What’s In a Name? A Lot, That’s What

One of my very favorite crowd-source exercises to throw out in a writing workshop is “Name the Man, the Restaurant, the Gas Station, and the Dog.” I make a long list of nouns and we have a free-for-all naming names. Usually I offer qualifiers like, “the preacher shouting on the street corner,” or “the only bar in town,” or “a vegetarian restaurant,” or “a dog owned by a pair of retired missionaries.” You get the idea. It’s an exercise that gets people talking, thinking, and laughing. But it’s also a great reminder of how important names are in fiction.

The right character and place names go a long way to create a universe. It doesn’t matter where on earth The Overlook Hotel is located: the immediate image is that of a hotel teetering on the edge of vast, dangerous space. East Egg and West Egg are two halves of a whole—the old rich and the nouveau riche, forever separated. The image is very simple, implying that the names were determined far back in history; East Egg is old and settled, West Egg is the place where the newly-arrived have to create their own society, just as the American western frontier was settled. Faulkner’s stories would not be the same if they were all set in Jefferson or Bedford County. Yoknapatawpha County is a name not easily forgotten.

There are so many incredible character names in classic fiction: Sam Spade; Ichabod Crane; Humbert Humbert; Major Major Major Major; Tess of the d’Urbervilles; Miss Haveshim; Bathsheba Everdene (could Katniss Everdeen be far behind?); Nick and Nora Charles; Ebeneezer Scrooge. (I culled several of these names from this list, but there are surely many more similar lists out there.) I’ll leave it to you to decide how these names work within their stories.

Every writer has to develop their own system for naming things. Research is critical. If you think you’ve come up with a great name, do a web search for it. It’s surprising how often I discover I’ve accidentally used the name of someone semi-famous. (In my first novel, my editor made me change a name because it was too similar to Liev Schreiber.)

Here are a few names I chose to use in my third novel, DEVIL’S OVEN, an Appalachian Frankenstein story, and why I chose them. I envisioned the novel as a kind of folk tale, and so I let my selections be very broad. I wasn’t worried about naming against type for effect. It’s a rural story, a kind of contemporary mountain fantasy.

Devil’s Oven is the name of the Kentucky mountain where the story takes place. The name had to be archaic and threatening, with a sense of mystery about it. The supernatural is not just suggested, but implied. And the oven part implies that things are created and tempered there over long periods of time.

Ivy Luttrell is the seamstress who not only makes clothes and does alterations for people in the area, but also finds the half-buried, dismembered body of a man on Devil’s Oven and sews him back together. (I know. But it works, I promise.) I liked the delicacy of the name, Ivy. Ivy the character is quiet and attractive and moves slowly but precisely. Ivy the plant winds itself over and through things, just like thread, and before you know it, it has touched everything. The last name, Luttrell, was a bit of a construct. The writer Daniel Woodrell is a friend of mine, and I liked the –rell ending. Luttrell has an antique, Appalachian sound to me. I have no idea if it sounds that way to anyone else.

Thora Luttrell is Ivy’s half-sister and is fifteen years older. Thora is large and plain and has a lot of health problems. She worked for many years at the DMV. I wanted her to have an old-fashioned, but very simple and unadorned name.

Bud Tucker is one of three men who are central to the story. Bud owns a trucking company, as well as a strip club in town. He’s a straightforward guy who works hard to hide his sensitivity. He wears his hair short and worries about intimidating people with his size. His father is Olney Tucker, a self-made coal baron. Olney’s name is pure country. Bud’s opposite is Dwight Yarbro, the squirrely guy who has come to the mountains because he no longer wants to deal with mid-level crime and criminals in the city. In his job as the strip club’s manager, he wears funky, elaborate cowboy shirts (I probably made a Dwight Yoakam connection here), and aviator glasses that make him look a bit like 1970s Elvis.

When I looked back at Devil’s Oven for location names, I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t get more creative than House of Waffles for a waffle house. But then, it does sound a bit against type. A bit pretentious. I only wish I had called it Twyla’s House of Waffles, or Junior’s House of Waffles.

Bud’s strip club is called The Twilight Club. I liked that the name sounds quaint, as strip clubs go. Bud is not a vulgar man, and even though he has opened a strip club, he doesn’t want it to be tacky.

The man that Ivy sews back together is a handsome devil named Anthony. She knows this because it is tattooed on his broad torso. And, yes, he has Mob connections. Sometimes you just go with the stereotype.

Choosing names involves a lot of research and a little magic. Here’s a link to a random name generator, which is a particular kind of magic. I’ve played with it some, but have found it works best for ancillary characters. You have to let it throw up a lot of possibilities if you already have the character sketched out in your head.

I prefer to target names a bit more closely. Here’s my list of qualities in descending order of consideration (always subject to change).



–Character’s age

–Physical appearance

–Time period


–Family traditions

–Social class and cultural traditions

–Cultural ethnicity


Very occasionally a character will present herself with a first name, but rarely with a second. I spend a lot of time on baby name websites. But the true gold is on the Social Security website, which lists the most popular names by decade for the past 140 or so years.

Names go in and out of fashion, and you can get a feel for what will work as you go through the lists. I’ve also spent time looking at old English documents online, seeking out historical names. Let me make this easy for you: John, Mary, Elizabeth, and Edward were very popular for a long, long time..

Social norms change constantly, and it’s important to make sure your characters reflect the world they live in. Pick up any number of pre-WWII novels and you’re liable to find yourself in a minefield of racial and cultural insensitivity.

