READER FRIDAY: What’s in a name?

Answer any one or all:

1.) What’s your favorite way to select a character’s name? (Do you have any favorite GO TO resource links?)

2.) Do you care about name origins or meanings?

3.) How do you select names for a character with different ethnic backgrounds?

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About Jordan Dane

Bestselling, critically-acclaimed author Jordan Dane’s gritty thrillers are ripped from the headlines with vivid settings, intrigue, and dark humor. Publishers Weekly compared her intense novels to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag, naming her debut novel NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM as Best Books of 2008. She is the author of young-adult novels written for Harlequin Teen, the Sweet Justice thriller series for HarperCollins., and the Ryker Townsend FBI psychic profiler series, Mercer's War vigilante novellas, and the upcoming Trinity LeDoux bounty hunter novels set in New Orleans. Jordan shares her Texas residence with two lucky rescue dogs. To keep up with new releases & exclusive giveaways, click HERE

27 thoughts on “READER FRIDAY: What’s in a name?

  1. Yes, I usually always look up name origins and such both to determine the right name and when I need to choose an ethnic name I’m not familiar with. And sometimes I choose surnames based on something particular about a story.

    Often the name of the character comes to me before the story’s even plotted.

    • Names are certainly important before a word is written. I can’t “feel” the character before I have the right name. Thanks, BK.

  2. Thanks for plugging my book, What’s in a Name?

    As for naming, one important lesson I learned from the late Jeremiah Healy was to keep a simple alphabet spreadsheet so you don’t end up with half your characters with names starting with the same letter. (Or 3 characters named Hank, which my editor didn’t catch.) Nothing more frustrating to readers than to have a bunch of similar looking names on the page. Read a book once with a Mark, Mike, Mack .. Grrrr.

    Another hint I picked up is that your characters should sound like their parents named them, not that you did.

    I’ll Google ethnic surnames if I need them. I’ve also used Scrivener’s character naming feature for ideas. Or the phone book. Or a boarding pass left in a seat pocket. Or I pose the question on my Facebook page. I’ve offered a chance to choose a character name by donating to my favorite charity, although that didn’t fare as well as I’d hoped.

    Much of the time, I have a manuscript riddled with [XX] placeholders until the right name comes to me.

    I’ve blogged on this topic myself. If it’s ok to post the link here, I’ve shared my thoughts and my spreadsheet here:

    • For whatever reason, the mongabay website for names has become a GO TO site for me. I gravitate to getting that first name before I look for the surname. The whole name needs to roll off the tongue, plus I like nicknames. Thanks, Terry. Thanks for the link too.

  3. 1. When I hear a good name, I jot it down for the next story.
    2. Yes, I care about surname meanings/origin. I have a character right now who thinks she’s all that. Her maiden name means peasant or something to that effect. The man she’s always picking on has the royal last name.
    3. Thank goodness for Internet. I do searches for stuff like, “Popular Korean baby names.”

    Terry has a really good point about how the characters’ names shouldn’t all sound alike, or even look alike on the page. It’s confusing when that happens!

  4. Funny story about character names:

    In one story that my co-author, James Grayson, and I wrote, we used acronyms for the character names until the story was done, and then we matched names to the acronym initials. For example, we used GF for the main character’s girlfriend, and XB for the girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend. Names starting with X aren’t the easiest to find, but we stumbled on a combination of French first and last names that worked.

    The story (Puncher’s Chance) was published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact. A year later, we heard from a Frenchman who’d seen the story online and wanted to know how we’d found his name. We all had quite the laugh when we explained our system. He felt honored to be featured in a published work, even though the character was a bit of a low-life.

    Because my books are set in the near future and a corporate environment, like modern corporations, the cast is a racial and ethnic melting pot. I find names by reading international news or sports articles and jot them down in a name file for later use. I always mix and match first and last names when I finally use them.

  5. Much of the time, I have a manuscript riddled with [XX] placeholders until the right name comes to me. – me too, I give different symbols to everyone so when I finally decide I can do a search and replace.

    I have changed the name of my MC daughter about a dozen of times and she is only in 3 chapters.

