Tuesday, September 17, 2013

What's in a Name

I was doing a book signing last week and someone asked me about my character names in the Royal Spyness series. Do you make up some of those really ridiculous names? She asked. “They can’t be real.”

The answer is that I do make up some of my ridiculously English names—Hortense Horze-Gorzley for example. But they are no more ridiculous than some real upper class English names I have known. I was at school with a girl called Amanda Featherstonehaugh-Skelley (pronounced Fanshaw-Skelley).  You can’t really beat that, can you? And then there are the silly nicknames that seemed to litter every aristocratic family. My husband’s family has a slew of cousins with crazy nicknames including Fig, Dudh, Podge, Toots and a distinguished elderly lady called Puff.

Names are important to me. Elmore Leonard said, ““Once I know the name, I know the character.” And I completely agree. Sometimes the name comes to me the moment a character walks into my consciousness. Other times I have to search for the right name. Sometimes I get it wrong. Things don’t go well. The story plods along slowly. And then the character turns to me and says “Why do you keep calling me Richard when my name is Ronald?” I switch the name and the story leaps forward merrily.

As you can tell in the Royal Spyness books I love having fun with my characters’ names. I have a very naughty older woman called Virginia in my latest book, Heirs and Graces. I had a French inspector in Naughty in Nice who wore squeaky shoes and whose name was LaFitte.

And I have a confession to make. Sometimes I use a name as revenge. We writers have a great way of getting back at people who have annoyed or slighted us in real life—we turn them into characters in our books. So in Heirs and Graces I have turned my really horrible headmistress at school into the butler. In real life she was overbearing so it gives me great pleasure to have reduced her to a servant. I know of other authors who have killed off real life ex-husbands on the page.

So I’m curious, Reds. How much trouble do you take over names in your books? Have you ever taken revenge on a real person in your life by making something bad happen to them in your books? Do tell all….

LUCY BURDETTE: I don't spend too much time on this Rhys. I try not to have a lot of names beginning with the same letter. And I don't mind changing a name as I need to while I'm writing along. The worst name faux pas I had was realizing I'd changed the name of a character between AN APPETITE FOR MURDER and DEATH IN FOUR COURSES. It was too late to do anything about it--they were both already published. And no one seems to have noticed--or at least no one has complained.

HALLIE EPHRON: I confess, I do not take a lot of time with names. Usually a name just comes to me, I go with it, and if I need to change it later, well that's why the good lord gave us Search and Replace. No, I would never take revenge on a real person by making something bad happen to them in my book. Really no. Never.

The challenge is when I've auctioned naming rights to a character, trying to fit someone's given name to one of my characters. Because once you give  a character a name, well, along with it come baggage. Just for example, name a character Hortense and there are certain things she simply would not do.

ROSEMARY HARRIS: I nearly made an annoying neighbor a wifebeater in one of my books - but I came to my senses. No..no revenge naming.

With five major female characters in The Bitches of Brooklyn it was challenging to make their names reveal something about them in a time when every girl seemed to be named Heather or Jennifer. So I went back further..to their parents and used some of their (doesn't show on the page) backstory  - ethnic background, socio-economic class, etc to decide on Rachel, Clare, Tina, Jane and Abigail. Hopefully they are memorable enough to keep all of there women straight!

DEBORAH CROMBIE:  Like Rhys, I do take a lot of trouble with names. I'm always making lists--I love movie and TV credits for this.  Sometimes the names for characters comes instantly, and sometimes  I struggle through an entire book to get it right. I don't think I've ever done revenge-naming (sounds like fun, though.) But I hate giving a name I like to a character I don't like.  The trick for the reader would be to figure out which names I like...

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Yep, I'm in the takes-forever-to-name-characters camp. I have a  "Name bible" spreadsheet with the names and some info on all the characters I've had in the series to date, with an index listing the first and last names in alphabetical order AND a numerical count of how many times I use a starting letter. For some reason, I seem to revert to K names. I have to watch that.

Sometimes, I wind up using the name of a friend or family member as a place-holder, only to find that it's become THE name of the character in my head. That's how my friend Ben Beagle, editor of the Livingston County News, became investigative reporter Ben Beagle of the Glens Falls Post Star. I had written about half of I SHALL NOT WANT when I realized I couldn't come up with a better name for a "dogged" newshound...

