What’s In A Name?

By John Gilstrap

I’ve heard that many writers sweat over the names of their characters. One very famous romance writer (I’m not sure which one or I would name her) says that she cannot begin a story until her characters have the perfect name. I’m not like that. While I’ll put some effort into naming primary characters–the ones that will live on throughout a series of books–secondary characters are get their names sort of at random.

Nathan Bailey, the eponymous character of my first novel, Nathan’s Run, got his name by process of elimination. My son, Chris, was about the same age as Nathan when I wrote the book, and since I knew what lay ahead for the character, I couldn’t name him Chris. But because he was the same age, and kids are not always forgiving sorts, I couldn’t use the names of any of his friends. He didn’t know any Nathans at the time, and Nathan Hale has always held a prime spot in my panoply of noble patriots. Nathan’s last name, Bailey, is a direct nod to George Bailey of It’s A Wonderful Life.

Lyle Pointer, the twisted bad guy in Nathans Run, and Warren Michaels, the kind-hearted cop, are both named as they are because I thought their names worked against type.

Jonathan Grave, the protagonist of my hostage rescue series, is named as a convenience. In my original plan for the series, I imagined a branded line of titles like Grave Danger, Grave Peril, Grave Doubt, etc. It turned out that I was the only person in my editorial food chain who thought that was anything but a terrible idea. I kept the name because I had already finished the book, and I like the character. (Hand to God: It never occurred to me that Jonathan and I share a monogram until I was many books into the series and a fan asked about it.)

Secondary characters in general come from one of two sources. Each year, I auction character names for charitable fundraisers, and those winners get a prime secondary spot–often as the bad guy, but not always. My next alternative is to go to IMDB, pick a movie that I like, and then click on “all cast and crew.” I rarely copy both the first and last names of crew members, but rather mix and match them.

Ethnic characters. Over the course of the Grave series, most of my bad guys have been American, but I’ve exploited Chechen, Russian and Mexican bad guys, too. (Jonathan and the cartels don’t get along at all.) For those names, I’ll do a Google search for “Chechen names,” or likewise for another nationality. It’s astonishing how that never lets me down.

Richard Goldsbury was the bully who preyed on me in junior high school. He’s died in at least five books. Most recently, he was incinerated in a nuclear blast.

Laziness. I don’t like typing complicated names. In my new Victoria Emerson series, a throwaway character named First Sergeant Paul Copley turned out to have a more significant role that I thought he would, and I ended up having to type his name a lot. I have accordingly instructed the autocorrect in Word to change “1stsgt” to First Sergeant. “1stsgtp” becomes First Sergeant Paul Copley and “1sgtc” becomes First Sergeant Copley.

Amusement. In one of the Grave books (I think it’s No Mercy), Jonathan and his buddy Boxers encounter a guy named Dick Semen, and they get the giggles. Thrillers need some comic relief and that worked. In fact, I’m smiling as I write this, thinking back on the scene. (Aspiring writers please note: men’s true senses of humor form and solidify when they’re 12 years old. Farts and funny names will always be funny. The more inappropriate the timing, the funnier they will be. [See: Rusty Bed Springs by I.P. Nightly.])

So, Killzone family . . . Any thoughts on naming characters? Any tricks or resources you’d like to share?

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Fairfax, VA.

38 thoughts on “What’s In A Name?

  1. Great post, John. I like seeing how others get that particular job done. I use names of friends. In my early, early efforts I utilized the telephone book white pages. I would just open it at random, close my eyes, and let my finger do the walking, as the old jingle went. It was fun. One could still do it, though it might require a trip to the library and a special request in the reference section to get the book.

    Re: “Amusement”…I am fond of telling people that my emotional development was arrested at age 18 and sentenced to life. Sad but true.

    Thanks for jump-starting my morning, John.

    • My Uncle Jim was a graphic artist in the Atlantic City area, back in the day when being an artist meant drawing free-hand with a pen. He bought a new Cadillac and a country club membership every year with the money he made from the Yellow Pages. He missed the pivot to computers and ultimately was run out of business. He ended up okay financially, but the speed of the analog-to-digital shift broke his spirit. Okay, that wasn’t exactly about character names, but still . . .

  2. John, I use Scrivener’s massive name generator, which provides ethnic and alliterative options. I keep a cast list showing so I avoid same-sounding names.

