What’s Your Name Again?

By John Gilstrap

Of the countless moving parts in a story, an element I find among the top five most annoying is the naming of characters.

A famous romance writer said in an article I read years ago that she cannot type the first word of her stories until she knows the characters’ names. The names, she said, say so much about the characters and their personalities, and without that bit of creative data locked into her brain, none of the other stuff works.

To me, characters’ names–particularly the minor ones–are little more than labels. I have to call them something, right? There are practical considerations, too. Many of those are tied to the fact that I want to make this writing business as simple as possible for myself.

I keep the names short.

I’m going to be typing the letter sequence of a name dozens, if not hundreds, of times in a manuscript. Typing four letters hundreds of times is easier than typing 12 or 15 letters hundreds of times.

I keep the names pronounceable. 

When I read silently, I actually read aloud but without making noise. I pronounce every word in my head as I plow through, and when I stumble onto a name that I can’t pronounce, the story stops for me. This is one of the primary reasons why I don’t read fantasy stories. In my own writing, one of the reasons why I don’t deal with Middle Eastern terrorists–other than the fact that every other writer in my corner of the thrillerverse is doing it–is I don’t want to get bogged down with Middle Eastern names.

I avoid homophonic names.

At the beginning of each book, I tackle the administrative task of updating my auto correct to automatically capitalize my characters’ names. Thus, when I type jonathan, it automatically converts to Jonathan. Thus, you’ll never find me writing a book with a character named Robin. If I did, then the bird version of the road would be capitalized. The reason why my recurring character named Boxers has an S at the end is so it doesn’t conflict with the pugilistic version of the word.

Google is my friend.

The drug cartels of Central and South America are frequent enemies of Jonathan Grave, which means I create POV characters who need Hispanic names. To find them, I turn to Google and type “Colombian (or Mexican or Venezuelan) surnames” and “Colombian (etc.) first names.” Then I shop for names from those lists.

Excel is also my friend.

My Victoria Emerson series is a true series, where each story builds on the one that preceded it. At this point, having just submitted White Smoke (the third book in the series, following Crimson Phoenix and Blue Fire), I’m about 900 pages into the story. Between main characters, secondary characters and walk-ons, I’ve introduced about 150 named players. The only way to keep them straight was to create a spreadsheet that documented their names, a descriptor, and which subplot they’re a part of.

So, TKZ family, are character names important to you? How do you choose them?

This entry was posted in Writing by John Gilstrap. Bookmark the permalink.

About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, 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 the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

16 thoughts on “What’s Your Name Again?

  1. Names are very important. I know I’ve hit them right when the characters become real to me. If I ran into Lily and Frank Watkins from my screenplay Family at the feed store, I’d know them just as surely as I’d recognize my parents – and Lily would ask me about them, too.

    I love fantasy and sci fi, but I agree with you about the names. At least Bilbo was easy to pronounce.

  2. I’ve used a name generator, but what’s important for me is a simple spreadsheet with the alphabet in columns for last names and first names once I’ve chosen them . Otherwise, I fixate on the same initial for too many characters, which is a pet peeve, because it’s that first letter that triggers “Oh, this is so-snd-so” for me, and I’m easily confused.
    Right now, I’m reading a book with a main character called Hal. But there’s also Hailey, Harper, Helen, and probably more, but I’ve forgotten them–or haven’t come across them yet.
    I’ve got an example of my spreadsheet here.
    Most of the time, I’m satisfied with the names I give my main characters, although in “In the Crosshairs” I was about 8 chapters in with a protagonist named Kendra, and for no reason I could put my finger on, it wasn’t working, so she became Kiera.
    My Mapleton series protagonist, Gordon Hepler, got his name because a clerk at the post office I dealt with many, many times during the snail mailing manuscript days asked to be a hero in a book.

  3. Names are important to me. I write fantasy. For the team of YA heroes, I give each character a nickname that fits with the Indian source of their magic spells, such as Scout, Chief, Brook, Elm, Arch. Each name is short and usually one syllable. For the characters in the alternate worlds, I create or use names appropriate for the role the character plays. In a recent book set in the heart world, the alien characters were personified playing cards named King, Queen, Ace, and Joker. In a book set in the world of the DNA molecule, I used character names like Code Maker, Ribo, and Poly. In a world set in the id/ego, characters’ names were created from word roots, such as Extor, Solia, and Omni.

    Spending time to find the right name is fun and gives me ideas to further develop the character.

  4. I keep two digital notebooks, one for story ideas, and another for interesting names. The obituary section of my daily newspaper is a gold mine of both potential story lines and character names.

  5. Names are important to me too. When I name the main players, then the story idea really takes shape.

    I ascribe to all your rules–keep it short, pronouncable–though I take a bit offense that you think middle eastern names are harder to pronounce than hispanic (not too much offense, but it’s a sting).

