What’s in a Name?

by James Scott Bell

Mystery writers everywhere honor the name of that master detective, Sherrinford Holmes, and his good friend, Ormond Sacker.

Or not.

And what about that great heroine of the Civil War South, Pansy O’Hara? Remember her?

Of course you don’t. Because Margaret Mitchell thankfully scotched it after briefly considering it for her lead in Gone With the Wind. Props also to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for choosing Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, after toying with those other names.

The name of a Lead character, especially one who will be the star of a series, is not to be randomly selected. Sherlock Holmes is perfect. (Doyle admired Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.; Sherlock may have been the name of Doyle’s favorite cricket batsman). And Scarlett is just right for Miss O’Hara.

Travis McGee, the popular creation of John D. MacDonald, has a sound like the character himself–living on a houseboat, few cares in the world, hard when he needs to be.

Could any gumshoe be tougher than Sam Spade?

Ignatius J. Reilly and Myrna Minkoff definitely belong in John Kennedy Toole’s oddly structured comic novel, A Confederacy of Dunces.

And so it goes, with other names like: Winter Massey, Kate Gallagher, Cotten Stone, Ursula Marlow, Jonathan Grave and Kelly Jones.

Good, solid monikers all. I wonder what the naming process was for the creators of these characters? Perhaps they’ll share it with us.

Here is what went into naming my own series character, Ty Buchanan, whose latest appearance is in Try Fear.

Tyler is from Fight Club. Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt in the film) is primal, nihilistic, violent. In Try Dying, the first book in my series, Ty Buchanan has to contend with similar feelings as his world is turned upside down. An up-and-coming lawyer in LA, Ty has it all. But his fiancée is killed (on page 1) and when he goes looking for answers, he’s forced into a street existence that both engenders and requires a hard-edged response.

Buchanan is from a favorite Western of mine, Buchanan Rides Alone (1958, dir. Budd Boetticher), starring the iconic Randolph Scott. He is, in the best western tradition, an anti-hero and loner, but with a strong inner code of honor. He doesn’t look for trouble, but when it finds him, he fights. And he always displays an insouciant good humor.

I wanted these two dynamics to play out within Ty Buchanan. They provide counterpoint and inner conflict, as the Buchanan side is often at odds with the Durden aspect. Thus, the name.

So, writer, how did you choose names for your Lead characters? Is it more than a sound for you? Is there a deeper meaning you look for? Or do you just run your finger down the white pages of a phone book?

And you, reader, what names come to your mind when you think of memorable literary heroes?

15 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. Nice post, Jim. And thanks for asking about the name of our main character, Cotten Stone. When we started working on our first apocalyptic thriller, THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY, my co-author, Lynn Sholes, had one request, that our main heroine be named Cotten after a college friend with the same intriguing name. I chose the contrasting last name of Stone because of the two sides of Cotten’s life that make up her heritage. During that first story, Cotten was told a number of times that she was “the only one”. This was because Cotten is the daughter of a Fallen Angel. Her father was the only Fallen Angel to ever repent. Though he could never return to Paradise, God did make him mortal, giving him two daughters; one to be taken at birth to fill her father’s rank in heaven, and the other to remain on Earth to fight the forces of evil. That person is Cotten Stone, the daughter of a Fallen Angel. Her name represents a contrast of good and evil with a legacy she can’t deny or ignore.

  2. Love this topic, Jim! My heroine, Kate Gallagher, has a Boston Irish background. I always knew her first name would be Kate, after the strong actress, Kate Hepburn. Then I went through all the Irish last names I could think of, trying out how they sounded with Kate. Her last name also had to be a good fit for her controlling, over-protective father, who is a police captain, Captain James Gallagher. His first name came from Captain James T. Kirk, my favorite captain in the universe!

  3. Thanks for the nice post, Jim. I’m afraid, however, that the genesis of Jonathan Grave as a name is pretty pedestrian: Marketing.

    I’d put a lot of thought into the launch of my first series, and I knew that the title would matter a lot. My initial thought was to link each of the titles (a la John Sanford’s Prey series) and create a kind of franchise identity.

    Eight or nine years ago, I wrote a book that I never published called GRAVE SECRETS, set partly in the funeral business. I ended up not liking the story, but I decided that I’d steal the title for the first book in my new series. GRAVE SECRETS would have been followed by GRAVE DANGER, then GRAVE PERIL . . . you get it.

    Of course, that book came out as NO MERCY, and the second book still has no title. Go figure.

    Still, I had my character’s last name: Grave, the derivation of which turned out to be a significant plot thread to link the books. (See the short story, “Discipline” on my website for a clue. Sorry, that was shameless self-promotion.) For the first name, I just wanted something solid that gave good rhythm. Thus, Jonathan Grave.

    I like the way it sounds.

    John Gilstrap

  4. Great post. I think the most important thing about character names is that they embody the character in some way. A tough-guy name shouldn’t be attributed to a meek character unless there’s some irony in it (e.g. “Little John” of Robin Hood fame). A name is an element of a person’s character. And, when the name doesn’t fit the person (since their parents choose before they were born), the character generally takes on some sort of alias or nickname.

    So, when I’m looking for names I take that into account. Is this character our buddy? Is he a loner? What were his parents like? Why would they have named him this? Was he even raised by his biological father and mother?

    One of the names I used for a character in Timeslingers is “Marcus Kline” (usually referred to throughout the story as “Kline”). Those who perfer to be called “Marcus” (as opposed to “Mark”) generally have a sophistication about them, but the fact that he goes by “Kline” (using last names is generally a military/sports thing) elicits a more “get the job done” oriented approach. Those two attributes fit the character perfectly.

    Thanks fo the interesting post!

  5. I think names are so important but often I’m not even sure where my ideas for them come from. I realize though that Ursula Marlow had obvious sources – Ursula is a character in DH Lawrence’s The Rainbow and Women in Love and Marlow is from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

  6. John, I think marketing is certainly part of the mix. I’m sorry that series title idea didn’t pan out. Maybe the marketing folk thought it would sound too “horrorish.”

    Jonathan Grave, though, is great name for a thriller lead.

  7. J, good intentional thoughts about your character names. Thanks for the post.

    Clare, you literary maven you. Ursula Marlow also sounds right for your setting and genre.

  8. Of course, if she -had- been named Pansy, we’d all be saying, ‘Can you -believe’ she was almost called ‘Scarlett’, of all awful things?’

    My favorites:

    John Dortmunder. (Westlake apparently wished he hadn’t called Parker ‘Parker’, because he constantly had to write around ‘Parker parked …’)

    Bertie Wooster.

    George Smiley.

  9. Marcus Orlando Johnson
    Master Sergeant, USMC Ret.
    2nd Force Recon



    65 Below / Faithful Warrior / Cold Summer.

    Just appeared like that. Cool name for a Bad @ss Marine.

  10. I’m no published author but when I chose my names I chose some of the most important qualities of a character and find a name that means at least one of them. My character Brant Foxton is proud, dangerous, protective and a bit mischievous so came Brant which means Firebrand, sword and/or proud one and Foxton (Sly, mischievous.) Pretty simple and straightforward 🙂

  11. All of the above! I usually try to pick a name that communicates something about the character.

    Usually I stumble upon the name, by the Grace of God, and it just seems to fit.

    Secondary character names comes easily. Love finding something different and unusual for them.

    Last names are harder. I’ve pulled out the phone book for help before.

    Good post, JB.

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