  3. Thanks for a very interesting post, John. I always enjoy hearing how other writers select names.

    Regarding the Jonathan Graves’ series and the branded line of titles you had planned to use: I like the idea and the titles you had considered. It seems that title selection is very subjective.

    For character names, if the character has any ethnicity, I like to use a foreign dictionary and play with traits personality, and role in English, then see how the translation sounds as a name. Or, alter the translation slightly to make it work.

  4. Thanks for plugging my book, John. 😉
    I use mixtures of first and last names of family and friends, ask help from my Facebook page followers, use Google like Joe, Scrivener like JSB. As far as keeping track of names, and why, you’ve given me an idea for my next post.

  5. John, thanks. Great post and great timing as I am just now coming up names for a new book.

    Ditto the rom writer altho I don’t write rom. Women’s fic and cozy-ish mystery instead. But until I get the names just right, I don’t “see” the characters. I get names from the newspapers, from friends & acquaintances, twist spelling and mix and match first and last names. Sometimes the “perfect” name will just come to me as I’m writing.

    As to keeping track, I enter all names + and brief identifier if necessary in a Style Sheet, every writer’s best friend.

    • Style sheets have been a great way to keep track of character and place names. I use a spiral notebook and draw a style sheet grid inside the front cover, with character names, short descriptions, and connections to other characters on the first page opposite. Makes it easy to see it all in one place.

    • For the most part, I don’t even know when I need a character until the plot forces it. If I had to line that up ahead of time, I’m not sure I’d ever get to Chapter One.

  6. Interesting post. With the billions of names in the world, it should be easy to name fictional characters. It’s not. If I have a character born in a certain year, I’ll do a search for most popular baby names in that year. Sometimes I find a good one, but for secondary characters, I’m looking for authenticity more than perfectly fitting. I refuse to use the name of someone who was mean to me or my family, but I never thought of doing that and giving them a particularly gruesome death, so thanks for that suggestion! 😀

    Ditto the repetitive typing of long names. I had twins named Jenny Rose and Mary Glen. I got so tired of typing those that I used search and replace. Thank goodness for smart computers.

  7. Style sheets have been a great way to keep track of character and place names. I use a spiral notebook and draw a style sheet grid inside the front cover, with character names, short descriptions, and connections to other characters on the first page opposite. Makes it easy to see it all in one place.

    • Thank you for mentioning style sheets. Every set of copy edits I get comes with a detailed style sheet, listing not only the character names, but also a brief description. It also includes places and building names. The style sheet is particularly valuable when I want to deep dive into a past book to resurrect a character or setting.

      • John, If the au creates the style sheet & sends it along to the ed, you will save time & money as much of the work will already be done.

  8. Great post, John. I agree naming your characters is a crucial part of making them memorable. I keep a list of names I find evocative. The obituary page is a great source of ideas.

  9. Auctioning off a name in a book is a great way to support your favorite charity. If you want a really big check, auction of the dog’s name.

    I have been lucky enough to appear in two Elaine Viets books. A friend loaned his name to a character while serving in Afghanistan. Another author agreed to bump off a friend’s ex. Sadly he passed away before that book was published. As my children have said, ‘don’t upset Aunt Elaine. She kills people for a living.’

  10. There are role playing game name generators all over the Internet. There are also lists of names (fictions) with addresses and phone numbers. If you call and CallerID doesn’t know you, I will Google your number.

  11. John,
    For what it’s worth, I liked your Jonathan Grave titles. lol
    I do much of the same things you do, but usually choose a first name from one person and a last from another. I haven’t used a real person’s full name yet. But I love that you’ve killed your elementary school nemesis five times over. I will definitely try that next time I need a random victim!

  12. I like knowing the meaning of the names I pick. I’ve spent some time searching for names that fit the character’s place in the story. Not every character, just some.

    For instance, one story in my book, Who Are These People?, has a main character whose name is Dov. This character is the thief who hung on a cross next to Jesus. The Bible doesn’t give the thief a name, so I searched for an appropriate one for my creative non-fiction story. In one source, Dov means “strong and cunning”. I thought it fit.

  13. Timely post, John. Not five minutes before clicking on the Kill Zone to see what’s ‘sup today, I was musing in my mind for character names in my upcoming series, City Of Danger. “Mister Hessie” popped up, because I remember him from when I was a raw recruit back at the police academy. I arrived green as a frog and was told to “draw my kit”, I had to go see Mister Hessie. I asked who that was, and I was told he was the old guy with the one ear and the bad breath who ran the stores. I went over to the stores and sure enough Mister Hessie had only one ear and really bad breath. I never forgot him.

