Sunday, January 23, 2011

What's in a Name

RHYS: A rose by any other name will smell as sweet, but would you feel as strongly about the heroine of a mystery or thriller called Ethel or Ermintrude, or a hero called Cyril or Archibald? Let's face it, we judge people by their names. We expect a Tiffany or an Ashley to be more airheaded than a Kate or a Jane. Which is why the names we choose for our characters are so important.I've been thinking about this because I've just started a new book, which means another set of names. At least I'm lucky that I have my series characters in place so It is only the occasional characters that need naming. I'm also lucky that my story takes place in 1903 so I am supposed to use old fashioned names, some of which were fashionable then, but quaint and ugly now. Would you consider calling your daughter Blanche or Flossie? There were actresses called both in Edwardian times.

I once attended a panel at a mystery convention called Kiss Me, Kate. It was composed of Laurie King, Val McDermid and Dana Stabenow--three good friends who all have heroines called Kate. In fact I suspect that if you did some research you'd come up with more Kates as mystery heroines than any other name. Why is this? Because we think of Kates as no-nonsense, capable women: Katherine Hepburn, The Taming of the Shrew, and we want a heroine who will be plucky and unflappable and track down the murderer behaving the way we would like to in our fantasies.In many ways we want our heroine to be as gutsy as any guy, hence the number of Sams and Charlies and other masculine-sounding names. I admit to a Lady Georgie so I'm part of this group, but I didn't choose it consciously to sound masculine. I wanted her to be called Georgiana because I liked the name and it sounded aristocratic.

Only occasionally have I made careful conscious choices over a character's name. Darcy O'Mara was one of them. I wanted to create an archetypal hero and the vision that came to mind was Colin Firth, as Mr. Darcy, coming out of that lake, soaking wet. So Darcy he became. I have fun with a lot of names in that series because the British have so many silly names. So I've had a Hugo Beasley-Bottome (which was misprinted once as Beastly-Bottom) and in Royal Blood I have a horsy, pushy woman called Lady Middlesex, and her companion Miss Deer-Harte. . So I'm curious--how do you choose character names? Do they just come to you? Do you agonize over them ? Have you experienced, as I have, a character who doesn't seem to be jelling well suddenly say to you, "Why do you keep calling me Richard? My name is Paul." And then you realize that of course he is Paul and everything starts flowing. Have you ever named a character with a name you've come to hate? How important are names to you?

JAN: I'm insanely opinionated when it comes to names -- I've even made friends change names in their books because I just couldn't work with them. How inflexible is that? I also get into trouble in real life because if I've just met you and think you look like a Cathy when you're name is Darrah, I'll keep thinking of you as Cathy. Even if you look like a Cathy to me, and your name actually is Cathy, I'll hesitate before I ever call you by name because I'm not sure if you really are a Cathy, or if I'm making it up.
Cathy's, by the way, should always be blonde. Also Karens, Kate's, basically any "K" or "C" name. A Patty should always have dark hair, even though one of my best friends is a blondish Patty. Mostly names just "come" to me. But I struggled for weeks over what to call Hallie Ahern's love interest. I finally went with Matt. For me, men are the hardest to name. Common names seem not unique enough. Unique names often seem contrived, un-masculine, or like a soap opera name. Nick names can come in handy.

HANK: Flossie, I love Flossie. (What was that childrens book--Freddie and Flossie?) ANd I'm Harriet, so don't talk to me about old fashioned.
I think the name-choice thing is SO important, and so critical. Charlotte (Charlie) McNally came to me fully formed--her dear "Josh Gelston" was the result of weeks of agony looking for a tough, strong, non-trendy first name: Ben? Jake? Sam? Matt? Luke? And a religion-neutral last name. SO difficult! I worried and worried over it. And then after the book came out, I got an a mail from someone named Josh Gelston!
My main name problem is that all my instant-choices begin with C or M. I was trying to think of a new main character, and had what I thought was a HUGE brainstorm! The perfect name! And it was: Callie. All righty then, not exactly different enough from Charlie. Now I keep a list, with the letters of the alphabet down one side, and plug in names as they come to me. SO everyone doesn't begin with the same letter.

ROBERTA: Since I'm working on the first book of a new series, I've had a whole slew of names to come up with. (Gosh, I sure hope they pass Jan's test...) And funny, now that you mention it, another friend (okay Hallie, if you must know:), suggested I change a character's name in A TASTE FOR MURDER. I swear this happened only yesterday...
This fellow is a tarot card reader who sets up a booth at the Sunset Celebration in Key West every night. My protagonist (Hayley Snow) often consults him for direction. I named him "Marvin." So Hallie says: "Marvin doesn't strike me as the name of a tarot card reader, can't you call him something like Lorenzo? Marvin sounds like your great-uncle or an elderly neighbor."
Marvin's a little appalled about his impending name change, but I certainly don't want readers struggling to remember who the heck he is when he comes up in conversation. And that's key, right?--make the names that tag characters distinct enough so a sleepy or distracted reader doesn't have to work too hard to keep them straight.

