What’s In A Name?

Here on the Kill Zone, we occasionally talk about the art and craft of naming characters. We’ve gotten inspiration from some famous fictional names like Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Scarlett O’Hara. (Did you know Margaret Mitchell originally wanted to name her protagonist “Pansy”?)

I love creating names for my characters. Although I occasionally pick a name for no reason other than it seems to fit, more often I use names of beloved relatives, elementary school teachers, neighbors, friends, and even the name of the street a favorite aunt lived on. I’ve also been known to rearrange the letters of a surname. I like to think this is a way to honor people who have been positive influences in my life. Although my readers may not know how special these names are to me, I know.

* * *

Here’s a true story about names that you may not have heard:

In 1958, a man living in New York was about to become a father for the sixth time. He wanted to give his new child a name that would be an advantage growing up, so he named the boy “Winner.”

Three years later, he became a father for the seventh time. It was another boy. He asked one of his other children what she thought they should name the new baby. She said since they already had a “Winner,” he should name the new baby—you guessed it—“Loser.” Believe it or not, the father took her suggestion.

Remember, this is a true story.

Before I go on, I’d like you to reflect for a moment on what kind of lives you think these two boys must have had as they grew up. I’ll wait…

* * *

If you’re like me, you probably assumed Winner lived up to the appellation his father gave him and excelled in all he did. And Loser—well, we can only feel bad for the poor little guy.

But the truth is exactly the opposite.

The two boys grew up in the same environment with many of the same friends.

Winner became a criminal at age nineteen when he was arrested for aggravated assault. Over the years, he committed dozens of other crimes and spent time in jail. Eventually, he landed on the streets of New York as a homeless person.

On the other hand, Loser was a strong student, received a scholarship to a prep school in Connecticut, and attended college where he was an excellent athlete. After college, he joined the New York Police Department and rose to the rank of detective. Although he said his name never bothered him, others referred to him as “Lou.”

So it appears a person’s character can transcend his/her name.

* * *

According to an article published on dictionary.com in March 2022, there are laws restricting certain baby names. The United States is very lenient in this area. Each state can legislate its own name restrictions. For example, if you live in  New Jersey, you’re not allowed to give a child a name that contains obscenity, numerals, or symbols.

Other countries are generally more restrictive than we are here in the U.S. For example, the article in dictionary.com goes on to say:

In France, for example, parents have been banned from giving their children names that would “lead to a childhood of mockery,” such as Prince William and Mini Cooper. In Germany, a court ruled that a couple couldn’t name their child “Stone” because “a child cannot identify with it, because it is an object.” Möwe (“seagull”) was rejected as well, because the bird is “a nuisance and is seen as a pest and would therefore degrade the child.” In Denmark, parents must select from a list of pre-approved names, and if they want to use one that’s not on the list, they must get special permission.

I bet none of those countries would have allowed “Winner” and “Loser.”

* * *

So TKZers: How do you come up with names for your characters? Do you name them after people you’ve known? Do you try to select a name that reflects the character’s inner strengths and weaknesses? Or do you give them a name that’s in opposition to their character? 

* * *

Speaking of names: Mr. Tyme was the unfortunate victim in the third book of the Watch series of mysteries. You might be able to guess why I came up with that name.

The e-book is on sale today for 99¢ 


66 thoughts on “What’s In A Name?

  1. I’m more concerned with not naming villains after real people. DeCamp tells the story of an author who named his awful antagonist, “Theophilus Pancake,” figuring there couldn’t possibly be such a person. One day, his wife told him a Theophilus Pancake was at the front door and wanted to talk to him.

    Fortunately, Theophilus was amused by appearing in the book. There are pockets of Revolutionary Era religious communities in the East, and Biblical names like Theophilus are rife there. Moreover, there are large old families with names like Pancake is such places, so Theophilus Pancake was not as rare as the writer believed.

    The Internerd now makes it easy to search on “Porfirio Huggentuggler,” etc., now, so such coincidences should be rare, henceforth.

