Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Blame it on the Name, for Shame

Names are tricky, especially when you're selecting them for your characters. For the most part you want to select a name that reflects your genre, though there are plenty of exceptions to this rule.

A quick tour of the bestsellers on my bookshelf reveals these finds:
Lavinia and Tobias in Amanda Quick's historical romance, Late for the Wedding
Eve and Roarke in JD Robb's futuristic romance, Indulgence in Death
Lev and Rikki in Christine Feehan's paranormal romance, Water Bound
cult leader Ethan in Brenda Novak's romantic suspense, White Heat
wizard Gandalf and unlikely hero Bilbo in JRR Tolkien's fantasy, The Hobbit
magician Harry Dresden in Jim Butcher's fantasy, Fool Moon
every man David Beck in Harlan Coben's thriller, Tell No One
sleuth Lincoln Rhyme in Jeffery Deaver's thriller, The Broken Window

I've barely tapped the potential of my bookshelf, but you should see a pattern. A name evokes a certain type of character, triggers a memory, inspires curiosity, or even intrigues a reader by its very difference.

Up and coming authors show the same skill. Here are a few that I've reviewed:
down-and-out Addie in Celia Yeary's western, Addie and the Gunslinger
psychic Diana Racine in Polly Iyer's mystery, Mind Games
Deanna and Daws in LK Hunsaker's modern fiction, Moondrops & Thistles
archer Heather in SG Rogers' paranormal fantasy, Tournament of Chance
Edmund and Kiera in Stephanie Burkhart's steampunk, A Gentleman & a Rogue
Kendi and Jackson in Cheryl Pierson's romantic suspense, Temptation's Touch

And, what list would be complete without a few of my characters?
  • intrepid Cleopatra Jones from my mystery series - a gal with the weight of the world on her shoulders
  • birdwatcher & data analyst Hannah from House of Lies - a heroine who's plunged from her safe world into danger
  • reporter Molly Darter from Murder in the Buff, an every woman who rises to the occasion

Some names seem off limits to me. For instance, I wouldn't ordinarily use any of these names for my characters: Hannibal, Cher, Rambo, Hitler, Napoleon, Barrack, and a host of other famous people through the years. I might use their personality types though, or use a famous name as a weight they have to overcome every day of their lives.

And then there's unisex names like Chris. There's a couple I know, Chris and Ward. Ward's the female and I always call her Chris. I also know women named Lloyd and Sudy. Unusual names are common in the south, as are double names like Mary Lee, Betty Sue, and so on. Select names which reflect the genre or give a regional flair for best identification.

In selecting character names, make it easy for the readers to remember them. Give them strong tags and attributes. Make them three-dimensional so readers color in the face behind the name.

How do writers come up with names? Different ways. Name lists. Personal experience. Online lists of names. Yearbooks. Commencement programs. Obituaries. Prayer lists. Phone books. And when all else fails, mix and match author names from your bookshelf!

Please share your thoughts on names. I'd love to hear from you!

Maggie Toussaint
In For a Penny and On the Nickel out now on Kindle
www.maggietoussaint.com

59 comments:

  1. Maggie, great post. And doesn't Roarke just conjure up an image of his sexy self? I'd love to see Gerard Butler play that role.

    I start with the character's age, decide whether they have Irish, Italian or whatever blood running through their veins and then hit the Internet.I'll search for names with that birth year and ancestry. Write dozens of names down and then start pairing them together. Sounds like a lot of work, but realism is important to me, so it's just part of my research.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Jerrie,

    Don't tell my husband, but I'm surely in love with Roarke. He's so three-dimensional to me and his love for Eve makes him absolutely perfect.

    I admire your system for naming. Even something so simple as a name can have great power in characterization!