ROSEMARY: I love it when I hit on the right name for a character - my favorite, other than Paula Holliday, which I think is perfect for my heroine, was Guido Chiaramonte. It just rolled off the tongue. Chiaramonte is a town in Sicily. I wanted an Italian name that we hadn't heard a million times before so I looked at a map.But I generally have a hard time with names and frequently keep changing them until I'm halfway through the book. I rationalize this by telling myself that only by that time have they truly revealed themselves to me. In Slugfest, I had auctioned off so many names for charity that I barely had to think about it.Terry Ward, Jean Moffitt, John Stancik - great names! Kris Archimbault, if you're out there, you're in the next book.

HALLIE: Oh, Ro, it's so nice to hear that someone else keeps changing her character names. I'm thinking of doing a search and replace of a character in my Work in Progress, from Evie to Abby.
It's why I don't use short names. Like Ted. I once search-and-replaced, making a Ted a Brian, and ended with: "Lillian reporBrianed..." instead of "Lillian reported..." and "belatedly" became "belaBrianly." It was a mess.

ROSEMARY: Same thing happened to me when I changed Dan to Hank (a male.) What a nightmare. Good tip to avoid the short ones. I just had to change Tina to Toni - because I'm bringing a secondary character from the third book named Nina - I didn't want to have a Tina and a Nina! Nina Mazzo (another great charity auction name)is making an encore performance.
Something in the air...I have an Abby in the book I'm writing now, but it's about five women and after four books and so many female characters, I feel as if I've used most of the names I really like. Do the people who've written twenty books worry about this stuff?

DEB: After fourteen books, naming characters is a nightmare! It's not only trying to figure out what works for the character--as hard for me as it is for the rest of you--but then I have to check that the names don't sound alike (Nina-Tina) or that I have too many characters whose names start with the same letter (Robert, Richard, Ryan). Then I have to make sure that the name I'm using was popular, or at least in use, at the time the character was born. I have an old copy of the Guiness Book of Names which is fabulous. It gives the fifty most popular girls' and boys' names in the US and in the UK every five years from 1850 to 1985. But after '85 I'm sunk. . .
THEN comes the fourteen book issue. Have I used the name before??? And because I write fairly long and complicated books, chances are that I have. So if the names of my characters get odder and odder, you'll know why . . .
AND then, when I think I've got it all worked out, I discover I've done something really stupid. In the book I just finished, I named a character after a very well known (although obviously not to me!) British comedian. My British friends threw up their hands in horror. "You can't call him THAT!!!!"
Thank God for search-and-replace.

JULIA: Deb, Linda Rosenkrantz and Pamela Redmond Satran have a series of baby name books that I've collected and use religiously. They're called " Beyond Jennifer and Jason," "Beyond Ava and Aiden," etc. Each book has a lengthy section on naming patterns from the past (starting in the early 20th century) and is also excellent as a resource for currently trendy, ethnic and European names. I'm a bug about getting names right for the place (lots of Scots and Dutch names in the part of NY I write about) and for the age of the character. Nothing will snap me out of a book faster than a hip young 20-something named Doris or a sweet little old lady named Kayla.

I also agree with Ro--I love using names from charitable auctions! In the past, I've wound up creating characters I didn't expect to have, and changing the course of the novel. For instance, I auctioned off a character for a fundraiser for my children's parochial school. The winner wanted me to use her unmarried aunt's name: Lucia Pirrone. Well, there aren't a lot of really Italian names in Millers Kill, NY, so she became Sister Lucia, newly arrived in the Adirondacks to minister to migrant workers, and she met the Rev. Clare Fergusson at a luncheon, and I was off and running with the plot of I SHALL NOT WANT

.My last word on names is my own. I've just finished signing a box of front sheets (to be bound into the new book for "signed by author" copies)and after inscribing J-U-L-I-A-S-P-E-N-C-E-R-hyphen-F-L-E-M-I-N-G one thousand times, my hand feels like it's going to fall off. So if I ever write in another genre, I'm doing it as Jo Leu.

RHYS: I've also auctioned off character names many times and I'm always scared I'll wind up having to use an impossible name--a Brandi or Kylie in 1903, or a strongly ethnic name in my royal circles. So far I've made it work, even using the names of three sisters called Jensen, Danika and Reagan in one of the Royal Spyness books. And Deb, I find if I'm not careful I use the same name for more than one character.

So let's hear from all of you out there--do character names matter to you? Would Poirot or Sam Spade or Rumpold be as effective with other names?