RHYS: So dear readers, please confess... do character names matter to you? Does it spoil your enjoyment of a book when a character is given a name that doesn't go with her personality--a sexy heroine called Mildred, for example?



  1. I can’t say that I’ve come across too many characters whose names seem to be so at odds with their personalities that I find it truly detracting from the story. But I do find names in general to be quite fascinating, and I have met characters whose names I love [or, conversely, simply cannot stand] . . . .

  2. This is reminding me:
    I'd written most of THERE WAS AN OLD WOMAN and my old woman's name was Wilhelmina (Mina) Staunton. But I realized she was turning out to be anything but Yankee. She needed a new name.

    I found it on an airport worker name on the ID badge of a man riding across from me on the Silver Line back from Logan Airport. Yetner. MUCH BETTER! Mina Yetner.

    For me it has that embedded meaning of someone who, in spite of her age (91) looks forward to what's **yet** to come.

  3. I'll be darned, Hallie. I didn't notice that one. Yetner was a better choice, too.

    Another writer friend purposely uses character names to telegraph his idea of who that person is. Sometimes it works well, and other times it makes my eyes roll. I used to edit his work and I had to protest when he named one lustful character "Les Titsman".

    Rhys, I enjoy the names you've chosen for your characters, especially the main ones. They define them so well, especially Darcy!

  4. Hey! I added to this blog--and it disappeared! Grr.

    RUnning to catch a train..remind me to tell you about the ELla/Emma/Hannah dilemma--and the LIllian/Niall ridiculousness!

  5. Names matter so much to me. More than they should I think, but I consider it a flaw of mine.

    I love when a character has the exact right name for that person. (Lady Georgiana, for example). I can immediately picture that person and all is smooth sailing.

    If the name does not jibe, I find myself wondering why. There are times when it appears to be intentional by the author and others where that is clearly not the case.

    I think it is especially important for a series when we are going to be with these characters for a long time. Louise Penny gets it right every time. And I think all of the Reds I have read, get it right, even when they say the names don't "matter." They still pick the right ones.

  6. Movie credits - YES! I've also used Playbills. And of course obits. One of my fave characters had a bio inspired by a lovely obit (with pic) in the NY Times.

  7. Great topic. I confess I have just written a revenge character into my WIP. Changed her name just slightly to protect myself from a lawsuit from one of the angriest, bitchiest, and probably unhappiest women I have ever met. Who is part of a movie group I'm in that's been going on for 18 years - groan. I won't kill her off or make her the villain, but she's going to be the really bitchy ex-wife of the current romantic interest. So there, Alice! (Sorry, had to get that off my chest...)

    At Hank's launch party I met in person Diane Weaver, a woman who won naming rights to a character in 'Til Dirt Do Us Part. Unplanned by me, the character ended as an undercover DEA agent (oops, spoiler alert - well, you'll forget by next June, anyway). Great to meet her and tell her who she became! Luckily, the name worked just fine for the story.

  8. I actually did an entire section of my prize-winning book, From Pen to Print: The Secrets of Getting Published Successfully (Henry Holt, 1990). Naming a character in a book that will have many characters is not like naming your kid (okay, it is SOMETHING like naming your kid), because you are naming a bunch of people at the same time.

    You need to watch out for first letters, last letters/sounds (naming your characters Honey and Judy and Mazie and Bethany and Trinity and Judi will irritate your readers no end), and rhythms (vary the number of syllables and the emphasis), think about the generational import (you can find the most popular names for each year/decade over the past century or so on the Social Security website), ethnic and societal import, and just what kind of feeling the name gives you (the idea of Buffy the Vampire Slayer started out as a joke; character development saved it).

    That said, after I agonized for days over the name of the second female lead in my first science fiction novel, I came up against a tight deadline, grabbed the Wisconsin Blue Book, and named all the minor characters after small town post offices-- an in-joke for my Wisconsin friends.

    Oh, yeah-- and lately I've been Googling names when I come up with them, to make sure that if there IS someone by that name, there are a LOT of someones by that name.

  9. It's great to read how the authors look at names. I've never actually given names a lot of though as I read. I admit that when I read "Darcy" I think Colin Firth so his face appears in my head. Not that that's a bad thing, mind you.

    It must be soooo tempting sometimes to kill off a real person from your life in a horrible manner. I credit you for your restraint. (Except maybe Edith.) :-)

  10. I meant to add - the fact that character names don't cause any concern to me as I read must mean that authors have done a good job in choosing them.

