Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Barbara Hambly on Naming Names

JAN BROGAN _  Since Barbara Hambly's  first published fantasy in 1982 – The Time of the Dark – she has touched most bases in genre fiction: her most recent vampire novel is The Magistrates of Hell (Severn House, 2012) and her most recent historical whodunnit, Ran Away, continues the well-reviewed Benjamin January series. She also writes historical mysteries as Barbara Hamilton (The Ninth Daughter, and its sequels A Marked Man and Sup With the Devil). In addition – when she can – she writes short fiction about the further adventures of characters from her fantasy novels of the ‘80s and ‘90s.


            How is it that the villain’s evil henchmen are always named things like Ugmush and Weevil?
            Did Mr. and Mrs. Orc, gazing adoringly upon their little hatchling, exclaim, “How cute he is! How dimpled and sweet! Let’s call him Ugmush!”
            Or is “Ugmush” Orcish for “Bright Hope”?
            (How would you tell?)
            I’m as guilty as anyone else in this department. I spend a lot of time over the names of my characters, trying on one after another, as if the names were reflections of – and clues to – their personalities.
            Villains are easy. You can tell Charles Dickens had a lot of fun in that department: names like Skimpole and Krook, Bumble and Scrooge and Dedlock, all reek of petty viciousness. Dickens had a beautiful knack for making extremely English-sounding names that were sly digs at those who labored under them. I try to do the same, with occasional (I think) success. In the Benjamin January series, I generally thumb through my well-worn glossary of archaic colonial English, to find words for vile things which I then make the names of slave-dealers in the stories, names like Gleet (a genital sore caused by venereal disease) or Mulm (the disgusting green amalgam of algae and fish-poo that develops at the bottom of an aquarium if you don’t clean it often enough).
   Heroes, sidekicks, and secondary characters (whom I persist in thinking of as “guest stars” thanks to WAY too much television as a child) require a different combination of euphony and likelihood. Though in Real Life people generally receive their names completely at random, in a novel, a hero has to sound like a hero… or at least not sound trivial. For whatever reason, and I’m not sure why, some names sound stronger than others. Not many people would take seriously a spy named Clarence Bond. Or Ted Bond. It could be done, but the writer of the book had better be damn good to carry it off. Yet Clarence, or Theodore, are perfectly good English names (along with such other rejects as Evelyn, Wilf, Howard, and Alfred).  And in fact they’d be fine for a secondary character – a cab-driver, or the friendly shlub that the villain kills in Chapter Two just to prove what a rotter he is.
            But not for the hero.
I have a whole shelf of name-the-baby books for this purpose, the best of which is Peoples’ Names, by Holly Ingraham (MacFarland Press), which was written for role-players and divides them up by nationality, gender, and, wonderfully, time-period. In the Middle Ages, nearly everybody was named Henry or Matilda. I’ll admit I’m a perfectionist, but nothing drops me out of a romance quicker than twelfth-century heroines named Brittany. When writing about that time-period, one has to work with a fairly small list of female names, though after the Protestant Reformation you get a slew of Biblicals and with the Renaissance you acquire all sorts of classical Greek and Roman options.
            The book also has typical last names (for those eras that used such things), but often I’ll either comb through research books for the names of contributers or archivists (Guillenormand       sounds, for some reason, a lot more authentically French than the usual fallbacks like LaSalle and Dumonde), or I’ll do what Georgette Heyer did, and look for place-names in an atlas. How much more English can you get than Marden or Kinver? Some people simply use telephone directories. I am frequently reminded of that scene in The Mighty Aphrodite, where Woody Allen and Helena Bonham Carter are trying to come up with a name for their adopted infant: Eric? Groucho? Phileas? Phileas is a guy who forecloses on a mortgage
            It’s a comfort to me to know that Dickens occasionally did what I do, and named all the major characters in the book names which start with the same letter (my editors are always getting on me for that): Smallweed, Snagsby, Summerson, Skimpole in the same tale. I catch myself doing that and then I have to fumfer around looking for another name that has the same “ring”. (My current project, one of the “guest stars” has gone through about seven different names. Either they just don’t sound quite right, or they’re too similar to somebody else’s in the same story.) (Or else I discover – with the same sort of “unconscious plagiarism” suffered by George Harrison when he wrote “My Sweet Lord” to a tune that turned out to be the old Chiffons hit, “He’s So Fine” – that the name that sounds so right, sounds so right because I’ve heard it someplace else, like Robert Morley or Thomas Wyatt or, famously, Ford Prefect. That’s where a quick pass through Google really helps).
            And of course, once you get into fantasy, all bets are off. Though I will say that random name-generators that simply mash letters, more often than not produce things that don’t sound like names. One can’t – or at least I can’t – imagine anyone’s friends really saying, “Hi, Mrsquipx, how’s it going?” Anyone who hangs out long enough on World of Warcraft is familiar with this phenomenon. Again, it’ll work occasionally for cab-drivers but not for the hero. And anyway, the last time I was putting together ideas for a fantasy, an editor told me that people seem to prefer those sort of almost-English names (like Bilbo, Frodo, Pippin and John Stark) that are easier to remember, rather than Azathoth and Frasticarion.
            Are other writers as OCD about their characters’ names as I am?
            Do other people fret and fuss and try them on and off like sweaters, trying to get them just right? (Margaret Mitchell called her heroine Pansy O’Hara all the way up to the final draft of Gone With the Wind… PANSY???)
            Often when I’m putting together a new story, the first day consists of just writing lists of names: Who ARE these people?
            Pansy O’Hara, meet Wilfred “Skippy” Bond…
            Where do you get your character names from? How important are names, anyway?