    ❖How do you come up with names for your characters?
    Mostly, I let my inner author dream something up. I named my MC in “Unforsaken” ‘Abilene,’ which, I discovered much later, means ‘place of streams.’ Abilene brings water and absolution to Diego. I liked the sound of ‘Janubel’ for the princess in “Deathbird Mountain.” The MC there is ‘Hirand,’ for ‘Hired Hand.’ ‘Tenirax’ I made up, possibly based on the Latin ‘tenire,’ to hold. I didn’t know until later that there are Spanish names that end in ‘x.’ I borrowed ‘Blassingame’ from “The Westerner,” for “A True Map of the City.” I just liked the sound of ‘Mogrovat,’ for the sorcerer in “Deathbird Mountain.” I populated my thriller with names of July 20th Plot conspirators and a few other Nazis.

    ❖Do you name them after people you’ve known?
    Rarely. I named the girl in “Silver Dream” ‘Sharon’ after a girl I knew in 3rd grade. I’ve had several friends named ‘David.’

    ❖Do you select names reflecting their strengths and weaknesses?
    Nope. That’s an old-timey thing and too obvious.

    ❖Do you give them a name in opposition to their character?
    See above.

    • Good morning, JG.

      “Theophilus Pancake” is fabulous. I’m amazed that it’s someone’s real name. Doing an internet search might be a good thing.

      I love the name Abilene you gave one of your characters, and the way it fit the persona even though you didn’t know it at the time.

      Have a good week.

  2. Kay, good topic. You mention honoring people who positively influenced your life. Here’s one.

    My friend Nissan Krakinowski was a Holocaust survivor. I wrote about our meeting in a blog post:

    Nissan was 90 and his wife and two daughters had predeceased him. He had no grandchildren. During one phone conversation, he expressed concern that when he died, his name would die also. I told him if I’d ever had a son, I’d name him “Nissan” but that was unlikely since I was Medicare age. He laughed and said, “Miracles happen.”

    Not long after, he was struck by a car while crossing a Brooklyn street and killed. I was devastated.

    In the third book of my series, Eyes in the Sky, the male lead Tillman Rosenbaum takes the main character Tawny to visit the graves of his maternal grandparents whom he revered. The name on the grandfather’s headstone was Nissan and the first and middle names of the grandmother were his daughters.

    • What a wonderful story, Debbie! I love the way you honored Mr. Krakinowski in your writing. His name will live on.

      My husband and I had a special connection with a Holocaust survivor, Otto Goldman, who lived in Israel. Although we had never met in person, I wanted to do something special for him, so I gave the surname Goldman to the family of one of my main characters. Unfortunately, Mr. Goldman passed away before the book was published, but his name lives on.

    • Good morning, Cynthia.

      Lucky you! I’ve only had that happen once or twice, but I usually spend time thinking about what name I want, and I’ve been known to change a character’s name a few times before the story is done.

  3. I tend(-ed), to have subtle fun with naming… one character in my first NaNo, a PI whodunnit, was named MacAdam Rhodes – macadam being a paving material…

    Sometimes I’ll look up the old meaning of a name – George means “farmer,” and use that for a surname – sometimes with the “original” first name…

    …and I have a recurring “character” in several songs I’ve written named Katie – simply because of the syncopation of the two syllables –

    Here in the South there’s a plethora of family surnames used for first and middle names – the first time I noticed that was in third grade reading a biography and one of the subject’s relatives was named Smith Lee… so I’ve used that naming “convention” from time to time…

    Similarly, “down here” I noticed a tendency to use traditional boys’ names hyphenated into girls’ names – I know a Mary-Michael and a Mary-Glenn – or maybe it’s just “something about Mary…”). The only time I’ve heard the opposite was in the Johnny Cash song, “A Boy Named Sue…”

    And also the Old South used to name babies honoring the leaders of the Lost Cause – which I’m sure makes some kids I grew up with wrestling with political correctness – I knew a John Jefferson Davis, and a States Rights Finley, III (the latter simply goes by “SR”), and toyed with naming a character Thomas Jefferson Davis…

