Thursday, July 24, 2008

On the Name Game

Yes, it's silly. Yes, it's a waste of time. And we dare you to resist.

"Billy Billy Bo Billie Bananafanna fo filly, fee fi mo filly, Billy. The Name Game."

**Shirley Ellis

Names of book characters--how do you think of them?

HANK's here today: In my books, two things happen. One type of character appears with a name already in place. Charlotte McNally. It arrived, and I had not one more thought about it. Franklin was Franklin Brooks Parrish instantly. Names are so fascinating things to me, because a name has to work, and be the essence of the character, without being heavy handed.

So some I struggle with a bit. Penny, for instance. Was instantly Penny. Then I thought no, maybe that’s not a hip enough name for an eight-year-old with contemporary parents. So I changed her name in the manuscript to Emma. Then Annie. Then Ella. And all the while every time she showed up in the story, I kept typing Penny. Because, apparently, that’s what her name is—Penny. And so she stayed.

Anyway—the naming of Josh Gelston, the Atticus Finch looking college professor Charlotte is so interest in—was truly hilarious. My first boyfriend ever, I think when I was about seven years old? Was named Phillip Gelston. So I wanted a non-ethnic, sort of strong last name that wouldn’t instantly telegraph anything. Gelston worked.

But he couldn’t be Phillip, because of my own last name. So I started thinking about names that were one syllable, masculine, strong, traditional not trendy, very simple and that someone who is about 50 would logically have been named. So I thought: Ben. Luke. Jake. Max. Sam. Josh. Yes, Josh. Then Joshua Ives Gelston just came out of my brain. Which I loved.

So guess how I came up with the name of June Ridgedale? She's going to be--what else, a lovely and gentle prep school teacher or counselor in DRIVE TIME. I mean--you can tell by her name, she's not going to be a cop, right?

I found her via the fab Lorraine Bartlett. Because Lorraine's mother's middle name plus the name of the street where she first lived is June Ridgedale. The moment I heard it, I pounced.

And, because the fabulous Guppies had a completely hilarous discussion about it--I know a whole bunch of nom de Moms. Sheila Connolly has a good one. And Pat Remick. And many more.

Mine is Miriam Ritter. A thirties movie star if I ever heard it.

What's yours?


  1. Josh Gelston is a perfect name. Josh is so young professor-ish.

    I'm a huge fan of genealogy/historical websites for names. My current favorite is a list of Edwardian names because many are coming back into vogue.

    I read a snippy little edit from the copyeditor on my current ms today. In a chapter I had someone comment that a character's first name--Varick--was unusual. "Not unusual," said the note. "He was a 19th century NY governor and there's a street named for him in the city." Uh. Like we all live in NYC?! And, seriously, does anyone really know someone named Varick? I worked HARD to have an obscure name for my demon, darn it!

    As for me: Ann Marburg (Bespectacled, lovesick assistant to a Jimmy Stewart character, I think!)

  2. OK, my Mom name is Marion Russell. Not too shabby. But if my kids have to do this, they'll be wrestling with Ann Antler.

    Here's another formula for your Romance Writer name: The name of your first pet and the street your parents were living on when you were born. I'm Ginger Canehill. And my kids would be Maggie Spring.

  3. My Lorraine-name find was Hamilton Browncroft. I really like that--sounds like a mystery writer from the 1930s or 1940s. I think he's going to show up somewhere in a book.

    But you're so right about characters bringing their own names. Sometimes you give one a name and it just won't stick, and you end up changing it after you finish the book without a backward glance. Other names you save for really special occasions. Luckily I haven't had to fight any editor for a name I loved, although I've juggled a few minor characters.

    And with a wealth of genealogy information, I give my good guys (and girls) family names--but never a bad guy/girl.

  4. Hey Laura--welcome! And I love Ann Marburg. I thnk you;re right about the Jimmy Stewart thing--the lucky girl.

    Ann Antler, huh? Maybe on National Geographic TV? Or a cartoon? ALthough Ginger Canehill sounds like a thirties PI.

    And yes, Sheila. Yours is fantastic. Can't wait to meet him.

    I agree--its funny when a name won't work. And often its nothing about nationality, or anything really tangible. It just--won't.

