What’s in a name?

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

This weekend I saw Baz Luhrmann’s sumptuous, over the top, movie adaptation of The Great Gatsby and was reminded, yet again, of the power certain fictional names have on the psyche. Gatsby. Not a name one easily forgets. Neither is Heathcliff or Mr. Rochester or those great detective names: Sam Spade, Nero Wolfe, Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. Even the most mundane sounding names can achieve prominence, simply because of their ordinariness (take Harry Potter for example). But naming a character is by no means an easy task. You have to balance the unusual with the commonplace and try to run the gauntlet between a cool, distinguished name and one that verges on being a soap-opera/porn name that you’d expect to see on somewhere like m porn xxx instead of a blockbuster Hollywood picture. So how do you come up with a memorable character name?

First and foremost it must reflect your character.  I find this is a critical first step – finding a character name that reflects the character’s voice on the page. I’ve recently been revisiting an old WIP (finally having worked out the answer to a plot conundrum) and found myself weighing up two versions of the main protagonist’s name, trying them on to see which fit best. It’s a tricky process and one that has a cascading effect on other character names as well (as I can’t exactly have a cast of characters all with names starting with ‘M’!). But what other issues do authors need to pay attention to in naming characters? Here are a few:

  • Make sure the name is appropriate for the time and place of the story. For example, a story set in Victorian England is unlikely to have a female called Morgan Star. Equally well, it’s hard to imagine a contemporary character in their 20s called Edna or Constance (unless there’s a good back story or some degree of irony/humour going on!).
  • Check meanings/origins of names so you don’t inadvertently use an offensive or inappropriate foreign word or name.  Also, sometimes the name can provide the reader with a hidden clue based on the origin or meaning of their name.
  • Make sure the name looks great on the page as well as when spoken aloud. On occasion, I have come up with a great name on paper but the pronunciation of it has caused a few tongue twisters (which is a bit embarrassing at book readings!). 
  • Don’t try to be too clever, too cute or too obscure. The character’s name should enhance, not detract from the story so don’t make a reader work too hard to decipher  a name. Use the most common spellings unless there is a real reason (a reader will be taken out of a story by a name that they have to struggle to work out).
  • Finally avoid names which end in an ‘s’. I learned this the hard way…

So what about you all – what advice would you give fellow writers about coming up with terrific character names? What are are your favorite characters names? What about character names that set you teeth on edge?

40 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. I’m sitting up late monitoring the wild weather in the midwest. Already had one 60 minute power failure. If you are in the path, take it seriously and stay safe.

    Yes on the not ending in ‘s’ I also learned that one the hard way.

    I deal with all sorts of different people and pay attention to names and what fits and what doesn’t. Why some writers can use just about any name and have it be almost lyrical while other sound like a fakey list of cardboard people is part of that magic we all search for.

    Trendy names, unless really needed for the plot, make me stabby.

    Part of my MC’s quest is finding out some of the secrets of her late uncle’s life. To her, he is Uncle Jimmy Delgado. However, as she meets the people who knew him, she discovers that his law school buddy calls him Jaime. The old fart who had coffee with him every afternoon called him Jim. His girlfriend called him Del. She discovers she really didn’t know him as well as she thought she did. We’ll see if I can make it work.

    Great post: Terri

    • Terri: I like it when names can mutate and have new meanings. It says things about the character and gives the plot a nice “Rashomon” twist.

    • Names that sound fake drive me crazy and I worry endlessly about my MC name. I like how your using the ‘name’ issue as part of the whole identity issue.

  2. One thing I learned at the end of my second novel, 65 Below is that my characters Marcus ‘Mojo’ Johnson and his girlfriend Lonnie Wyatt had been inadvertently named after two close friends named Mark and Lonnie. I had not even noticed it until I was narrating the audiobook. When 5’4″ Air Force veteran Mark read it he thanked me for making him a 6’2″ retired Marine.

    In my WIP names mean a lot more though. I’m trying to work out several Chinese transliterations of Korean names with meaningful meanings that have a major part in the story. It’s amazing how many Chinese characters there are that are translated into the same sound but have many different meetings. For instance, my wife’s last name is ‘Ma’, not common in Korean, but very common in Chinese. But there are 8 different ‘Ma’ characters in Chinese, all pronounced the same but spelled very different with disparate meanings. My wife’s Ma is 馬 which means Horse in the sense of a warrior, but another Ma is 魔 which means devil. Both pronounced the same, but the connotations are obviously very different.

