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.
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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…
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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.
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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.”
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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?
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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.