  11. You think of Colin Firth when you read Darcy, Marianne? That was what I was thinking too.

  12. Julia, come do MY spreadsheet!!!

    Seriously, I've never managed to get quite that organized. I do make a page in each novel journal with lists of all the recurring and new characters.

    But my biggest problem at going-on-sixteen books is repeating names! Think about how many people you know with the same names... And you don't want to start using really weird things just to be different.

    And I have been guilty of the the same-letter-for-main-characters fault. Duncan and Doug. Not only two "Ds" but last names starting with the same "K" sound, Kincaid and Cullen. But Doug's name was one of those that just came to me, and I never even realized what I'd done until a reader pointed it out.

    Oh, well.

  13. As reader and writer, character names are huge for me -- they give me the first image of the character. As a writer, I'm in the camp that spends a lot of times on names -- almost as organized as Julia, but not quite. So glad, Deborah, to realize I'm not the only one who doesn't see until later what I've done with names!

    I did have to change my victim's name from Paulette to Claudette because a character named Polly (Easter) Paulson walked on to the page and I wanted to keep her. Didn't know until Book 2 that she had a twin sister named Bernadette, nicknamed Bunny, who changed her last name when she married a man named Burns! Names in cozies can be a great source of fun!

    But I am a little worried about the folks who bought naming rights at a recent auction, because I'd already used each of their first names in Death al Dente ... . Ah well, we'll figure out something -- and add to the fun!

  14. I must say that I find it fascinating when an author deliberately names a character showing they know what the name means. I.e. They took the time to research it in a "name your baby" type of book. Recently read Kate Atkinson's "Life After Life" and found that she definitely did this. As a reader, it adds another layer of depth for me, another piece of the puzzle of the characters & who they really are.

  15. I really don't mind if a sympathetic character has a name that some might associate with a totally different sort of person. A long time ago I read that if someone you love has an odd or old-fashioned name, that name becomes beautiful to you. I believe that, I've experienced it.

    But I DO find it confusing if too many characters have names beginning with the same letter of the alphabet! And I recently read a book in which two characters had names that were almost the same. I don't remember the names now but it was similar to having a Tim and a Timothy in the same book. At first, I thought the author did it deliberately and planned to have a confusion of names as part of the story line, but that never happened! I had to constantly remind myself which character was which.

  16. Usually the names seem to work out just fine. I find if a character has a particularly horrible first name he/she usually has a nickname better suited that saves the day. I knew I was in trouble if my mom used my full name, Patricia Ann, rather than one of my family nicknames. Not that that name is so horrible, there must have been at least 3 of us in each elementary school class way back when. I would think revenge naming could be very satisfactory. Like giving a particularly disgusting pet a soul satisfying moniker.

  17. Many times I am so engrossed in a story that I only try to remember the names of characters. What is great fun is to realize later exactly how the name fits. When I taught English my students and I always had fun with tag names. I still do.

  18. I think about names, but not too much. I try not to have names that are too obviously symbolic, like a heroine named Bianca Strong. Pleeease.

    However, that said, for KILMOON, I named my heroine Merrit. I didn't realize that I was conjuring "merit" and come to find out Merrit's sense of self-worth is one of her struggles. Gotta love the subconscious!

    Does anyone else tend to come up with names starting with the same letter? In Kilmoon, I was in love with Ks, Ls, and Ms. No clue why. It was a K-L-M convention!

  19. I pay some attention to names. I get frustrated when I don't know how to pronounce them in my mind - Hermione drove me nuts until I finally heard it. (A benefit of listening to Royal Spyness instead of reading.) I sometimes cringe (in the way you would hope) over some of the names you come up with in Royal Spyness, so I'm glad to know some of them are made up. (Although I just read an interesting article about Puritan English naming practices.) All my life I've been baffled over how the English pronounce Worchestershire, but I have to say that pronouncing Featherstonehaugh as Fanshaw must take the cake.

  20. I sometimes have a hard time naming characters. I've got one right now that I keep thinking of by another name. But I can't name her that because it's too close to the name of the town. Ack.
    I wrote a short story getting revenge on my X. Thought I was safe. He never read anything, let alone my stuff. Then he asked me if that was him. Said his mom made him read it and said it was him. I just asked "What do you think?"
    He said, "I didn't think so. It's not at all like me."
    His mom recognized him, but he didn't. Blew me away. :)

    Pen M

  21. Yeah, I now, after being caught too many times in my own name traps, keep a list of names, first and last, alphabetically.