    • Chinese sounds very tricky! I have also accidentally written names of friends and relations into my books. My sister was unimpressed that she became a maid- that took a lot of explaining and truly I had no idea I’d done it!

  3. Great post, Clare. I love christening characters. In my most recent WIP, the protagonist had been niggling my brain until he got a name. Now I can’t stop thinking about him.

    I usually find several first names that I love and can live with for a whole book, then look for surnames that roll off the tongue when I say them aloud. I do this for the main characters, but after that I just make sure I’m not repeating letters.

    One thing I would add is a little beyond your intention on this post, but with a cast of characters, it’s important to give them names that sound different or begin with different letters. Readers can get confused if certain names sound alike.

    I like nicknames for some characters, so picking the right first or last name could affect that. I’m careful not to pick nicknames that aren’t other words, like Will for William or Than for Thanatos. As a reader, these kinds of nicknames can force me to reread a line and throws me out of the book at times.

    • Great point Jordan. The cast of characters must also meld otherwise if everyone’s names beginning with the same letter or sound similar it just becomes confusing for the reader (also learned that the hard way when my agent got confused between a character and the nickname given to Ursula’s car!)

  4. I think for a tough detective-esque character, whether male or female, they should have a last name that reflects that toughness. Something sharp and edged and harsh-sounding works well. Think “Pike”, or “Reacher”, or “Keller”, or “Scudder.”

    It also helps – if the character is male or is in a male-dominated cast – if the last name can stand on its own. Almost every guy I know goes by his last name, whether it’s Anderson or Lockwood or Blake or Pratt. Maybe his really close friends call him Dan or Danny, but everyone else he meets (cops, villains, etc.) is probably gonna call him Stark.

    Then there’s the nickname thing…anyone named Sullivan will eventually be Sully, that kind of thing.

    • I do think punchy tough names work well for detectives and you sometimes need a last name that stands alone. Often for minor characters you just want to use the last name so the reader doesn’t have to work hard to follow everyone’s entire name.

    • As an actual Smith I could tell you a few things…

      But I don’t see names ending in ‘s’ being a huge problem if you know how to use apostrophes. (Hint: It’s the second one in both Rob’s and Terri’s lists.) Or would it be a style choice depending on your editor or the publishing house?

  5. I usually have an idea how old my character is. Then I check the most popular names given to babies born the year my character was born. I usually get three or four good choices then I take a moment to become that character and think about what name I’d respond to.

    I knew my WIP protagonist’s first name but went through the the list of common American last names about a dozen times to get the right one.

    Her name is Olivia James.

  6. Part of what gets me in trouble is that there are names I just “like” and they creep into multiples of my Short works. Then I have to go back and make sure that I’m able to keep them separated.

    I find that the census data is really useful to find “common” names without getting too obscure, though I find first names far easier than last names. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m introduced to SO MANY names every year in this day job (teaching) that they all blend together eventually.

    I also try to avoid alliterations when I can. Those just bug me….

  7. Somewhere, somehow I’ve gotta use Aster Blumenphall.

    Or how ‘bout:
    Contadora Botafoga Galleon
    Lester “Les” Snow
    Maureen “Moe” Rain
    Frelovia Boriskovski
    Netti Potter

    Or my favorite nom de guerre Leonardo Valoun

  8. Time for me to tap in inner contrarian again. I don’t think names matter that much so long as they don’t distract from the story. For example, while I am a devoted fan of the Harry Potter books, I thought many of the names given to the characters actually got in the way. The hero of my first book was Warren Michaels, as common a name as you can get. Read the names of Medal of Honor winners. Lots of very commonly-named people do extraordinary things.

    As for the s-thing, I don’t think that’s a big deal at all. The plural of Chris is Chris’s because that’s how I say it aloud–and it agrees with my publisher’s style book. The single exception to the rule–and I had to do battle over it with the editorial team–was my recurring character named Boxers. I insisted that the possessive form of his name be written as Boxers’ because I didn’t like the sound of the alternative.

    John Gilstrap

    • Ah, we’ve missed your inner contrarian! I didn’t mind any of the character names in HP but I do find sometimes a name will jar so much I’m taken out of the story. As for the s, well I found it drove me crazy in my second book – esp. making sure I have all the possessive stuff correct so I vowed to avoid names ending in ‘s’…that being said in my current WIP I have a MC called Marcus…so I’m clearly a sucker for punishment!