    I bought a baby name book a while ago that categorizes by ethnic group and gives detail about each names origin. When I start a book, I choose one or two of these (obviously more if I set it in the U.S.), and stick to them. Sometimes I add the extra rule to not pick common names like Pierre or Lucca. You’d be surprised at what short, pronouncable, uncommon names you can dig up even in the most used languages.

  6. There are several online name generators. Most are designed for fantasy gaming, but you can quickly generate a list of names.

    You can, or might have already, pick on your friends. I started reading TKZ following Elaine Viets. In one of the Helen Marcus Mystery Shopper books, my wife and I are murder suspects. Spoiler alert. I didn’t do it.

  7. I love naming characters. Some of the names are ones that just seem to fit the character, but more and more I’m looking for personal connections. For example, my first grade teacher’s surname became the name of a librarian in one of my books. The street name of one of my favorite aunts became the surname of another character. Others are the names of beloved relatives.

    But my favorite is a name that was made up by one of my main characters who is an actress. She’s creating her own character and names her “Rose Ramen.” When her sister asks where the name Ramen comes from, the MC points out that “ramen” is the center of “sacramentum,” which is Latin for “mystery.” Hence, Rose Ramen is the center of the mystery. (My characters are so clever. 🙂 )

  8. Great post, John. Names are definitely important, though my approach is very loose. I rarely use a name generator (Jim’s Scrivener pro tip though is something I’ll look into). Instead, I just play around and come up with names that seem appropriate.

    The hero of my new cozy mystery, Meg Booker, comes from a literary family, and her older brother Theo got to name baby Meg, and he chose “Meg” from the book his parents read to him when she was born, “A Wrinkle in Time.” Meg is the hero of that book. His full name is Theodor, because his older sister named him after Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel), which was being read to her when he was born. She’s named after Shirley Jackson, because mom loved that author’s short stories and memoir.

    Have a wonderful Wednesday.

  9. I’ve gone through our local phone books if a name doesn’t occur to me when it’s time for the character to appear on the page.

    I like man (or woman) on the street names. Names I’d run into in anywhere, USA. I also go with easy to pronounce, easy to type, easy to remember names.

    We watched one of the best Steve McQueen/Richard Attenborough movies ever made last night-The Great Escape. The names of the three tunnels they dug-Tom, Dick, and Harry-are like the names I pick for my characters. (Actually, sometimes they name themselves . . . ) 🙂

    They get named as they pop up in the story. But I don’t really know them yet. They flesh themselves out as we go along.

    It works for me, and for them.

    • I use the white pages here as well. My m.o. is to flip open the phone book at random, run my finger down until I find a first name I like, then repeat the process until I find something that seems like a good starting place.
      Then I google it and a lot of times I find that there are other people with the same name so I start again.

      When google first came out I found seven other people with my name in the US, one of whom I had been paying a credit card insurance policy for, for almost a year.

      But then, the character once named starts telling me his or her story.

    • I use the white pages here as well. My m.o. is to flip open the phone book at random, run my finger down until I find a first name I like, then repeat the process until I find something that seems like a good starting place.
      Then I google it and a lot of times I find that there are other people with the same name so I start again.

      When google first came out I found seven other people with my name in the US, one of whom I had been paying a credit card insurance policy for, for almost a year.

      edit. Maybe a double tap here I dunno.

      But then, the character once named starts telling me his or her story.

  10. So I take it you will not be naming your next thriller couple Alessandra Abbandando and Guomundur Sigurjonsson???

  11. Naming characters in one of the most tedious parts of writing. I do agree that character names are very important, but it’s one of the few aspects of writing that I can say I rarely enjoy doing. I just have no choice since everyone can’t be John Doe. LOL!

    Occasionally the main character name(s) come to me on inspiration before I start writing, but more often names have to develop as I go. I keep a spreadsheet with an alpha list of character names to help me keep track (since I have to write in snatches and rarely can ‘immerse’ in my writing, I often forget what I named a secondary character). Plus that lets me know if I have too many characters with the letter “J” etc.

    Glad I’m not the only one who doesn’t get my thrills from the process of naming characters.

  12. I once critiqued a play script with characters named Kenny, Karen, Courtney, Davis and Don. Argh.
    Naming characters is half the fun, holding the power to name someone “Basil Rumblebutt,” if I so choose, or anything at all.
    I collect names from the old white pages, like “Boobpha Upathumpa, Ricardo Zzyzz, and Tryphaena Twinkleplek.” Extra points for whoever cites the source of the name “J. Y. Vimpta,” which I plan to use in some future work.
    I named a particularly odious creature “Thpugga,” the “Thp” being created by sucking the tongue back from between the incisors into the mouth rapidly. Readers don’t need to know the exact pronunciation.
    I named my Western MC “Abilene,” before I found it means “Place of Streams.” The story takes place in a desert, and it is Abilene who brings water. That unconscious coincidence was unlikely to happen with a name generator.

Comments are closed.