And isn't it great to have our new JUNGLE REDs joining in their first discussion? We are so lucky to have them on board...


  1. Absolutely. Picking a name for a character is as difficult as choosing one for a child growing inside you. For me, it stems from an emotional connection. Even as a reader, if there is no attachment between the qualities they possess and their alias, an imbalance is created and I'm pulled out of the story.

    Above all, I think it's important that a name can be easily pronounced. If not, every time a reader reaches it, a struggle ensues. And that is definitely not what you want to happen.

  2. The first series (suspense) I tried to write had a heroine named, yes, Kate (is that why it never sold?). She was modeled on Jack Bauer's first female friend in 24--I was sad to see her go.

    So far my heroines have had one-syllable names, short and easy to remember. Also classic, not cutesy. In a forthcoming book, I've graduated to two syllables!

    But to compensate, I have a secondary character names Arabella Heffernan--a whole seven syllables.

    Thank heavens for global search and replace!

  3. Names - I'm thinking of changing up my hero's name in a ms that's days away from being done (first draft at least.)

    I love his name. And I love his brother's name. They just both start with 'J'.

    Still thinking.

  4. Interesting topic, and one I struggle with all the time. I often set my stories in south Louisiana, where I grew up, and get some flack if last names don't end in -eaux. There are many other common surnames that are -eaux free.

    My character name pet peeve is the notion that every person from the South must have two names, and the middle name must be Jo. Grrrr.

  5. Ooh, I forgot another rule. No characters named after me, no characters named after my children. Does anybody else think it's just plain weird that Clive Cussler's son has the same first name as his swashbuckling, womanizing series hero? (And to top it off, the name is Dirk.)

  6. I do, Julia! I wrote a short story about a father who named his toy company's male action figure doll after his son - twisted the kid for life.

  7. My current manuscript takes place during WW2, so I have to be careful what names I use. I found the Social Security website that shows the most popular baby names for a particular year helpful.

    I was once in a doctor's office and the nurse called for a Melissa. An older lady, probably in her 70's, got up. I couldn't believe her name was Melissa. I'm used to the only Melissas being in their 30's.

  8. I've changed the name of my protagonist's love interest three or four times. He's Haitian-American and I wanted his name to reflect that but also be pronounceable and one that fits his character. I think the current one, Zac (short for a longer Haitian name), is sticking. I hope so!

    Julia, I am reading the book you signed for me at Crime Bake and very much loving it (I somehow missed reading your before now), about halfway through. (I think it's I Shall Not Want but it's at home and I'm at work...)

    But on Saturday I stopped reading and said out loud, "Wait - two police officers with Mc/Mac names!" You have Macauley and Mc-something else. I suddenly realized I had no idea which was guy was which. Please pity the poor reader with bad name retention?


  9. The easiest name to come up with was the pseudonym Caroline Cousins (Nancy Pate, Meg Herndon, Gail Greer) because Caroline was a family name, we were from the Carolinas and books set there, and Cousins described our relationship.
    We love names and have since our paper doll days. We like using names famliar to Lowcountry S.C., borrowed from family, friends. Meg found "MaryMar'' in a brides' magazine, and it was perfect for the wannbe actress nee Mary Martha Futch. The Nameberry website is just fun -- sometimes names suggest a character.

  10. I sometimes resort to the "Usual Suspects" school of character naming. I won't spoil the movie for anyone who hasn't seen it, but sometimes the things on my bulletin board wind up in my books.

  11. Roberta,

    Hallie was SO RIGHT about Marvin. Not a tarot card reader.

    Yes, Julia, and even after all these years, I can't forget that in the Bridges Over Madison County, the author named the romantic love interest after himself. Just one more reason to barf over that book.

    Sheila, good point. It's important to mix up the syllable count of your character names

    Melissa, I want that SS website!

  12. It may be silly, but I really didn't think too much about my main character's name until I gave him a fraternal twin. Phil and Sam. They're actually named after Philip Marlowe and Sam rationale being that their mom loves old detective novels. Sam is a police detective...Phil, well, let's just say his alter ego is Filli and leave it at that. I seem to see names in the funniest places. The name of a wine became a character name in a short story for example.
    When I read, names help me picture the characters...although I tend to see Cathy as a red-head(my daughter Catherine is one) and Sonias are always brunettes. By the way, baby name books are great for the unusual names.

  13. Isnt it funny how sometimes the names just popo up? I had a character, Poppy Morency. Where did that name come from? No idea.

    One I DO know--I thoght Ih ad madei t out of thin air, and i was so delighted. Camilla Ayers. Perfect name. And then a few months later, i did a program at a local libray. Librarianss name: ah, you guessedit.

    She was delighted.

    And oh, Kris Archambault is in MY book too!