    I never have trouble finding names. When something interesting shows up, I write it down at the back of my journal. The obituaries is a good source. Not only do you get the deceased’s moniker, you get all the relatives, friends, coworkers, and even the hospital staff who “provided loving care as dear Mum spent her glorious days”. The library is another mine. I walk past the rows and rows of published pieces and randomly stop and look at names. If I spot something good, I write it down. Same with the wall of patrons. There’s great material in them thar donors.

    While I’m reminiscing about the police academy, the guy in charge of the overall pig factory was Superintendent Richard Head. You can imagine what he was called.

  14. Another thing worth mentioning is that sometimes when you’re stuck in your WIP, changing the name of your protagonist or a major secondary character may help “unlock” the muse. My debut novel, publishing March 2022, was written with an entirely different plot but the same three “character roles” – a young woman, her mother, and her mentor. I came up with the name Jocelyn Jones for the mentor and that carried over into the new book because I loved the alliteration and it sounded like a legitimate name for a famous journalist but since the story line had entirely changed, I gave the mother and daughter new names so I would view them as entirely different characters than the previous ones.

    • Congratulations on the debut! Some unsolicited advice: From this point onward, rewire the phrase “my debut novel” in your head to “my debut novel TITLE IN CAPS, coming out in March 2022.”

  15. I don’t like it when characters have names their parents wouldn’t have given to a baby (except for nicknames), so I start with popular baby names from the year of the character’s birth. For major characters, I consider whether their names might have been passed down from a previous generation, at which point I use the same process, but 1-3 generations earlier.

    I’m less picky about surnames than many writers, though I loathe Dickensian names, which all sound like “Ima Villain” or “Major Chinless-Wonder” to me.

    I actually prefer a bit of dissonance in my naming, especially villains. I don’t want to give the game away the first time the reader encounters their name, and I adore the incongruity between the parents’ hopes for their baby and their eventual disappointment. One of my villains is a 150-year-old vampire named Miss Annabelle MacAllister.

    I feel much the same about heroes: Homer Simpson did well with the alias “Max (I got it from a hair dryer) Power,” but it’s too on-the-nose for me.

  16. I tend to use a combination of family or friend’s surnames for some characters. I may take part of the family name and tack something onto the end or lop part of it off. I also like to use anagrams or names that have an underlying meaning.

    The best use of names in my novels is by one of the characters who occasionally disguises herself. She comes up with a name for the person she is pretending to be. In my WIP, she has taken on the persona of an elderly mystery author 🙂 and invents the name Rose Cramen. She explains to her accomplice that “cramen” is the center part of “sacramentum” which is Latin for “mystery.” (How cool is that?) And she chose “Rose” because of the mystery novel “The Name of the Rose.” (She’s very clever.)

  17. Great rundown, John. For me, in my latest time-travel-to-prehistory, I have some additional challenges. According to some research, the labiodentals “F” and “V” did not exist prior to our sedentary diet changes circa 10-20kya. So my prehistoric characters tend to have names that start or end with “K”, “G”, “P”, or “T”. Like “Koot,” one of my favorites. Or, I give them modern nicknames, like “Shorty” 😉

  18. Great post! I have to have the name of my hero, heroine, and villain before I can start writing. Like Jim, I use the Scrivener name generator as well as the SS Baby names sites. I like the latter because it gives the decade the names were popular.

  19. Great post, John. I keep a list of potential character names in Notes on my phone. Whenever I hear a cool name, I jot it down, play with the lettering or last name, and it’s ready for when I need to name a character. If I need an ethnic name and can’t find one on my list, I go to either an ethnic baby name site or to a blog dedicated to that ethnicity’s culture (I have a few bookmarked for my Mayhem Series) and steal names of a contributor or commenter.

  20. I’m a reader. I HATE cute-sy names like Richard Head and generally drop the book when I realize what ‘s going on. It devalues the whole book. I also don’t like names that I don’t know how to pronounce – leaves me with a sense of unease all the way through the novel. Please introduce the proper pronunciation by explaining it such as one character introducing another or any stratagem you want but don’t leave me to my own devices – especially if it’s the main character. Love the idea of naming and killing the bully.

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