You can, of course, name your characters and setting anything you like. You are in control, and if a name sounds right to you, you are certainly within your rights to use it. But tread carefully. Keep in mind that no given reader will share your exact cultural background and values, and if you give a character a name that evokes an unpleasant event or stereotype—and the use of it is not a relevant subject in the story—you’ll alienate readers, and rightfully so. That is, if your story even makes it into print. I’m not talking about political correctness, but common sense. If you want to engage readers, you have to meet them at least halfway.

A name carries a lot of weight. If it’s done right, and subtly, it will instantly telegraph important information about the character or location, or even the story’s tone. Sometimes I feel like I’m running a computer program of names in my head, checking possibilities against all the variables. Because I want each name and place to come out exactly right. Don’t make the reader think twice.

What are your tricks for finding the perfect character and place names? What are some of your favorite names in fiction?


Laura Benedict’s latest novel is the suspense thriller, The Abandoned Heart: A Bliss House Novel.

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About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including The Stranger Inside (Publishers Weekly starred review). Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com.

24 thoughts on “What’s In a Name? A Lot, That’s What

  1. I love this. After seeing your naming effort, even secondary names, I may have to revisit my current WIP. I have 1-2 “throw away” names as place holders until something better comes to me. They might need more thought before I finish.

    My favorite PLACE that I created (when I needed a fictitious town) is Why, Texas. Think about the possibility. I named the local bowling alley – Why Bowl.

  2. Sometimes character names just come to me. But oftentimes I find it a tremendous slog, just like picking a title for a book.

    And then there’s the challenge of choosing names of characters from different ethnic or cultural backgrounds that are true to that ethnicity or culture but don’t cause the reader to stumble too much. Everybody can’t have a short, simple name like John Smith. 😎

  3. One of the first I took a liking to was General Augustus Mellon, from Brautigan’s _A Confederate General From Big Sur_.

    You’ve already touched on Major Major Major from _Catch 22_, but I also like Milo Minderbinder from that novel as well.

    Nick-names and place names are fun~ I like Travis Magee’s houseboat, The Busted Flush, and his (more than) sidekick, Meyer – just Meyer.

    I’ve got a club name I use – the Y’all Crawl Inn, in “my” north west-coast Florida town of Manatee Springs~ both from noticing names and some research ~ the former’s in a song or two, and both are still in a WIP (somewhere).

  4. I always wanted to name a stripper Cling Peaches.

    I use Scrivener’s Name Generator almost exclusively now. It generates random names which you can filter by gender and ethnicity, and lets you ask for names more or less “obscure.” Dickens would have been on this constantly.

  5. I have a character, Mimi Godbehere who’s a barmaid at the Barking Hen pub. My editor laughs every time she reads them. Believe me, my editor laughing is a good thing.

  6. Character names are my biggest challenge. You’re looking at someone who wrote a book called “What’s in a Name?” (And whose editor never caught that there were THREE characters named Hank in the book.) Right now, my new book is riddled with [XXX]s, waiting names of people. And places. I’ve pulled a lot of names from street signs, both for people and settings.

    I still use Jerry Healy’s simple system of name tracking to make sure things like that never happen again.

    I see a lot of really “interesting” names when watching football, but I’m not sure how they’d fly in a book. I got a great name from a boarding pass left in the seat pocket by whoever’d been sitting there on the previous flight. He’s in one of my books.

    • Do tell, Terry. What was Jerry’s system?

      I find my first passes are always full of names starting with only 3-4 letters. (And my books are always stuffed with characters.) I always end up with a lot of Js and Ms and, for this WIP, Ks.

      Nice of the guy on the plane to give you a name–way to upcycle. ?

      • I wish I could have met the guy, but then he probably wouldn’t have come close to the image I got from reading his name on a boarding pass.

        Jerry’s system is nothing more than creating 2 columns of the letters from A-Z. (I use an Excel spreadsheet) One column for first names, one for last. Then when you name a character, you put the name next to the appropriate letter (leave several extra columns for repeats) in each column. At a glance, you can see which letters seem to be ‘attracting’ the most names and adjust accordingly.

        I tend to gravitate toward Cs and Rs, so the spreadsheet helps — and then I can look up names starting with the underused letters.

  7. I try to give my characters names that have a meaning, although I realise that I may be the only one who knows the meaning – for that I use http://www.behindthename.com/ and a few similar sites. If I can, I sliip the meaning in.

    Stage 2 is to ensure that the name rings true to the character and their calling. But I sense that I’m still struggling to get names that Dickens would approve of.

    So your post will be helpful = Stage 3.

    Interested you had a Twyla in there as my current mystery has a central character called Twyla Locke and the opening has her in prison for murder. Guy who provides alibi is called Brogan Keyes……and the connection goes further – her family made their fortune through slavery.

    • Roland, it definitely gives the story depth when you select names with appropriate meanings. I’ll check out that site. Thank you.

      In The Abandoned Heart, I named the 15 year-old Japanese girl who was kidnapped into sex slavery Kiku. There are peonies and chrysanthemums throughout the Bliss House books, and Kiku means chrysanthemum. It was the symbol of the Japanese royal family, and for her family to name her that was a bit of a rebellion as she was born before the restoration in 1868. TMI? ?

      • Oh, this brings back memories. In junior high, a good friend refused to tell us her middle name. Joking, I said, “Why? Is it chrysanthemum or something?” Turns out her parents had worked in Japan before she was born and her middle name was Kiku. (Which also goes to show that you don’t have to have totally ‘related’ names, especially given our melting pot culture).

  8. My favourite fictional character would have to be the slimy lawyer from Breaking Bad, Saul Goodman (It’s all good man). Very fitting name for a rather likable pragmatic individual, equipped with a non-functioning moral compass.

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