    Here's a quiz: there's a woman who's a main character in the Reacher books--and she won it in an auction! I saw her nametag at Bouchercon--and did a huge doubletake.-

  14. Edith, the Mc/Mac confusion is the price paid for authenticity. The part of New York state I write about was settled by Scots and Scots/Irish. In Argyle, the little town that serves as the basis for my fictional Cossayuharie, 1 out of 3 surnames begins with Mc or Mac.

    Nancy, the Nameberry website is run, in part, by the authors of the baby-name books I recommended.

    I just realized--with all the times I use naming books now, I never consulted one for my own children. They all have family names!

  15. Okay, the whole time I read this post, the chorus from Paul Simon's song was on playback loop n my head:

    If you'll be my bodyguard
    I can be your long lost pal
    I can call you Betty
    And Betty when you call me
    You can call me Al

    All sorts of other quotes about names are also cluttering up the vast cosmic void of my brain. Names. I can plot a ten-book series easier than I can come up with names. I have several baby name books above my computer and several more sites marked. When I'm very lucky, the character comes already named. They walk in, introduce themselves, sit down, and start talking. When I'm not...? *whimper*

    I have a Katherine in a romantic suspense series and she insists on being called by her full name. The hero insists on calling her Kate.

    I also admit to liking unusual names but not so unusual that people are turned off. In my published or contracted works, I have Ciaran and Becca, Duncan and Moira (her sister is named Deirdre), Derek (Deke) and Dorothy (though she uses her middle name Alexandra -- Alex for short), and Michael and Kelly. My favorite pairing, though, are in the paranormal crime series I'm working on: Sade Marquis (pronounced Sadie) and Kristian St. John (Sinjen).

    Did I mention I love names even though they often bedevil me? LOL!

  16. It is so hard to pick names. But it's worth it, so you don't end up with generations worth of confusing characters, a la James Michener's Alaska or Poland books. It made my head ache to read those; I was constantly having to refer back to previous chapters, especially since they're such LONG books!

  17. I had a problem with Darcey, but then the character kept showing up and everyone in the book was OK with the name, so I caved. Now I'd just like him to declare himself in love with Georgie.

  18. Here you go, Jan.

    You can look up the most popular names from 1880 and later.

    Rhys, I thought that was a misprint, though I wondered if the characters were just mocking him.

  19. Wasn't it Frances Neagle? I rode in an elevator with her at B'com Indy and had to do a doubletake...don't I know you??

  20. Usually the characters’ names come to me either before or at the same time as the plot idea. If this doesn’t happen then I have a huge list of names that I have accumulated from SPAM sent to me. I figure someone had to put those names together so why not use them.

    I have had to change a character’s a couple of times because the story wasn’t working.

    Hank, I laughed at the C and M names. Mine are Js. Josh, Jake, Jim, Jordan, Jennifer, Jamie. I’ve used them all. Also, I do admit to using Katie but only because I have a cousin name Katie and I like the name.

    Hallie, I was editing and the writer spelled Burt and Bert in the same story. I used ‘Find’ and ‘replace’ to fix it. Every ‘ert’ word was changed to ‘urt.’ That’s when I discovered that your can’t do that. LOL It had always worked when I changed Jennifer to Angela or Jason to Roberto. What a nightmare!

    Yes, Rosemary, people who write short stories also worry about this. Thus my list where I check off names I have used. I don’t have an exact count on the number of short stories I’ve written but its up there.

    Julia, Can’t tell you how many times I tell Hubby that in my next life I’m coming back as Pat Mari because Patricia A Marinelli doesn’t fit on many charge slips. When I first started writing a Patricia A Marinelli, I discovered there’s a non-fiction writer named Patricia A Martinelli in my state so I shortened my name. I guess I should thank her.

    And, if I think I have trouble naming my characters, I have three kids who were born Frank Michael, Patti-Anne NMN, and Brett Anthony. The only one I call by their real name is Frankie. Patti-Anne has become Tiffiny and Brett is always been Tony. I think you should have your kids for a while before you name them because they don’t have ‘find’ and ‘replace’ for birth certificates.

  21. Yes, Ro and Hank, the redoubtable Frances has appeared, with variant spellings, in several books by Lee Child, one by Zoe Sharp and one of the Myron Bolitar books by Harlan Coben. And hers is not a name that most authors would come up with on their own.

    I've had fun with the names of several characters in my WIP, sometimes subconsciously. I had twin boys whose parents allowed their older sister to name them: Mickey and Donald. I have a family named Kleer: Louden, Krystal and Sunnyann. The minor characters come more easily than the protagonists, but I guess a great character can make the name but not vice versa. If Sir Arthur had never invented Mr. Holmes, what would we think of a guy named Sherlock? And what was Mr. Poe thinking when he named a brilliant sleuth Dupin (Auguste, no less)?