Saturday, November 27, 2010

What's in a Name?

We have a great reprieve for a few days. This one's a subject I really enjoy as both a reader and a writer. As a reader, I find myself doing this when reading other people's books, i.e., thinking of what I might have selected as a name for a particular character if I would've written the story myself. As a writer, just getting my brain working, and finding the names coming at me from every which way I turn.

But what are some other ways a person can come up with a name? Let's see what Linore says. Here comes another writing tip for you folks.

Naming Your Fictional Characters

by Linore Rose Burkard

Do you struggle to find the right name for a character when writing? Is there such a thing as a "right" name? And if there is, how do you know when you've found it?

The answer to these questions can only be subjective, but here's my personal take on them, as well as some of my favorite ways to find names when I need them.

First of all, I think most writers do struggle at times with naming one or more characters. If you've never struggled with this, be grateful. If you have, it probably means that you had a good idea about the sort of character you were naming, and you were smart enough to recognize that not just any ol' name would do.

When I am in need of just the 'right' name for a character, I usually use a stand-in or temporary name until I find the right one. (The temporary name isn't important, so use whatever you like, but I would avoid going with "Character A" and "Character B"--these are cardboard-flat names and won't help you envision your character at all.) If you get really stuck on what the "right" name should be, it may help you to do some further brainstorming about that character. The better you get to know this person, the easier it will be to settle upon a name that feels right.

One of my tricks is to search catalogs with lots of models (both male and female) until I find a face that really matches my idea for a person. Once I have a face, I can usually decide upon a name.

Some writers use baby name books, but I don't find these helpful until I have a face in mind, first. I also find that movie credits sometimes contain wonderful names. I never borrow anyone's full name, but I find both a first name and a surname that I like, and combine them to get that "just right" name for my character.

Each writer really needs to find what works for them. Secondly, is there such a thing as a "right" name? A "wrong" one? Again, this is partly subjective, but in some cases, such as with historical novels, it is more a matter of being period-correct.

Some things to consider when choosing a name are:

     a) Will it make the reader stumble each time they encounter it? Some historical novelists choose names
that are period-correct but impossible to pronounce unless you "know" that period. Don't make reading your book a chore! Find a name that is both correct for the time and place of your novel, while also going easy on readers. If you must use an obscure name, or one that has an obscure spelling, use another character to let us know exactly how the name should be read.

     b) Check that the name was in existence for the period you are writing in. Many authors check to see if the name was popular during a given period, but this is not necessary in many cases. The fact that it existed is technically all you need to know; however, when naming a Puritan, you wouldn't want to try something like "Crystal" when names such as Mary, Patience, and Charity were really the vogue. If you were trying to emphasize the singularity of a character, the difference between him and her and the average person of the world they live in, then a very different-sounding name might be just right, however. So, the story-line plays a part in naming.

     c) I'll never forget this lesson from T.S. Eliot: He wrote a heart-tugging poem called, "The Love Song of  J. Alfred Prufrock." Say that name aloud! It is anything but romantic, anything but what one would associate with a love song, and the poem indeed conveys Prufrock's utter inability to "sing" one, even when opportunity and desire are there. Eliot named this character carefully. The awkward name emphasizes the pathos of the character. Can you do this in your fiction?

It's not by accident that romance writers try to choose pretty, or exotic, or smooth-sounding names for their heros and heroines. Give a girl a pretty name, and it's easier to see her as attractive. Give a hero a strong name, and it's easier to see him as strong.

Interestingly, you might want to choose the name for your villain as carefully as for the hero or heroine. A villain often disguises him or herself as a hero or heroine, at least for some portion of a book, and until they are found out, a beautiful name will go far to fool the reader. Conversely, an uncertain name, one that is not particularly evocative or attractive (think: Clark Kent) can be used to de-emphasize the real hero or heroine until they are revealed for their true colors later in the book.

There's also the idea that evil can appear beautiful, and a lovely name for a villain can make for fun reading. In my book, The House in Grosvenor Square, the good-looking villain's name is Lord Wingate, or Julian. Neither sound ominous, but "Julian" has a sort of mysterious air to it, which I think supports the character's persona.