    A former father-in-law had only initials – W.C. – intended to be William Cannon after his father, but not registered that way), and we used to get phone calls from his family asking to speak to “Dub…” – it was the Army who told him he had to have first name, and so became “Bill” – and yes, I’ve used this convention at least once… (and my oldest used the intended middle name for his new son’s first name…)

    Finally (finally), having been raised on Dr. Seuss and weaned on Ogden Nash, I leave you with:
    The myth of Smith is that we’re so numerous,
    A fact the Johnson’s find quite humorous…

    • Good morning, George! Great examples of having fun with names. I especially love “MacAdam Rhodes.”

      You and I share the joy of creating names that have hidden (or maybe not so hidden) meanings. My favorite name was not one I gave to a character, but a name that one of my characters invented. When she was going to disguise herself as an author, she came up with the name “Rose Ramen.” Her sister asked her why she chose Ramen. She said the Latin word “sacramentum” means “mystery,” and the author is at the center of the mystery. (A not-so-subtle message to my readers. 🙂

      I was born and raised in the deep south and know many girls who carried a boy’s name (usually their father’s). For example, I had an Aunt Earlene who was named after her father.

    • There’s the true (?) story of R B Jones, whose forenames consisted of only letters. The Army kicked his form back and insisted he must have actual names. He filled it out again with R(only) B(only). His dog tags arrived the next day, stamped “Ronly Bonly Jones.”

  4. Winner and Loser? What was that dad thinking?!

    I name characters that suit the environment. Elrod and Homer and Savannah Grace for a story set in Seattle (haha, just kidding) set in small-town South. Anne and Elizabeth and John for 19th-century US. Taylor and T’Shaun and Olivia for contemporary high schoolers. Sylvia for a Gothic ghost story.

    Good topic, Kay.

    • Good morning, Priscilla. I’m with you — what kind of parent would do that to his children? But the story does reveal something about our ability to overcome circumstances that we had no control over.

      I like the names you mention. The daughter of a friend of ours is named Savannah Rose. That has the same lovely ring as your Savannah Grace.

  5. Thanks for a great question, Kay. I usually name my characters after friends, acquaintances, and enemies. I read that some authors used the telephone book, opening it at random and jabbing their finger down on a page twice, once for the first name and once for the second.

    I would be remiss if I did not note that today is the birthday of a young man named John Gilstrap. It’s a bittersweet day for him, given that he’ll be leaving his thirties.

    Have a terrific week, Kay!

  6. I recall one piece of advice about character names. “They should sound like their parents named them, not like you did.”
    I’m constantly on the lookout for names. I have to keep a spreadsheet so I don’t keep gravitating to the same ones. In my newest book, one of the characters is named after my daughter’s cat. One character in an earlier book got his name from a boarding pass left in my seat pocket on an airplane. Using my spreadsheet, I look for initials I haven’t used and just hit the Google machine. Sometimes ethnicity plays into it, but we’re such a melting pot here that I don’t worry about it too much.

  7. I use Scrivener’s random name generator. I look at the list it comes up with and pick a name based on the sound….making sure it is not too similar to another name in the cast.

    • Good morning, Jim.

      I haven’t tried Scrivener’s random name generator yet. It’s another feature I wasn’t even aware of!

      Having names that aren’t too close to each other is something else I look for. But in my WIP, there’s an important clue with the letter “R”, so I have several characters whose first or surnames begin with that letter just to make readers consider them as possible suspects.

  8. I’m all over the place in how I pick names. And just like book titles, I don’t always settle on a character name immediately. I once said I would choose surnames utilizing place names in Arizona, but not sure how realistic that will be in the long haul, though I have done it for a couple characters.

    • Good morning, BK.

      Place names in Arizona sound like good choices for names. Especially if they’re places you have a connection with.

      I sometimes change the name of a character halfway through the first draft — or later! Thank goodness for Find & Replace. 🙂

  9. Great post, Kay

    I’ve used various ways to pick names. In a book not yet published, I used a variation of the name of someone who let’s say was not a friend for the antagonist, and who receives well deserved justice at the end of the story.