    I always watch the credits on TV – get some unique names there.

  6. My mom, back in the 50s, did tons of research on our family history, both sides — hers from Czechoslovakia (back to the early 1600s) and my dad’s (early 1700s) from mostly Scotland. So I grew up being fascinated, and loving, names.

    My good guys and girls always have Scotch (I know the modern identification is Scottish, but I was raised with “Scotch”) last names. If it works, I like to use names from our clan, Lamont. But I also like to sneak in ones that don’t sound Scotch — like Pattullo, Wass, Mustard. The names are assigned after I know the characters. But sometimes the names change in mid-story because the characters have. Over the years I’ve put together my own books of last and first names, organized by countries. I have close to 5K combined (I began collecting a long, long time ago).

    One of the ways I keep characters sounding like their ages is I go through the obits. I check the year of the deceaseds’ births and jot down names and years. These I add to index cards for certain decades. Sometimes I’m surprised how far back “popular” names go. What I also find in obituaries is the place of birth, which adds a little more to the person. I doubt that many Bessie Lou’s are born in Chicago, unlike how many are born in Georgia, especially before WWII.

    And I keep a casting list so I don’t repeat first letters in first names. I, too, hate that, and it’s such an easy thing to fix.

  7. I’ve checked the newspaper, phone books (some I collected from different towns, states) and cemeteries in the past, but now I mostly use this site:
    Along with the name it builds a whole profile, name, address, age and on and on.

  8. My books are heavily steeped in setting, so I go to cemeteries for family names. Then I go to the web, seeking favorite/common first names from the year my character was born. From there, it’s a matter of how the flow goes and how the other names mesh with it (i.e., no duplicate names beginning with C). Occasionally I’ll look at name origins for that subtle meaning that some readers enjoy. For ethnicity, I look regionally as well with cemeteries being my go-to source.

  9. A good source for foreign names is Wikipedia. Example: look up the names on the national soccer team. Usually, there will be a listing of famous people from a country. Also, it is a good source for naming conventions for various languages and countries. is very useful.

  10. I look for rhythm and rhyme, and harmony in names. I like names with mixed origins, Like Raul O’Brien or Winston Cruz. I want the names to stick with the reader. I do have one rule. Names must not start with the same letter as another character, unless there is a story reason. Where do I find them? The other voices in my head are helpful. (Joke!)

    • You should never apologize for the voices in your head, Brian. If anyone understands the weirdness of writing, it’s your family at TKZ.

  11. I use all of the above methods–though I haven’t tried the Scrivener name generator. I need to do that. Another good resource is the census and Social Security websites, particularly for historical names.

    So glad to hear Jeremiah Healy’s idea about using a spreadsheet to keep track of names. I really trip myself up using too many names that begin with one letter or sound alike.

    I avoid using names that might stereotype characters, and don’t spend a lot of time describing my characters’ physical attributes unless they’re critical to the story. Readers should get to bring their imaginations to the book.

    • I have an author friend who resorted to a spreadsheet after she realized over a dozen of her heroes were named Jake. So far, I can remember the names I’ve used, but she had over 100 books & counting.

      A spreadsheet is handy for series characters as well as their physical descriptions. Thanks, Laura.

  12. One of my go-to sites is…brace yourself…the SSA.Yes, the Social Security Administration web site. They have a search feature where you can look up the most popular baby names (up to 100, I think) for any decade they have records for. So you can not only find real names, but ones appropriate for the approximate birth year of your character.

  13. I use a baby name app that has the top 100 names for both genders for every year going back over a century. For minor characters, I just pick one from the approximate year of their birth.
    I also use Wikipedia by searching for ‘list of Italians’ etc and mix and match first and last names.
    In my current wip I’m using the last names of local historical figures. But my main character has had three different first names and I’m still not happy with it.

  14. Like Jim (MR. JSB) I use Scrivener name generator a lot but usually change or rearrange it. Also I just think of peoples names that I have dealt with since childhood – how many people have we known/met? And, particularly with the English language, how many share the same name? How many Jordan Dane’s or James Scott Bells’ are there? Or could we make it Dane Jordan or Scott James Bell or …

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