    Thanks for the visit.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I subbed a lot for about three years. I got to walking around the class and checking kids' name tags on their desks. Vancouver is a very multicultural city and so I collected a lot of very interesting names. Most of my characters' names come from kids we know or from sources like the Bible, ancient Persion names, Jewish names, that sort of thing depending on what year my story takes place.But they have to have the right meaning. For example, one of my characters is named Darius which means doer of good. Two other names are Cassi and Jemmi, modern names, but they come from Cassiopoeia and Gemini, two star constellations.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Suzanne,

      I like your multicultural and in-depth research approach. It's fun to learn the historical meaning of names and to run with that, or to twist it and have the character fight the "nature" of his name.

      I very much like the names Darius, Cassi and Jemmi. All a bit different from mainstream, all create interest.

      Thanks so much for your input!

      Delete
  4. Great post Maggie. I like to find names that offer levels of familiarity. My soon-to-be-released has Dr. Olivia Rosalini. Depending on who she's talking to and depth of their relationship, I get Olivia, Liv, and Livie. I think layers like this adds to character development. I also like names than hint at the personality. I have a villain in one of my stories names Adrian Doyle. Both names mean dark or black. He's blacker than black-hearted. :)
    Rose

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Rose, hello!

      I like your double negative name for a dastardly villain. And I've always had a fond spot for the name Olivia. There was a character on the Cosby Show named Olivia and her dad (Bill Cosby) teased her by calling her Bolivia. There's a lot you can do with Olivia to make it familiar, as you mentioned. Sounds like you put a lot into your characterization.

      Thanks for the visit!

      Delete
  5. Great post, as I've been getting conflicting thoughts on the name I chose for Silver Lake's heroine: Rain Anderson. Honestly, she chose the name for herself, as do all my characters. Most people have liked the name (I recently met a girl named Raina, odd coincidence) but 2 people told me it was "distracting" - I suppose in the sense it's not a common name? But once a character latches onto a name in my mind, it's a done deal, and I only do research for the last names.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Kathryn,

      I love it when characters name themselves. They sometimes emerge from the story ether with names and personalities, as if they can't wait to be "born."

      I don't have anything against the name Rain. We have Stormy, Misty, and Wendy, why can't we have Rain? Let's not discriminate against the weather - wouldn't want to get Mother Nature mad at us, right?

      Enjoyed your comment.

      Delete
  6. Hi Maggie,
    Interesting post. I write Scottish medieval romantic suspense, and I try and use historically accurate names, which at times can be a challenge due to their spelling and pronunciation. I search medieval records for names, then place each name I choose for a character in an alphabetical listing with brief information about each character. Unless a character is a minor character, I try and never repeat the letter starting the name, which can distract the reader. Have a wonderful day!
    *Hugs*

    Diana

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey Diana,

      Welcome! I love your Scottish medieval romances. I don't envy you the task of those medieval name searches, but maybe the spelling and pronunciation would be okay if someone from that era wasn't looking over your shoulder!

      I have two "J" names in my WIP, and to tell the truth, I think Jack will be renamed. He's a bit of a screwup and I originally thought Jack would suit him fine. But my heroine's a Jeanie and her leading male is Rock. Besides the whole "CK" ending of Rock and Jack doesn't work for me. Gotta fix that.

      Thanks for sharing your process.

      Delete
  7. Good post. Coming up with just the right name for a character is both a challenge and fun(and sometimes frustrating.) At the moment, I'm working on a story where the hero's name is Chance and the heroine is Destiny. Both fit the plot in spite of the fact they hint at opposites. When I first started writing, someone told me that using street names is an interesting way to come up with character names. I have done it a couple times and it worked out well. Now all I need is a list of the streets here in town and and really get down to creating. There's no end to the possibilities.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Marissa,

      Street names. It took me a minute to realize you meant the Names of Streets. Many drug dealers, gangsters, etc, take on "street names" to disguise their identity and fit in with the scene. But names of streets are an excellent resource.

      Let's see, Madison Avenue and Park Place can combine to give us Madison Place. That's a cool name. Thanks for the tip!

