Wednesday, August 26, 2009

What's in a Name?

Yesterday, I got a message on Facebook from a friend who is an avid reader of Christian Fiction. She asked how I came up with names for my characters. She had recently finished a book where she thought the character's name didn't fit the story/time period it was written in.

This got me to thinking about how I come up with a character's name. Here's what I wrote back to my friend:

I think there are as many ways of chosing a character's name as there are writers out there. I like to use Census lists of popular names if I can. I go back to around the time I think my character was born, then try to find a Census ...list of popular names for that era. If I'm going to use something really out there, I try to justify it by telling the reader why. (Old family surname, a place of special meaning to the parents, or something.) And if all else fails, I use a Bible name. Those are timeless. In a series I'm writing now, the heroine's names were all chosen to be alliterative for the titles, Clara and the Cowboy, Lily and the Lawman, Maggie and the Maverick. Each name belongs to the era (1883-84 Idaho Territory.) Caitlin, Lauren, and Madison just wouldn't work for me, too modern! But if I had been writing contemporary romance, these would've worked great.

So, for you, does the name come first, or does the character? (For me, both of these happen pretty simultaneously. And I don't have much trouble changing a character's name partway through the story if I have to. I wrote one book with the idea that all three brothers would have names that started with the same letter...which my crit partners quickly pointed out was too confusing. So I changed two of the names...interestingly enough, the middle brother kept his original name. Nathan became Jonathan, Noah stayed Noah (sort of) and Nick became Eli.)

Have you read a book recently where the character's name didn't seem to fit with the story? (I can't think of a specific story right now, though I'm sure I have. I always wondered about Michaela in Dr. Quinn. It was such a trendy Mid-90's name, that it seemed out of place and contrived for 1880's Colorado...though I could be wrong. I've just never come across it in a Census name list or history book for that era.)

Have you read a book where the character's name was perfect? (I love the names of the heroes in Dick Francis' books. Torquil Kelsey, Alexander Kinloch, Peter Darwin [no relation to Charles] Max Moreton. Great names, and so very British.)

Is there a name you would never use for a hero or heroine? (I will never call a hero Jerry...bad experience in fourth grade.)

One you'd never use for a villain? (I could never name a villain Peter. :) )

How about you?


  1. I find names as I'm reading and researching for my stories. I usually take names from real life people that I read about, but try to make them meaningful in some way. I love to find especially unique last names like Bigrave, or Birdfoot. And then give those kind of names to my antagonists!

  2. Can't think of any names I wouldn't use, but mine usually come to me as I think out the plot line. Certain names don't fit certain characteristics to me or jobs, but others just stand out.

  3. My novel is all about names, to the point where I've written a glossary of the character's names and their meanings to go at the back of the book. I cannot write a character well until I know his or her name, and usually I figure the name out shortly after I do some mental character sketching, and I usually don't need to do research to get a main character's name.

    I highly recommend this website:

    You can quickly check the popularity of a name back to 1880, so that you don't accidentally give a character an anachronistic name. If it's intentional, that's your call, but it definitely jars me when I see a new book with a 30-year-old named something like Jayden. The name practically didn't exist 30 years ago, so there had better be some line in there about how his parents were ahead of their time, or I'm just going to think the author is sloppy.

  4. Hi, Erica! it's nice to meet you!

    I confess, I loved Dr. Quinn in its heydey. But you're right; the name definitely doesn't sound authentic.

    I'm with you. Usually names come as I'm discovering what's going on with each character. Although there are definitely a few names on my "list" that I hope to use one day!

  5. I love coming up with character names (much more than I like coming up with titles for books). Usually they come at the beginning of developing my character or just after.

    There are definitely names I dislike too much to use for a hero or heroine and the other way around. I'm not so fond of Chuck or Ralph. Don't know if I'd ever use those :D

  6. Census records, pretty cool!

  7. I could never write a heroine named Ursula. That should be pretty self-explanatory!

    And I'd never be able to write a hero named Jamie.

    There are dozens of Russian names that I'd love to use, but I always end up going with something a little more familiar so the average reader can actually pronounce it.

  8. I'm not sure how I come up with names... I think they just sort of pop into my head. Like Bethany was always Bethany. I can not imagine her with another name. I changed one character's name before - from Noah to Adam.

    I have a Jerry in one of my books. :)

  9. Jody, Bigrave and Birdfoot? Those would definitely capture my attention.

    Eileen, isn't it strange how some names just bring up certain feelings?

    CKHB, I forgot to mention the baby name websites. Those are very helpful, especially if you're trying to find a name from a particular ethnic group.

  10. Kristen, welcome! I too loved Dr. Quinn, though I didn't get to see it too often in the later seasons.

    Cindy, I don't think I could use Chuck or Ralph either...though I do love the TV show Chuck and his name seems to fit.

    CJ, I've spent too much time trolling the Census records reading unusual names. :)

  11. Rachel, it's probably a good thing that you use easy to pronounce names. I always feel a twinge of embarrassment when I've mispronounced a name, then hear the correct way later. :)

    Katie, you're right, Bethany fits very well!