    This after I named one character Charlie and another Claire and confused myself. I kept changing it in the manuscript, thinking it was a typo! So I changed Claire to Victoria. WHich meant I had to change another character, "Vic," to Ethan. Sigh.

    ANd LIsa, I am all about J and C and M. Crazy! The first name that comes to my mind ALWAYS begins with one of those letters..

  22. And in THE WRONG GIRL, I named a character Donal Brannigan. A random random random name. I turned in the ms. and then read Jenny Milchmans book, and there was a character Donald Brannigan!

    Sheesh. WHat're the odd?.

    SO I changed Donald Brannigan to Niall Brannigan, very proud of myself.

    And yesterday, YESTERDAY! I realized there was another character in THE WRONG GIRL named Lillian.

    Lillian, and Niall.


    Interestingly, when I told Jonathan, he said: what's wrong with that? He didn't see it at all.

  23. Oh, Hank, I can identify! J names seem to occur to me first, too. I have to work on it. :D I started using baby name books back when I was writing in middle school, just for variation as well as for etymological reasons! I still refer to them, but now have the added help of the internet baby name and surname sites, which helped me find names for some Albanians who popped into the latest work in progress!

    Names have always meant a lot to me, not only as a writer but first as a reader. Rhys, I love the names in the Lady Georgiana books! The silly names are fun, not only because they're silly but because they're possible! We have a friend who has collected names for years. Some of her favorites include a dentist named Toothaker. Real person.

    This is a marvelous post! Thanks so much for sharing the link on Facebook!

  24. Which reminds me: does the silly rule about not giving your characters a name based on a famous person irk you as much as it does me? When my book comes out early next year, the heroine's name won't be Loretta Lynn Narramore, it'll be Loretta Lee... *sigh* At least her nickname Lorie was unaffected.

  25. You're hilarious, Hank! Looking forward to meeting you and all the Reds at B'con.

  26. Kathy V, you think Featherstonehaugh (Fanshaw) takes the cake because you haven't met his good friends, Cholmondelay (Chumley) and Beauchamp (Beecham.)They hang out together in Southwark (Suthuk,) Leicester (Lester) and Cockburn (Coburn, thank heavens!)

    Maybe when American names have been around for a millenia or so, we'll start pronouncing Cincinnati as "Sanse."

  27. Rhys, your characters' names are lots of fun. I love when names seem appropriate to the characters, and you add so much to yours that way.

    Something I hadn't thought much of before I read Louise Penny's books was the added dimension of recognition and fun of reading names familiar in my family history. I have a number of Gamache ancestors in the same line as my grandfather Armand. His last name was Jean, and further back were a few Jean-Guy Jeans. I have one or two Reine-Maries and about a million Marie-Reines.

    My English ancestors who went north from Salem, Massachusetts to Qu├ębec, did not settle in the English areas but went further north and took on French names and culture. I am currently researching this piece to develop the historic aspect of a story. Naming, throughout history, has been important to people. So fascinating.

  28. Julia, I need a name bible! I applied to get on a family history course at Oxford but was not allowed, because I could not do Excel to sort out all the names. Stuck in theology... Irony tidbit—11 years later my theology teacher just asked to buy a print of a photo I had posted on my FB page as part of my personal journaling process for grief. They weren't up for sale, but he wanted a copy for his office. My first sale. A better ministry. Odd how things go.

  29. I consider myself a character name expert. After all, Loretta Squirrels! But surrounding them with a great plot? Much harder. You junglereds do that so well! Molly Campbell

  30. I consider myself a character name expert. After all, Loretta Squirrels! But surrounding them with a great plot? Much harder. You junglereds do that so well! Molly Campbell

  31. Jungle Red women -- your panel at B'Con was terrific fun! Thank you for being there and sorry you couldn't all make it. As for names, I am only bothered when it seems that half the characters have names that almost rhyme or begin with the same letter... Brad, Bart, Bill, etc and the characters are not quite definitive enough so that I can keep them straight. NONE of you do this! I love it when characters are named Georgie and Clara and Gemma and Wilhelmina and then I know who they are, I look for them in the next book, they are "characters" and not just names on a page.

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