Your Characters’ Names: Do You Know Why You Chose Them?

LoraConnorLoraConnor Southern CaliforniaPosts: 61Administrator
in Creative Writing & Poetry Tips Must be logged on
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

So says Juliet to Romeo, but we all know how that turned out. Sorry, Julie, but the truth is that names matter to all of us. For fiction writers, this truth is especially noteworthy. Novelists and short-story writers, you know your characters’ names are going to be in print and electronic form, for all the world to see, for a long time.

How Did Your Parents Name You?

Do you know the circumstances that led to your parents deciding what handle would be yours for the rest of your life? True, once you reach the age of consent, you can decide enough is enough, and legally change what you write on checks and credit card bills ( if, say, your name is Hulga or Rumpelstilskin). I happen to be okay with my own given name, Barry. It’s a tad unusual without being eccentric (and I know why I was given the name, but the reason is embarrassing, so I’m not telling).
I decided to learn a little more about the names currently being given to real children by real parents.  I went to Behind the Name.  The site’s data is based on Social Security information, and what I learned was eye-opening:
In 2013, the most popular name given to boy babies was Noah.
Number 2 was Liam, 3 Jacob.
The name Jack, hugely popular with author-parents, ranked #40.

Poor Romeo was far down the list at #338.

Are Your Characters’ Names Winners or Losers in the Name Game?

For girls, I was surprised to learn that Sophia was #1 last year.
Emma was #2, Olivia #3, Isabella #4 and Ava (the name of one of my grandchildren) #5.
Juliet fares better than her lover does, but is pretty neglected at #238.
For trivia fans, a tie for last place among boy names—at #998—is Darien and Clyde. Clyde I get: Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry uses that as the generic name for all the low lifes and criminals he has to “discipline.”  Darien doesn’t seem all that bad to me: Keats referred to it in a poem.
As for last place among girls’ names, I was shocked to learn that Astrid, a Scandinavian name I’ve given to one of my own fictional progeny, checks in at last place, #987. Amazingly (to me), just ahead of Astrid is the beautiful, biblical Judith.

Playing God: Naming Your Fictional Children

Writers are omnipotent parents: unlike our real-life parents, their decisions are irreversible.  The children they bring into the world will never be able to change their names, nor any attribute given to them.
Like birth parents, writers think in many different ways as they name their offspring. They may use:

  • Allusions to famous works of literature
  • Historical persons
  • Names they just happen to like
  • Names they wish were their own
  • Names readers/agents/editors will react to positively

Think about it: have you named a hero or heroine after someone you had a crush on in high school?  Does your assassin or terrorist carry the name of the playground bully you still vividly remember pulling your hair, or stealing your lunch money?

One Man’s Family: Naming My Darlings

All this led me to reflect on the names I’ve given some of my storybook children. In my first published novel, the thriller The Dating Service, I named the bad guy Bob Hack. One syllable each for first and last names would be easy to remember, and “Hack” suggested violence. After it came out, an academic friend congratulated me on having published a “potboiler” thriller.  He said giving my killer an ironic name—Hack–suggested I had a tongue-in-cheek attitude toward genre fiction. It’s remotely possible he’s right, but since I admire good genre fiction and still write it, I no longer share scribbler chitchat with this person.
My second novel Just Bill is a fable for adults, about dogs and owners living on a golf course. I wanted the names to represent types of people in the community. My lead character—Bill—is a rescued dog. The man who rescues him grew up during the Depression, and he thinks of the dog as a hobo. He names him after a popular song from the period, “Bill.” His own name is Fred Vinyl: he made his money in vinyl siding. Other human characters are named Trust Fund and Telecom.  A border collie is named Hotspur, after the smart, volatile warrior in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part One.
My third novel The Anything Goes Girl is the first installment in my suspense series about a young woman journalist. Her name is Brenda Contay, and my path to naming her is a little involved.
When I first got the idea for the series, I thought of the character as a latter-day Brenda Starr, the reporter in a comic strip of the same name.

As for Contay, that came from knowing a little French: contes means “tales or stories.” That’s what the Brenda Contay suspense novels are—tales or stories.  The word Contay also suggests “cont.,” the abbreviation for “continued,” which is what a series does. I also liked how the name sounded, especially the four distinct vowel sounds: Bren-da Con-tay.
For the antagonist/heavy in The Anything Goes Girl, I birthed a character who gets himself kicked out of the FBI training program at Quantico, Virginia. He goes on using his FBI identity, and I gave him a name that would serve as a conversation-starter—Charles Lindbergh.  It’s something about which he can joke and make small talk, putting his victims off-guard and making them easy to handle.
His counterpart in the next Brenda Contay novel is divided between two characters. One is the brains, the other the brawn. Louis Rohmer travels a lot—New York City, Mexico’s Cabo San Lucas, the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota. In other words, he roams.  The muscle Rohmer relies on is Jerry Lomak. He’s a nasty piece of work, a bad version of Joe Sixpack, i.e., a low mack of a man.
In other words, the way I name my kids is whimsical and personal, and for that reason it’s not for everyone. If there’s any method at all to my madness, it has to do with sound effects and suggestion.  But whatever you name characters, it’s both interesting and useful to give some thought to how you go about it.
After all, I’m talking about your darlings, your namesakes. And nothing’s  more important than family.

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