      Delete
  8. Great character names, Maggie. Names come to me very easily. You know how a person looks like their name? Maggie--is of course, as Maggie, etc.
    I have been known to call someone by a completely different name, knowing what the real name is, but if I get an idea firmly planted in my head--"Her name is Gloria, but she should be a Sharon." Stereotypes, sort of.
    I especially love making up names for Western Historical Characters. Diego Montoya of "Kat and the U.S. Marshal," well he could have no other name.
    But if a name doesn't come to me off the bat, then I will struggle with it forever.
    Some names I have "stored" for some future use: Lalani (sounds Hawaiin),
    Jackson Rene Deleon, Alexander King, and some others. I have their names, I know who they are and what they look like...I just don't have their story.
    Thanks for the mention of Addie aka Miss Adriana Jones.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Celia,

      I feel your naming pain. When the names come easy, it's one thing. When they play hide and seek with us, that's quite another.

      Confession time, I also have lists of names I want to use in future books. But I'm not sharing at this time...

      You're welcome about Addie. Her name just conjures up the Old West to me. Nicely done.

      Delete
    2. Celia, my mom said ever since Jessica was born, "She doesn't LOOK like a "Jessica" to me!" She would always want to call her Elizabeth. This was really weird, because my older sister's middle name is Elizabeth, and her daughter's, and her granddaughter's. Anyhow, my mom would have to stop herself sometimes and it would be like this: "Eliza-well, Jessica, blah blah blah." LOL
      Cheryl

      Delete
  9. Great post, Maggie. Thanks for putting me in such exalted company. When I wrote Mind Games, I had no idea the name Diana would figure so prominently in the follow-up book. The name Racine was my son's teacher's name. I loved the way it rolled off my tongue. Speaking of the follow-up, Goddess of the Moon, I had to come up with a ton of specific-type god and goddess names. Will not be doing that again. Names set the reader's vision of the character. Sometimes they come with the character even if I don't particularly like the name, but once it's in my head, that's it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey Polly,

      Diana is a great name, and I loved how you played up the mythology of it in Goddess. I'd never heard Racine before I read it in your books. It brings to mind, speed, race, and something a bit out of the ordinary - which all fits nicely with the character you created.

      Thanks for the visit!

      Delete
  10. Great post, Maggie, and I enjoyed the other comments. I have an interesting (to me, anyway) twist on the name thing. After I had been writing for a while, I noticed that I often had a character who changed her name (Rebecca demands that everyone call her Pearl.) I have no idea what that's about. Anyone? I don't recall my name being a problem for me, but who knows?

    I'm like a lot of the responders--if a character's name comes easily, no problem. But if I can't name someone right away, I struggle with it. I recently made a decision to change a protagonist's name. Her name was perfect, but the book was flawed. I worked on it, put it away, brought it back out. And decided to change her name to give me a different way of seeing the book. It's now with an agent, and I think the change was a good decision.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Terry,

      I had a friend in high school who suddenly came down with the nickname of Pearl. I never understood the significance, but I was clueless about a lot of stuff in high school.

      Your comment about changing a character's name really intrigues me. I have a book that I've worked to death and I hate it. But the plot's solid. The character was perfect. But it feels stale, old. Maybe a character name facelift will perform a miracle for me. Thanks for the tip!

      And best of luck with your story in the agent's hands.

      Delete
  11. Great post. I can normally just feel when it's right.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Lisa,

      It's bone deep, isn't it? That knowing when someone has the right name. I know just what you mean.

      Thanks for the comment!

      Delete
  12. I use my sons' names since I clearly loved them or they wouldn't have to wear them. The funny thing is it makes their wives uncomfortable to read heros with their names.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Barbara,

      Your comment made me smile. I have another writer friend who used her son's names in some pretty racy stories. I wonder how that turned out in the family?

      I tend to steer clear of names of people I know. Though I am absolutely dying to use the name of our former sheriff, Chunk Jones, in a story.