    Names that do? Jack Reacher. Scarlett O'Hara.
    hHo else? ANd don't forget to include your Mom name. They're terrific.

  5. Often when I read, I come across characters whose names are so perfect that I wish they were my characters. Or my name. The mom name would be Louise Noble. Sounds like a nineteenth-century political activist, possibly African-American. My name, however, works out to Ruth Route 2. Sounds like a moonshiner, but a feminist moonshiner. This is a fun game! Nearly daylight. Must go load those bananas.

  6. My Mom name would be Ruth Church.

    My Romance name would be Tiger Balboa.

    Rowr! >^..^<

    I remember reading that Margaret Mitchell's famous Scarlett was 'Pansy' in the manuscript. Ouch.

    Sometimes change is a good call!

  7. I love it when a character just shows up and announces his or her name. I was typing along on the first chapter of Murder Is Binding, minding my own business, when Tricia's sister showed up. Tricia's first thought: "Oh, God, it's Angelica." That was it. And the name gave me Angelica's whole personality in one shot.

    Boy, I wish that would happen more often.

  8. Dusty: Louise Noble is wonderful. I'm glad these comments don't get erased. I'm going to come back and mine for names.

    Susannah--What's a Romance Name?

    And Lorraine..yup. Perfect.

  9. Breaking News: our dear Kaye Barley has quit smoking! Go congratulate her at

  10. The Romance Writer name I got from Mo's post:
    "Here's another formula for your Romance Writer name: The name of your first pet and the street your parents were living on when you were born."

    I think Tiger Balboa would definitely be penning some steamy equatorial romances.

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  12. Oh--right. Romance Name.

    I'm Penny Loyola. Like--Nancy Drew's new faithful sidekick.

    I like it!

  13. Hi Laura! Hi regular gang! Exactly my experience--some characters show up with names intact and others are a struggle. Cassandra Burdette for example: I liked the idea of Cassie's mother having named her as a seer. Or was she really reading a romance novel while she was pregnant? Cassie was never sure.

    I don't even know where Dr. Rebecca Butterman's name came from, but I was surprised when someone asked me if she was Jewish--something I hadn't even considered! Jack Meigs, resident hunk detective in the advice column mysteries, was named after a beau from college. And Meigs is a local Connecticut name going back to Revolutionary war days. I wanted him to have a long family history with the area.

    Nom de Mom: Winifred Sutton. You can tell a lot of us are of a certain age because the names are so lovely and old-fashioned!

  14. Oooh, great names - I'm writing them all down.

    Names rarely just "come" to me. I usually have to live with a character for a few chapters before I know what name will work. The protagonist for "Never Tell a Lie" (out in January) was originally "Callie" but that's too much like my name (duh) so I changed it to Ivy--I've always wanted to name a daughter Ivy but my husband nixed it. The character's Grandma Fay,and her vivid personality, are a tribute my husband's lovely mother whose name was Freda, a name that doesn't travel well.

    I just read the Fyodor Dostoevsky named Aloysha, the hero (as much as any of those characters can be a hero) of "The Brothers Karamazov" after his three-year-old son who died of epilepsy while Dostoevsky was writing the novel. So sad.

  15. Wow!

    I never realized that there was a character naming process that can be engaged in.

    What I do is I have a vision for what I am writing and about the time I get ready to introduce a character, I already know what his role is and what or who he represents and the names just pop out!

    For instance, in my second manuscript, I needed a government beaucracy character - so, I wanted him to be a little short sighted, able to be manipulated and under the thumb of his boss -

    How's this -

    "Hi, I'm Dudley Harson from the OPC, Office of Public Concern."

    Stop howling :-) it works perfectly in the story???!!!

    I needed a meglomaniac for his boss? Hollister. Dr. Hollister would control the world if he could.

    I start by knowing exactly what role a specific character will play in the story and what his foibles might be and the name usually just pops "write out".