Barbara's short fiction  can be purchased via download from her website, She teaches History part-time, and if you’re interested in her views on the weather, her cats, World of Warcraft, and sometimes writing, you can read her blog at barbara_hambly@ She also does Twitter. Now a widow, she shares a house in Los Angeles with several small carnivores.


  1. Welcome Barbara, what an interesting post! I admit I don't spend nearly as much time on names as you do--though clearly fantasy and historical novels require more attention.

    thank goodness Pansy was scotched. I wonder if her editor complained about that or she determined herself it didn't fit?

    Now off to bake Thanksgiving pies!

  2. I think that the names of fictional characters need to have the right “feel,” a way of matching up with the characteristics that make the name fit together with the person . . . and that “feel” is true for the reader as well as for the author. I’m sure it can be a difficult process for a writer . . . or for anyone else intent of naming names, hence the popularity of baby name books and a gazillion “baby names” sites on the Internet.

    Of course, once a character in a book has a name, there suddenly exists a particular mindset for readers --- “Pansy” just doesn’t fit the Scarlett O’Hara we all know and love and it’s awfully hard to imagine our favorite spy saying anything other than, “Bond. James Bond.”

    [I'm afraid that I am not at all thankful for captcha this Thanksgiving . . . .]

  3. I love names. You can tell a lot about a person by their name:age, socioeconomic status at birth/etc. My main character names tend to be classics and English (Beatrice/Oliver/Mona/Adam/Vivian) but with secondary characters I usually rely on glancing around my surroundings. I wrote my book in part at the Barnes and Noble care so I looked up at their walls with book covers by Chandler/Conrad/Wolfe and there were my agents. And since I'm not a big romance fan if a character has a name like Shayla/Stone/Ridge I tend not to continue reading the blurb.

  4. Jennifer,
    I'm with you. If the name is wrong, it's a major stumbling block for me - especially if it seems ilke a soap opera name.

    I have a writing partner I work with and more than once I've made her change the name of a character because I just couldn't get into the story with that name in place. She knows what name nazi I am and indulges me!


  5. I have to find a copy of that name book, it sounds seriously helpful.

    I like making up names, but you have to be careful, you're right. I tend to live with them for you, they have to sound just right, the character has to like them, they have to feel right in my head?

    May I ask, how did you come up with some of your names, like Ysidro or Anthryg?

  6. fumfer -- GREAT WORD! But could it be a name? Barnabus Fumfer? Or Fumfer Woodcock. Defnitely a Brit.

    I keep a file of names -- picked up wherever whenever. One I've yet to use: Cecilia Spoon. From an obit.

    Welcome to Jungle Red, Jennifer!

  7. Cindy, I'm not sure HOW I came up with names for Ysidro and Antryg. They were both first-shots. I think I got the word "fumfer" from George Effinger (my late husband) - and yes, it would make an EXCELLENT name.

  8. Barbara, I go through this all the time. Sometimes a character will present himself in my head, perfectly named. Other times I'm struggling with the story and the character will say to me, "Why do you keep calling me Alan when my name is really Richard." I change it and the story flows smoothly again.

    When I need a special name I go around muttering to myself and trying them out.