      Delete
  13. I love naming my villains. I give them names of really smarmy people I've known or heard of. I won't list any, in order not to offend, but they're not pretty.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. People! Fair warning: Be nice to Sandra or she will put you in her books as an evil person...

      Thanks for the visit and the comment.

      Delete
  14. Good insight on names, everyone. I like to think I give a lot of thought to character naming. In my "Fame & Deceit," intended to be a 3 book murder mystery, I spend weeks determining my protagonist's name. He is Dwight Chernokowski, Born in the US of Polish parents. I wanted him to be thoroughly Polish so he could easily swear in Polish. His mother chose "Dwight" because he was born the day Dwight Eisenhower became President and Ike, of course, did much during WWII for the Poles. This easily establihes his age. But as Dwight Chernokowski grew, he thought his name hampered his professional image. He Americanized himself as Ike Cherny. The girl that stays in him life throughout all the books is Billie Jones. Because of her common last name, her mother, looking for an unusual name, actually named her Wilhemenia.
    I find I most often give my key characters nicknames, as the above two, but with the lesser characters I try to be careful not confuse readers. For instance I have a teen by the name of Kassandra Diane who is most often called "KD,"altho her dad usually calls her Kassy.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Patti,

      I'm intrigued by the depth of your research. And I like how you took Polish names, Americanized them but kept the history. That makes your characters all the more interesting and yet more accessible.

      Thanks for sharing!

      Delete
  15. In my second book, Killerfind, I wanted a female who was elusive, intelligent and resourceful as a possible suspect. I have a Facebook friend who had the perfect name, Mylene Allard. I asked her if she would allow me to use her name and she was thrilled to he a part of Killerfind.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well I sure hope Mylene didn't come to a bad end. I like the name it sounds a bit oldfashioned and familiar and yet its different.

      Thanks for stopping in, Sharon. Always love to have you visit.

      Delete
  16. Elmore Leonard said names have always been important to him. His quote: "In Bandits, I called the main character Frank Matisse and he almost refused to talk. I changed him to Jack Delaney and I couldn’t shut him up."

    I always think about Leonard when naming a character. My Johnny Casino character wouldn't have been nearly as exciting if I called him Fred Smith. (Apologies to all the Fred Smiths out there.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey GB,

      What a great quote about characterization. Elmore Leonard is a master at naming characters, and most everything else too.

      I can just imagine what Johnny Casino might look like, and I know he would be fun.

      Thanks for sharing your character with us.

      Delete
  17. Interesting post, Maggie, and interesting comments. Loved the Elmore Leonard quote, GB...thanks for sharing...but then I love most everything by Leonard. As a content editor rather than an author, I've had a number of engaging discussions regarding character names. The most recent, I asked an author if she/he didn't feel that two characters--one by the name of Tyler, another called Ty--might be a bit confusing to readers? And I know more than once I've asked an author to refrain from starting all the characters' names with the same letter. How about all the secondary characters having very common names--like John, Dave, Mike, Anne, Mary, and Donna--is that confusing to anyone but me? Just saying...
    Joelle

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Jodi,

      I'm delighted to make your acquaintance. I agree with you about characters with similar names. And I am guilty of spending less time with names for secondary characters. They need love too. I try to vary the number of beats in names. That usually helps provide distinction as well.

      So glad you happened by. Please come again!

      Delete
  18. SO fascinating!

    I asked Jeffrey Deaver where he came up with Lincoln Rhyme. I had all kinds of elaborate thematic theories--turns out he was something like Deaver's veterinarian, or science teacher. Something like that! Nothing romantic or lyrical at all. But it sure still works!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Hank,

      I think Jeffrey Deaver can do just about anything and it will be fabulous. I'm a big Deaver fan ever since I heard him at Killer Nashville. Names are fun. Yours, for instance. I've always wondered where the Hank came from.

      Thanks for visiting Mudpies.