    • After having corrected the pronunciation of Hermione about a thousand times with the kids after a popular tweener TV announcer called the character “Her-mee-oh-nee,” I agree with John on that one.


  9. Pick a name that you can type easily because you’ll be doing it over and over again. I’m forever hunting for the damn ‘x’ key when typing Max. Almost went with Zoe for a female character but saw the light and named her Maddie instead. I guess I have a weak and inaccurate left pinkie.

  10. I am reading a series that has two sets of secondary characters who have very similar names (e.g., Rand and Land). It always confuses the snot out of me who is who. I can’t tell if it’s done on purpose or just accidentally. I don’t see a reason for the similarity for plot reasons. As a reader, it’s a minor annoyance that I wish wasn’t there.

    • I’ve fallen into that trap and my agent picked it up thankfully so I didn’t irritate my readers (well, at least not on that score!)

  11. As a name nerd, this is one of my interests within writing. My taste tends towards classical eccentric and classical unusual (e.g., Justine, Octavia, Wolfgang, Felix, Lucine, Roland). Usually, I only use more common or popular names for secondary characters. A book that’s gut-loaded with Top 100 names like Jennifer, Jessica, Jason, Ryan, Nicole, Ashley, and Justin tends to date quickly. I’d be shocked to hear of someone who only ever has known people with the most popular names, no outliers like a little girl named Barbara, a peer named Rowena or Samson, or an old man named Brandon.

    Fewer things put me off a book, even just from a synopsis, than seeing a predated naming trend. This holds true for movies and tv shows too. I just can’t believe a non-child contemporary character with a name like Braedon, Kayden, McMadycyn, Kamryn, Kaylee, or Zayden. It’s also ridiculous to see a modern name on a historical character, like a woman named Courtney, a non-Irish Caitlin with a modern spelling variation, or Skylar.

    • Names that seem out of sync with the era can really irritate – also all the weird spellings tend to annoy me (though if justified I’d be okay with it – again it’s a question of being true to the character and the story). I can’t imagine there were any Skylars in Edwardian London:)

  12. Good post Clare cuz we all deal with this, some better than others. I really wanted to name my current character Deirdre but I’ve tested it out (in print) and some folks go “huh?” Like Carrie-Ann above, I really hate cutsey names…in real life and fiction.

  13. Deirdre wouldn’t bother me but I grew up with one in my class at school. I remember one of my favorite childhood series had a girl called ‘Grizel’ and I always found myself wondering was it pronounced like ‘grizzle’ or ‘griselle’? It was fine as the story was set in 1920s Europe but still I could never quite wrap my mind around it as a name.

  14. Since I write for kids, I generally dislike alliteration in character names. (It makes me want to run screaming from the room.) Some of my favorite names are Katniss Everdeen (‘Hunger Games’), Lucy and Edmund Pevensie, Sage (from ‘The False Prince’), Anne Shirley, and Mr. Darcy. Kind of a spread, but I like them.

  15. I think anyone who writes will agree that being good at naming characters is a real gift. Elmore Leonard has had good things to say about it, and he is certainly one of the best. How can you improve on Chili Palmer, or Raylan Givens? In life, somehow, people do come to fit their names, and when a story teller gets things right, the same is true of fictional characters. I like to think I scored a direct hit when I named the bad guy in my first published novel Bob Hack. It fit him in several ways, but more importantly, it sounded right for him.

    • Barry – you are so right. It is a gift and when a character name is spot on it really enhances the whole story. When it comes to a true master of naming I always thought Dickens was a genius. You can’t get better than Uriah Heep…that name says it all!

    • I agree, no one beats Dickens. My favorite is Mister Sleary, owner of a small circus in Hard Times. Except he speaks with a lisp (which Dickens makes wonderful, politically incorrect use of), so his name is actually Mithter Thleary.

  16. At Sleuthfest a few years back, Robert Crais warned us never to name a character Fred. Because you’ll be stuck with using ‘Fred said.’ Ever since then I’ve checked to see how a name sounds with ‘said’ before adopting it. 🙂

  17. The protagonists in my current book are Amber and Jim. They have a rather active sex life. Later I realized that my daughter-in-law and son are Allison and James. Oops!

  18. As my stories develop sometimes the names have to change. That’s the good thing about search and destroy. I rarely use last names. Secondary characters can be Mary, Jane and Lois but primary characters need stronger names that stand out and are memorable.

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