Sunday, April 10, 2016

Naming Characters

Why do character names matter? They can give the reader a clue as to the person’s background. They may hint at the character’s personality. They may create curiosity.

However, it’s important for the characters’ names to fit their personalities, the time period, the location, their economic, ethnic, and religious backgrounds.

Make names easy to pronounce and accessible
A fellow writer insists on creating weird, unpronounceable names for her characters. Our critique group complains about it every time it happens.

It is possible—and sometimes advisable—to create unique names, but somewhere in the story, the writer must address the origin. For instance, if a character is called Charlinda, someone in the story needs to ask where the name came from. Perhaps the character was named after both grandmothers: Charlotte and Belinda. Or great-grandmothers, or…

Make names consistent with the time period
If the name Summer appears in a historical novel, it may send up lots of red flags and stop readers from continuing. This first appeared as a name in the hippie era of the 1960s and 1970s. It would never have been used earlier.

Websites exist for the most popular baby names of every year for at least the last 100 years. Determine the year of your character’s birth, and research the popular names.

Names follow trends. Babies are often called by the names of popular sports figures, politicians, stars of stage and screen, or TV personalities. No girl born before the 1950s would have been called Debbie. She would have been Deborah (traditional spelling) and nicknamed Debbie. The preference for the nickname came about with Debbie Reynolds.

As shown above, keep the spelling consistent with the era. Use traditional spelling for characters born earlier and more modern spelling (Debra) for later names.

Names should fit the character’s personality
We were recently researching a female character born about 1889. The names Bessie and Nellie both appeared. However, she was the daughter of a wealthy and prominent family. Those names implied poorer and more fun-loving people. We chose Lillian. (It was also a family name in Larry’s family, so we had additional incentive to use it.)

Serious people tend to have serious names. A character could have a cute nickname if the personality requires it.

Names should be consistent with location
In the southern part of the US, double names, like Mary Ann, Bobby Joe, and Betty Sue, have been common for many years. A book set in the South would tend to have a few.

However for a book set in more serious Northeast states, the name might sound strange.

Names in the Southwest might be Latin in origin because of the influence of Mexico in settling those areas. And in the northern part of the country, French names would appear.

Characters with foreign backgrounds need to have names consistent with their countries of origin.

Names should be consistent with ethnic background
Many ethnic groups have specific rules about naming children. Characters of these origins need names consistent with the ethnic patterns.

Some ethnic groups don’t believe in using a living person’s name for a child, so writers must be aware of this taboo when naming family members.

Names should be consistent with religious background
Biblical names are popular for many religious groups.

Jewish families often give their children Old Testament names. If the family’s origins are Eastern European, they may select names consistent with their ethnicity.

Catholic children usually receive a saint’s name at their baptism. Irish and Latin families often name their female children Mary or Maria, often with a secondary name (Mary Katherine, Mary Louise, Maria Luz).

Our nephew was born into a family of pastors. He is one himself. He and our niece chose Elijah for their first son. When we asked why, they answered, “Because all the rest of the prophets were taken.”

We couldn’t imagine this poor little guy going through life as Elijah. Then Eli Manning burst upon the scene, and Elijah became one of the most popular names.

Muslim families often choose names from the Koran (Mohammed, for instance) for their children.

Sources for names
Internet sources provide an abundance of suggestions. Google “baby names” and the year of birth for your character, and many choices will appear.

Another great source for contemporary names is This provides the number of people who share names in the US. There are 35,464 people named Lorna in this country. When I was growing up, the number would have been much smaller.

We named the protagonist in our mysteries Agapé. I wanted to be sure it was a valid name, so I looked it up. There are 1612 people in the US with the name, so we used it.

On the other hand, there are 965,599 people named Larry…

A friend uses high school yearbooks for names. This is a good source as long as the books are contemporary with the character.

Another source is the phone book. These days, is probably the best source.