      Delete
  19. It bothers me when people use names that a character of a certain age probably wouldn't have. Like, a grandmother might have the name Fanny but not a 30 year old. A lot of people in their 50s and 60s now have names like Linda and Sue, but not so much little kids today. Odd names are popular now but if an older character has one there should be a good reason (like, my mom thought Roni sounded like a society name!).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey Roni,

      Isn't it funny how names cycle in and out of favor? I remember my daughter telling me how she and her husband were having trouble picking a name from the "popular" names list for their son. Turned out the popular name they selected was the same as my father's.

      You're right, I have friends named Linda and Sue, and I actually knew one or two girl Ronis at one time or another, but I'm not sure how they spelled their names.

      My mom, god bless her, waited until her 4th daughter to use my paternal grandmother's name, and then she made darn sure I didn't get any nicknames all through school. She couldn't tell my husband anything though, and he dubbed me Maggie - and it stuck!

      Ah, the best laid plans of mice and moms.

      Delete
  20. That little girl in the photo is precious!

    Yes, the correct names for characters are very important. I won't read a book unless I like the characters' names. The wrong can take me totally out of a story.

    Morgan Mandel
    http://www.morganmandel.com

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I enjoy finding pics for the blog, Morgan. I just go with whatever grabs me. I was thinking that little girl might be an Emily, but I'm not sure.

      I've often wondered if we're pre-biased to like names from our culture. I know I have to make an effort to have multicultural characters. It's rare today to have uni-cultural anything, even in a small out-of-the-way county like the one I live in. We've got a bit of everything here, and our books should reflect that.

      Thanks for the visit, Morgan!

      Delete
  21. Maggie,
    Names are soooo important, aren't they? I sometimes will write several pages into a story before I come up with the perfect name. It seems my heroines are easier to name than the heroes are. But I know it when I find it. When I was writing Sweet Danger, I knew I had to have an Indian name. My hero was Cherokee AND Choctaw (which is common here, to mix tribes and also anglo blood and names)and white. I knew Jesse was going to be his first name, but he needed a definitive Indian name. I'd puzzled over it for several days, and even in the places where people called him by his last name I just drew a blank line and went on, because I didn't have it yet. Then one night I was watching the news and the mentioned the name of a family who'd been involved in a car accident. Nightwalker. I knew it the minute I heard it--that was going to be Jesse's last name. I should also mention that in writing stories with Native American names, care has to be exercised to have the right last name with the right tribe. Some surnames are most definitely connected with certain tribes. I'm glad you liked Kendi and Jackson. Names are one of my favorite subjects--and I absolutely LOVE Cleopatra Jones!
    Cheryl

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Cheryl,

      You nailed Jesse Nightwalker's name. It was spot-on perfect. I got a sense of him being both strong, capable, and vulnerable before I even knew him. Kendi and Jackson were a great couple. I love the family twist you had at the end, and I won't say anything more because I don't want to spoil it for new readers.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment!

      Delete
  22. I was wondering if you have a comments approval system on your website. I posted a comment this morning but don't see it yet. This happened on another blog today. I'm just trying to figure out if this has something to do with my browser. Thank you! :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Carla,

      I don't have any comments approval system and I hate Catcha - it should be disabled. If you post a comment here, it should show up immediately. I'm sorry you had trouble. Would you please try again? I'd love to hear what you have to say regarding characters.

      Delete
  23. Hi, Maggie,

    I'm late to the wedding myself. Names aren't always easy for me. I often change them around before I'm satisfied. One thing I've read: never use similar names for characters to avoid confusion. Example, Cleo and Carmen.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey Jacquie,

      I've got a name changing pending in my WIP, so I get where you're coming from. I don't have the new name yet, though, so that's a bit frustrating. I expect to wake up with it, but when I wake up all I think about is breakfast...