    I’ve also used Latin for the personality of characters, and then changed the Latin into a similar word for a name.

    And, in some of my fantasies I’ve simply used the role the character plays as the name (ex. Healer, Divider, Maker, etc)

    I enjoy reading everyone’s methods for naming their characters. Thanks for doing this post! And have a great week!

    • Good morning, Steve!

      With your background in medicine, you have all those great Latin words at your fingertips that you can work with. I love the idea of refitting one of those into a character name.

      I also like the way you use the character’s role in their name (e.g., Healer) in your books. It makes it easier for me as a reader to follow the story.

      Have a great week!

  10. Terrific question, Kay! Naming characters can be a challenge.

    The hero of my Empowered superhero fantasy series was originally named Jolene Jacobs. Then, when I was finishing the rewrites for the first novel, I read another superhero fantasy novel that featured a former criminal named Jolene. The world building was quite different and her Jolene was older, but they had both been criminals. So, I brainstormed new names with my writer’s group. I eventually came up with Mathilda Brandt. It turns out Mathilda means “Mighty in Battle” in old French, and Brandt is an old name related to “branch.” Perfect for an “empowered” who can talk to, control and in turn be influenced by plant life.

    Meg Booker, my librarian-sleuth, is named after “Meg” from “A Wrinkle in Time,” her older brother Theo’s favorite book as a young child. He, in turn was named after two famous authors–Theodore Sturgeon, the Science Fiction writer, and Theodore Geisel, AKA Dr. Seuss. One of Meg’s friends from work is named Sassy, because the name definitely reflects her attitude.

    One of the prominent patrons in the first book is named “Eunice Stump,” because I liked the sound of the name. It’s also an homage to one of Portland’s nicknames–“Stump Town.” Especially appropriate because Eunice’s father was a lumber baron.

    Names can come to me in a flash, or they can involve a lot of skull sweat. It just depends.

    Thanks for a fascinating post. Have a wonderful week!

    • Good morning, Dale!

      I love the way you come up with character names. They’re so much more meaningful when they carry background with them.

      I especially like Meg Booker for the librarian-sleuth. Looking forward to your cozy mystery.

  11. As a musician, I’m aware of cadence throughout the book, including character names. One of my faves is Beethoven’s Fifth–da-da-da-DAH (e.g. Travis McGee). Or the “traipsing through the glen” DAH-da-DAH-da-DAH (Edgar Allen Poe).

    My only maxim is to avoid any name ending in “S” because it wreaks havoc with possessives. How the heck do you describe a shoe belonging to a victim named “Theophilus?”

    One of my supporting characters is “Minnie,” but lest she sound too old-fashioned or mouse-like, it’s not “Minerva.” Her over-excited father named her “Minolta” from the camera in his hand at the delivery room.

    • Good morning, Dan.

      You bring up a good point about cadence. I often consider the rhythm of my prose, but hadn’t tied it to names. Good point!

      I like the idea of a character naming another character like your “Minolta.” Very nice.

  12. I’m a little more strategic about naming than the rest of you. When I start a project, I pick a country from my World of Baby Names book and stick with that. (Note: never use a culture to denote rich or poor. In real life, names are based on region, not SES.)

    I can’t start writing without a name, because then that name sticks no matter what. My current WIP is loads easier in one way because the names are already picked out since I’m doing a myth retelling. In another way, it’s much harder because they all tend to start with the same letter.

    • Good morning, Azali!

      Very interesting that you pick a country and stick with names from that region. I would never have thought of that.

      You’re right about the same letter. That can lead to confusion for the reader. Good luck with retelling a myth. Sounds like fun.

  13. Good morning, Kay . . . great topic!

    I like everyday names, not too weird, because I write stories of everyday people. I have Tom & Barb, Annie & Roger, Ellen & Mark, etc. etc. I don’t intentionally name my characters after folks I know.

    Funny story, though. In The Master’s Inn (just released last October), there is a character who is discussed but never makes an appearance. He is a pastor and his name is Dan.