  16. And Laura: I forgot to add: I agree with you. Varick IS unusual. And a very cool name. Grr.

  17. As you could tell, names are hard for me, at least in this story. The worst, so far, is that the main family is called Potter. They own a ceramics factory. And the boyfriend is called, um, Bo. I'll be so glad when I finish with the first draft so I can stop and figure out these people's names. The heroine's mother has had maybe four names, but she just made her first appearance, and she's a beaut, so that should get easier, but man, this writing gig is hard.

    Also fun.

  18. I was the one who actually asked for this topic, so, thank you, Hank, for introducing it!

    But I think I missed the formula for Mom Name somewhere. Is it just my mom's name? Marilyn Flaherty?

    And I had heard of the Romance name formula several years ago, except it was presented as, "How to find out what your Porn Star name is." Blondie Barela??

    One reason I wanted to hear other experiences about naming characters is because, when I took my half-written novel (Murder in the Greenhouse) to a writing group on the North Shore, one member said, "You can't name her Cameron Flaherty - a Scottish first name with an Irish last name?!" This woman was astonished I would even consider that name for the primary character.

    Where I come from (Southern California), in my experience, we're just not that sensitive to ethnic/class boundaries. Finally I decided that this character's background justified her multi-Celtic names, even in the north-of-Boston region.

    Another reason is Hank's Penny effect - when a character really wants to be named Penny, and that's it!

    But mainly I wanted to hear where other writers cast about for names - the phone book, the high school yearbook, your memory - and then how you vet them: is someone you know already named that way, are there bad associations, and so forth.

    Thanks to everybody's input so far, and I hope there will be more.

    Edith Maxwell

  19. I'm writing narrative nonfiction now, but back in the days when I was writing serial historical fiction, I always consulted ship records and other forms of census to get names for my 17th-Century characters. There were definite provisos about how folks were named, and they could vary widely even across short geographic regions --Cornwall to Wales and certainly across to Ireland, for example -- expressing regional,religious and political identity. We (I wrote with a partner) had the best time naming the fops: our two were Winsome and Panache. Their names were a great jump-point, making them wonderfully fun to write.

  20. Edith, I'm with you. Cameron Flaherty sounds fine to me.

    Syusannah, how wonderful. They sure don't make names like they used to. And those characters are instantly present. Ship records. Genius idea.

    I have gone back to my high school yearbooks for names, mixing and matching. Sometimes I pick up the phone book. I've gone to state treasurer's missing money list. I look up the social security list for the most popular names of whatever year, so the people who were born in the 1930's say, aren't named Tiffany.

    But yeah, the best is when they arrive fully named. It happens--more than half the time for me. Priscilla (Poppy) Morency the real estate broker in a chic Mass. suburb. Will Easterly, the now-repentant lawyer who might have been to druck to properly defend his client. Marybeth Gallagher, the valiant librarian.

  21. Hank - I am having the same problem with a character who wants to be called Di and I can't allow that! It's too reminiscent of the famous and beloved Diana.

    Tried using Victoria for awhile, that didn't work.

    There's a name-generating site I use sometimes - they use census data, I believe, to create combinations of names. I'll see next if I can find inspiration there.

    Thank goodness for the search/replace function!

    Fun discussion!

  22. I mean "drunk," of course, not druck.

    Gin, will she allow "Vi" instead of Di? (although that's very different and sounds older..)Dee? (although that's very different and sounds younger...) Tory? Ah. I'm stopping now. You'll think of something. Or--she will.

  23. What an interesting discussion! Names are so important in a book. I think authors who have "Name the Character" contests are very brave. I'm too much of a control freak to give up that right! LOL!

    Someone mentioned "vetting" the names -- by family, friends. That reminded me of one of the character's names in my next book -- Crystal. The name is perfect for the character, I think (it was one of those "instant" names that just came to me, like Hank described). But I'm really afraid my niece won't be happy with it, because the character is not too nice . . . she's nothing like my niece. I just hope the "real" Crystal understands!

    And Laura, I agree with Hank. Varick is very unusual. Ignore that copyeditor's comment!

  24. Yeah, Julie, you're so right! It is kind of a risk--but I haven't been sorry yet wth the names I've acquired "at auction." In AIR TIME, you'll meet
    Urszula Mazny-Latos.
    Yes, she won an auction item for her name in a book. Initially, I was floored.
    And you know, it worked perfectly.