  9. *waves from livejournal*

    I use and -- since it's usually for fantasy, I promptly tweak a few letters in what I find, and sometimes must come up with a different meaning derivation -- and, which coincidentally worked out as a lovely "origin" match for one important name I'd come up with originally.

    I may also have named a secondary character after an EverQuest summoned pet name. *attempts to look innocent*

    (Hello, Capcha! Uchissy? Not quite right for my world, I think...)

  10. *waves back at Elizabeth*

    Yes, actually, some of those Captcha test-words wouldn't make bad names.

    I should have mentioned that I'm sufficiently OCD about this that I wallow around looking for the names of my characters' pets, if they have them: notably the three Pekes in Rat-God, and John Aversin's horses (Battlehammer and The Stupid Roan).

  11. In real life, I would never trust a man named Craig. If my daughter brought home someone with that name, I would worry that she'd gotten herself into an abusive relationship. At the very least, he'd probably rip her heart out and stomp on it, and then show up again a few months later, expecting to be welcomed back with open arms. Because he's Craig, and can do anything he wants.

    And my son should really avoid girls named Jo Ann or Joanne or JoAnn. Unless he wants to be stuck with a spiteful slut.

    I would really like to read a book with a hero named Hubert or Arnold or a heroine named Gladys or Caroline. Don't you think people with those names get tired of reading about victims or villains with those names? And somebody please make your heroine short and dumpy, as well as smart and witty!

    Anonymous (not my real name:-)

  12. Yeah, names that are too made up...I recently interviewed a police detective--this is real life--whose name is Nick Fortunato.

    I mean--that's too good to e true, right? We could never use it in a book!

    And remember when all TV anchors names were made up? I once was offered a job in Louisville, and was told I'd have to change my name. I was THRILLED with the idea. I chose Amanda Armstrong. And then Tyler Cameron. Luckily, I didn't take the job.

    And I agree, some names just--poof. Appear, and are perfect. Others--I struggle with.
    And so funny--SO often when I think, ok, turn out to be just like someone else's name.

    Why is real life not like that?

    Welcome, Barbara! xoox

  13. Hi Barbara! Names are such fun. I'm with Hank and Rhys. Sometimes they just appear out of nowhere, perfect from the start. That character could never have been called anything else. And sometimes I change them all the way through the book, and am still not sure I got it right.

    Love everyone's ideas for name finding. My little trick is to watch film and TV credits, especially British shows, and jot down names that I like. But I never use anyone's first and last names together.

    Hank, I'm very glad you didn't change your name:-)

  14. Names are extremely important to me, too. They must be appropriate for the place and time, and yet wherever possible not ring wrong to a modern Anglophone ear.

    For my only fantasy setting, I came up with a few names that felt right for each culture, then used those phonemes as inspiration for big lists of names and thoughts on naming practices. When I used a name, I crossed it off the list. (I allowed overlap for very minor characters, since a world where no two people have the same name is no less odd than one where everybody shares one.)

  15. I do also have a mental file of actual peoples' names which I've run across which are just totally phenomenally weird... and which I can't publish here on the blog, obviously. Things husband George found in the New Orleans telephone directory, or which another friend encountered on arrest forms while a probation officer.

    Things that made me think, You're kidding, right?

  16. Go on a genealogy website and have fun. My family tree goes back to the 500-600s so far, mostly English, Celt, Scot, and a ton of French who became Anglicized, Danes and Norskes who became Angus-ized (Scots), and some German, Italian, Dutch, and even a Portugese. It's like the motherlode of names. I always felt the odd one out that I was the only one in my immediate family who didn't have an Irish name. Was I adopted from a Jewish clan? A few years ago I discovered I am the last of five or sixl generations of Scotswomen who passed on the Biblical name Rebecca from grandmother to granddaughter! Rebecca was a popular name in Scotland from about the late 1600s or early 1700s on. I love that!

  17. This has been a fun blog post today! My mom was a great fan of Dickens and the names he chose for his characters. I like them, too: just reading the names instantly brings the characters to life in my mind. I wonder what criteria he used when choosing names?

  18. Great topic, Barbara.I particularly agree on those names only the weirdest parents would give their baby.

    Savage Blackthorn. Winter Lascelles. Come on now!At least make it's clear it's a nickname.

    I waste -- spend -- far too much time on names. I can be stuck until I find the right one. Give a character the wrong one and they sulk.


  19. I do prefer an short easy to pronounce name. I have passed over books at the store when I can get past the character names on the back cover.