    When I started writing the novel, our pastor’s name was Jim. But, now we have Pastor Dan, who’s been with us for about 2 years.

    After the novel was released, Pastor Dan was all excited that I’d named a character after him. I didn’t have the heart to tell him otherwise.


    • Good morning, Deb!

      That’s a great story about The Master’s Inn. It was a nice gift to your pastor, whether or not you intended it. (Maybe you had some kind of premonition.)

      Interesting that you mention Pastor Dan doesn’t actually make an appearance in the book. I have an important character in my WIP who appears only in one flashback chapter. In every other place, he is talked about, but never appears. Makes for an interesting setup.

  14. Excellent post, Kay! Picking names that “feel” like the characters is a challenge I enjoy. I often look up the meanings of names for good measure.
    On a related note, I always thought it was fitting that the girl who was sent to Oz via a tornado was named Dorothy “Gale”.

    • Good morning, Gary!

      I love the idea that names have meanings. You can add a lot of subtle information to a book that way.

      I never thought of Dorothy “Gale”. What a clever interpretation.

      Have a great week.

    • Good morning, Alan.

      I first heard about Winner and Loser a few years ago. I had to look it up because I didn’t believe it.

      Kenneth Noid is a good example of the kind of problems names can cause. I hope his hostages made it out safely.

  15. I work in Education Information Technology. I see databases of names every day. One school had Alexis, Alexus, and A Lexus as girls names.

    A friend also works with student data. They had a mother who was very upset the hospital would not let her leave until she filled out a Social Security Card application on her new son. Somewhere in St. Louis there is a young man whose birth certificate lists his frist name as ASDFGH.

    Several years ago St. Louis Public Schools refused to register a young man with his given name. His sister’s name of Palestina was OK. She went by Tina. Alex’s legal name was Adolf Hitler Isa. The school was not going to have a Hitler in the hallways. Tina’s parents murdered her for having a boyfriend. The FBI recorded the killing. Her father was a terrorist. Both parents died in prison.

  16. I have known Elaine Viets for a long time. I am in one of the Angela Richmond books. My oldest will be in THE DEAD OF NIGHT in April. Pre-order now.

    • Congratulations on having your name in one of Elaine’s books! That’s a real honor.

      I saw “Bianca” in one of our TKZ colleague’s books. I hope it wasn’t referring to me.

  17. Love reading how everyone chooses names. I usually use the Social Security baby names site: https://www.ssa.gov/oact/babynames/ I pick the decade they were born in and find a name that suits the character. I love Dan’s suggestion about cadence.

    In our town, a mother named her twins Orangejello and Lemonjello, pronounced Or-ang-ello and Le-mon-jel-o…

    • Good morning, Patricia.

      Great idea to use the SS site to pick a name for the character based on decade they were born in!

      I cannot believe a mother would name her children Orangejello and Lemonjello. What was she thinking?

  18. The “Winner” and “Loser” story sounds like the golden child and scapegoat family dynamic. The golden child is given everything, and the scapegoat is blamed for everything. If the scapegoat survives this childhood, he will usually go on to do very well. The spoiled golden child crashes and burns because they never are allowed to grow up and develop enough strength to achieve anything. If there is justice, the parents must support their golden child for eternity.

    • Good morning, Marilynn.

      I was thinking along those same lines. Parents who give a child everything aren’t doing the child any favors.

      On the other hand, deliberately naming a child “Loser” is cruel. So glad that young man didn’t let it bother him.

    • Hi Robin.

      I had never used Seventh Sanctum, but just took a look at it. I can see how it can be useful.

      Thanks for stopping by and for your suggestion.

  19. We still have phone books here so I use them as a source. I pick the first name at random and then the last name at random, and if it fits the character then I google it.

    • Hi Robert,

      That’s very interesting. When you say you pick a name at random, do you close your eyes and point to a name? Or do you scan through names until you see one you like?

      If you know what letter you want the surname to begin with, a phone book is a great way to see a lot of information at a glance.

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