You shouldn't need to obsess over naming a character, for it is much easier to get a "right" name than a wrong one. Only historical novels can objectively be accused of having a "wrong" name--either for their time or place--but do try to fit the appellation with the person. Get something that fits. Give a pretty girl a pretty name, and a hero a strong name--unless it is part of their appeal or story that they have a "wrong" name and triumph anyway (such as in the Johnny Cash song, " A Boy Named Sue").

Above all, have fun naming your characters! Find a method you like, whether it be an internet search, a baby-name book, movie credits, or any other source, and have at it. Experiment with different names for the
same character if you're just not sure, and see what sits best with you. Eventually, you will find the "right" name for each character, and your book will be stronger for it.

(And speaking of names when you write or daydream or plan babies, or get a new animal friend, how do you come up with yours?)

© 2010 Linore Rose Burkard
The House in Grosvenor Square
Before the Seasons Ends
The Country House Courtship


  1. Great article, Linore! I love the naming process when I'm writing. The usually just kind of come to me right along with the character, but not always. My WIP has some Romany characters, so I enjoyed researching names for them. My heroine's name is Gypsy - her name was in place long before I actually started writing the book. It was a lot fun finding names for the other characters, though.

    Great job, Linore!

  2. Contemporary books can have wrong names, too. I like to use Madison as an example. If your heroine is 30 now, it's highly unlikely her name would be Madison. It wasn't used for girls until much later. Likewise, a 60-y-o woman would likely not be named Jocelyn; that was a male name well into the 1950s.

    Laurie Alice Eakes--
    Lady in the Mist from Revell Books, February, 2011.
    Read an Excerpt at:

  3. Excellent points, Linore, thank you for sharing. I agree, particularly on not using a name that's hard to pronounce, or one you stumble over. I've almost put books down before when they're full of difficult names OR when almost every character's name starts with the same letter. It can be very confusing keeping them apart.


  4. Hi Shirley and Linore, my in-laws used the telephone book to come up with a name for thier third child, my brother-in-law. I've since used the idea to come up with last names for a few of my characters. It's worked great so far.
    Sincerely, Debby Lee

  5. Delia,
    Thank you. : ) How nice to hear from you. And it sounds like you enjoy the naming process even when that just-right name eludes you for awhile. Good for you! I try not to get frustrated when I can't settle on one right away, but it happens. (Yet it IS fun.)

    Laurie Alice,
    You make some good points. Thanks for mentioning them, and it reminds me that ethnic characters can also be named "wrong" if the name doesn't fit the ethnicity. Even if something is possible, it doesn't follow that it's always believable, and we want our characters' names to strengthen their identity, not make it questionable. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

    Good point about using the same letter for multiple character names. For some reason, I myself have to fight this tendency! Thanks for bringing it up and for stopping by.

    And Debby Lee,
    Yes, a phone book is certainly as good as any name book, at least for a starting point. We may need to research the meaning or origins of a name we find that way, but the same is true for any name we find randomly, so thanks for mentioning this method. It's an obvious resource I left out!

    I'll have to revise my article to incorporate all of your excellent comments, ladies. Thanks again!

  6. I like to read the names in stories. I'm amazed at how you folks come up with so many unique ones. I liked what one person said when she wrote that it should depend on when the book is written. I can can see how the wrong name might not work too well. Not with the names out today.
    Betty Fimple
    windsor, CA

  7. Delia,

    Thank you so much for stopping by. You are always so upbeat, truly a breath of fresh air wherever you go.

    God bless!


  8. To all who commented on names...

    This is one of my favorite parts of the writing process--choosing names for my characters. A story doesn't truly come alive until the characters 'find' their perfect name. And isn't it cool to think you don't have to actually birth all those babies to have the liberty of naming them?


  9. One of my favorite parts, too, Mary. Either naming my characters or naming the book, even though, I can't guarantee the publisher will keep my choice of titles. But names say a lot. Thanks so much for this article, Linore.