We are always listening for names. One of my characters has the last name of a fellow I worked with. When I heard it, I told him I planned to ‘steal’ it. I did. It worked perfectly for the character and the plotline.

Another of my characters is named for a young woman who owned the local bakery, Alexandra. I loved it because it is somewhat timeless and yet can have contemporary nicknames (Lexi and Alex). It worked extremely well within the plot of the story.

Often friends and acquaintances will ask us to name a character after them. We have done so several times. (Our friend, Marilyn Meredith often offers to name a character after the person who visits the most locations on her blog tours.) One of our friends was disappointed, however. She wanted to be the criminal, and instead she ended up as the love interest.

Use family names, but with caution. The same writer friend who comes up with the strange names claims some of them are family names. These should be evaluated by the above criteria before they are used.

Mythology can be another good source for names, as long as they fit the era, location, and character. Classic books are also a good source, but avoid using the name of an iconic character. Harry Potter and Scarlet O’Hara are taken. Opera and theatre may provide additional sources. However, it’s advisable to use the first name from one character with the last name from another.

Naming cautions
Try to avoid using similar names in the same story. We have broken this guideline a couple of times. In our historical novel, The Memory Keeper, two priests served Mission San Juan Capistrano at the same time. Their names were Barona and Buscana. One person suggested we change one. However, historical accuracy trumped convenience, so the names stayed as written since they were real people and served at the time we placed them at the location.

Why do names matter?
The writer will live with them forever. Readers will remember them. They will also notice the inconsistencies.

Lorna Collins and her husband, Larry K. Collins, co-wrote 31 Months in Japan: The Building of a Theme Park, their memoir of building the Universal Studios Japan theme park, two cozy mysteries set in Hawaii, Murder…They Wrote and Murder in Paradise, and The Memory Keeper, a historical novel set in San Juan Capistrano.
Lorna collaborated with friends on six sweet romance anthologies set in the fictional town of Aspen Grove, CO: Snowflake Secrets, Seasons of Love, An Aspen Grove Christmas, The Art of Love, …And a Silver Sixpence in Her Shoe, and Directions of Love, 2011 EPIC eBook Award winner.
Her fantasy/mystery/romance, Ghost Writer, published by Oak Tree Press and set in Laguna Beach, CA, is her solo work.

In addition, Lorna is a professional editor.

Contact her through her website: 
Follow her on Twitter @LornaCollins


Amy Bennett said...

Great post, Lorna!

Carolyn Niethammerww said...

Very interesting. I'm currently writing a novel set in 1970 and have had lots of fun naming my characters who once they got to the commune adopted new names such as Rainbow. One fellow is nicknamed Tip-Top by his friends and you can guess why. Have tried to make sure no name starts with the same letter.

Lorna Collins - Author said...

Naming characters can be fun, especially when you are working in a particular era.

Stephen L. Brayton said...

All good points. I like the one about having the name fit the personality.

Lorna Collins - Author said...

Thanks, Stephen. I think it makes a difference.

Janet Greger said...

this blog should be useful to many writers. Thanks
JL Greger, author Murder...A Way to Lose Weight. It's will be published in the next week by Oak Tree Press.

Lorna Collins - Author said...

Thanks for your support, Janet!

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Good advice. When I first began I didn't know a lot of this. I save graduation programs--you can get some great names out of them by using a first name with a different last name. For ethnic names I use the Internet. My Tempe Crabtree was named after my great-grandmother--I just thought her name fit the character.

Lorna Collins - said...

I love her name, and the family connection is even better!

Eileen Obser said...

This is a great blog, Lorna. I'm going to share it with my adult writing students and keep it for my own files. It's fun inventing names and, even in memoir writing, you need to invent/change names. I check carefully, online and in other ways, before I use them.

Lorna Collins - said...

Thanks, Eileen. I actually enjoy finding the right name for my characters. I sometimes 'try on' several until the character 'tells' me it's the right one.