      Delete
  24. I must say I loved Cleopatra Jones.
    I don't ever make names up from scratch because I don't write paranormal or scifi fantasy (although why paranormals should have weird names beats me. They were all human once, weren't they? Aliens, yes, fair enough). If I did, I'd let Capcha invent them for me. About every 5th one is a viable name. I had Oomkill this morning.
    My names are just whatever pops into my head when I'm writing. Dead boring.
    By the way, you missed out Endeavour Morse!


    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You cracked me up, Jenny. I never thought of letting Capcha create names for me, but that will certainly be part of my thought process now. I see a lot of their efforts because I'm invariably a letter off, so it takes me 3 or 4 of those dang things to get past GO.

      I must admit being in the dark about Endeavour Morse, but a quick zip through Wikipedia this morning set me straight about a wonderful, complex and dynamic character. Thanks for suggesting his name.

      And thanks for enjoying Cleopatra Jones. She's doing her best to stay afloat in this wacky world.

      Delete
  25. The protagonist of my mystery series is a 38-year-old former 70s teen idol. His real name is Stanford Ernest Farmington Jr. so his manager gave him the stage name of Sandy Fairfax, a shorter name that would look good on a marquee. Most teen idols of the era had first names ending in the long "ee" sound (Micky, Davy, Bobby, Donny) so I used the name Sandy, also because my hero has blonde hair. "Fairfax" means "fair headed," also good for a blonde. His biggest fan is Bunny. I like that name because it's fun and Bunny has an energetic, bouncy personality. It took me most of an afternoon to come up with Sandy's name. Also, Farmington is a Scottish nane, so he has a wee bit o' Scottish blood in him (I'll be putting him in a kilt at some point!).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Sally,

      It sounds like you did a lot of research to inject authenticy to your character's name. Sandy Fairfax sounds like the name of a teen idol to me, and Bunny is definitely a fan name. Excellent characterization through names! I wish you well with your teen idol series!

      Delete
    2. Thanks for the kind wishes, Maggie. It's a fun series to write (book two should be out next year).

      Delete
  26. I have read Cleopatra and felt the name was perfect for her. Hey, don't forget Elvis Cole from the Robert Crais books. Love that guy.

    I have aspirations of writing a character named Gunnar. LOL.

    Fun blog.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Elvis Cole, now there's a fine specimen of a name. Good call, Lynne. And I can't wait to hear more about Gunnar! Thanks for liking my Cleopatra.

      Delete
  27. This is a problem area for me. I just can't think of clever names to match the genres I write in. So, very good post. I'm still with Mattie, Cole, Rita, etc. I envy writers that come up with really good names.
    I'll try your suggestions. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Lorrie,

      Welcome to mudpies where I spend a lot of time slogging around in the muck. But its good for your complexion, or so they say. Maybe one day I'll be reborn with the face of a preteen..

      I wish you well with your name searches. All I can say is that when you land on the right name, everything sort of clicks in a way that it didn't before. Best of luck!

      Delete
  28. Yes, I get the real life inspiration thing! I named my villain after a guy I really disliked in high school. Changed the spelling, but kept the ucky, yucky, blucky personality.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Keely,

      Love your ucky, yucky, blucky description. I hate this guy already and I didn't even get his name. Phoo on him! He should know better than to mess with Keely. Now his name will be forever associated with bleeech. Serves him right!

      Delete
  29. My main characters tend to name themselves, and often the names of the secondary characters pop into my head too. I find surnames more difficult sometimes and look at genealogy sites till a surname jumps out at me! The hardest names to find were the ones in my latest novel, which is set in Egypt. I wished I written down the names of all the waiters etc at our Luxor hotel a couple of years ago!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Paula,

      I have just as much angst about first names as surnames. You're lucky to only agonize over one of the names! Your novel in Egypt sounds great.

      Delete
  30. whoah this weblog is wonderful i love reading your posts.
    Keep up the great work! You realize, a lot of people are hunting around for this info, you could
    help them greatly.
    Feel free to surf my web-site - http://www.crazyteenpics.com/category/bigtits

    ReplyDelete

Thank you for visiting Mudpies.