is one of the things I like because I'm in complete control . . .

      Thanks for stopping in again at SleuthSayers.

  20. I really enjoyed your column, John, and what a great list of names you mentioned! It's truly an art form, I think, to come up with memorable names for characters in books and film. I change my character names all the time, usually starting with whatever pops in my head then analyzing it further when I revise. It's also fun to use names that you would never name your kids in real life. It's your chance, as a writer, to go a little crazy without worrying you will cause true harm to someone's psyche. Haha! I was trying to think of some you might have missed. Scarlett O'Hara, for sure, is just perfect, as is Rhett Butler, for ultra-memorable main characters and romantic counterparts. Snidely Whiplash, for a villain. Jonas Grumby, the Skipper character's given name in Gilligan's Island. Bruce Wayne, aka Batman, and Clark Kent, which brings to mind an all-American clean cut superhero in hiding. Marshall Rueben"Rooster" Cogburn. These strong women from literature: Jo March, Nancy Drew, and from children's lit. there's Pippi Longstocking, and Matilda Wormwood. Ah, I could go on and on...now I just want to stay up late and think of character names. Thanks for getting me thinking, John! Hope you're well and keeping safe! Best to the family.

    1. Hey Mary Ann! Yep, Snidely Whiplash is one I remember from a LONG time ago. Love all of those you mentioned. (And I had forgotten about Jonas Grumby, which was perfect, wasn't it?)

      We're all fine, down here, just trying to stay warm. I start shivering in September and don't get comfortable again until April or so. Take care, and keep in touch! Don't know how you stand it up there in the frozen tundra (that's anything north of Tennessee).

  21. Chester Himes had his two plainclothes cops Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. The conman in Cotton Comes to Harlem one of their outigngs was Deke O'Hara. I used that and actor Yaphet Kotto's name to come up with Deke Kotto a plainclothesman in a graphic novel.

  22. Hey Gary. I think Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson are fantastic names, and your Deke Kotto as well. I too have often used combinations of two people's names to come up with others.

    I heard someplace that writer/director Sergio Leone's name for the rancher who was killed, along with his family, in an early scene in Once Upon a Time in the West came from a combination of the names of two crime writers, Ed McBain and Simon Brett. The character's name was Brett McBain.

    Since I'm a certified movie nut, I've always enjoyed watching Yaphet Kotto, in anything.

    Many thanks for the thoughts!


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