How the F*** Do I Name My Characters?

If you’re a parent (or even if you’re not), it’s easy to understand the agony behind choosing a name for this squirming mass of flesh you’ve created. You want something that’ll represent them, something that’ll stand out, but not too much, and God forbid you pick something with an automatic and unfortunate nick-name attached.

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As writers, we go through the same torment. We peruse all the baby name databases. We say their names over and over to see how it’ll sit on someone’s tongue should they read it out loud. We scribble them in notebooks and on napkins and try to imagine a face that’ll reflect the person we want them to be. It’s torture, but it’s vital to the success of a book (in which I define “success” as a book readers talk about or think about after the cover is closed).

First, I want to say that I’m not knocking the Marks and Julies of the fiction world. Names don’t have to be unusual to stand out. It’s all about the name that accompanies the personality. Example: Andrew Yancy from Carl Hiassen’s BAD MONKEY and RAZOR GIRL. Pretty standard name, right? But when paired with the ironic swagger of an ex-detective-now-roach-patrolman, it’s a name that’ll stick in the reader’s mind. He’s Andrew, not Drew or Andy. Yancy is the kind of surname with a nondescript background, so you’re free to mold him any way you like in your mind.

For the writer who wants a more unusual name without throwing in useless consanents and ridiculous accent marks, I give you these examples:

Bunny Munro from THE DEATH OF BUNNY MUNRO. The name “Bunny” is ironic, given his less than soft nature, making it unusual enough to stand out. The same principle goes for Fat Charlie from ANANSI BOYS who is anything but fat and Abby Normal from Christopher Moore’s BLOODSUCKING FIENDS series who would love to be anything but normal.

You could go for something more literal, like SERGE STORMS from pretty much any Tim Dorsey novel who blows through the book like a category 5 hurricane on a mix of speed and coffee. Or there’s Mr. Wednesday from AMERICAN GODS, whose literal meaning takes a little bit of digging. His name is one of convenience, granted to him when he asks Shadow Moon what day it is and then replies, “Today is my day.” That statement alone is a summation of Mr. Wednesday’s character, which gives his name meaning.

Then there are names that carry with them the entire heart of the story. Osceola Bigtree from SWAMPLANDIA isn’t the protagonist, but she carries in her name (and her character) the soul of the book, which takes place in the swampy underbelly of South Florida.

In the end, readers will interpret your character names however they want. I could be totally off about Osceola, but her name stuck with me because I was able to extract meaning and because Karen Russell GAVE her name meaning, even if it wasn’t the same as mine. The name you choose isn’t as important to your characters as the reason behind it. Sometimes, it’s just because the name “suits” a character. That’s PERFECTLY FINE. Names that suit characteristics will make sense and serve to draw a clearer picture for the reader, making your story memorable.

I’ve given you some of mine; Now, let’s hear some character names that’ve really stuck with you, long after you’ve finished reading.

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3 thoughts on “How the F*** Do I Name My Characters?

  1. I love the names in the Anita Blake series by Laurell K Hamilton, Requiem being one of my favourites- you’ve got your Nathaniels and Jean-Claudes but also Jasons and Richards so they’re not all too pretentious

  2. In the current series I’m working on, the majority of the main characters are descendants of Hessian mercenaries and are from a tight community where boys are often named for fathers/uncles and girls are often named after aunts/grandmothers/great-aunts. Due to the tightknit community having so many similar names (for example- the main character is Johann Ruppel… the same for several cousins…), so the community adopted the practice of earned/given nicknames as their middle names. The main character’s middle name is Valentine due to being born on Valentines Day… and the nickname/middle name can change with time/experience (his cousin Johann has earned the nickname “Chance” due to his propensity for luck after surviving a wolf attack). Val is also slowly earning the name Hell-Diver (or H.D.) due to free-diving on their Northwoods River for sunken artifacts & trash. Despite the adversities Val has endured (and multiple shootings), the teenager’s nickname of Hell-Diver comes from the nickname for the bird called a Grebe that is known for its diving ability. At the same time… I find myself struggling to not call him “Joe” in my notebooks due to that being the name of the character in the series I was working on last fall (despite writing 950 pages with this character, over three novels, the last two and a half-months). For other character names, I used to utilize a plethora of Baby Name books (which does NOT make it easier to choose a boy’s name… my four-year-old son Zephyn may curse me later in life). Nowadays, I actually put a lot more thought into my character names. My storyline is currently taking place in 1999… so I look at common names for people of appropriate ages during that timeframe. Due to detailing the history of my character’s culture dating back to Revolutionary War days, I’ve had to become adept at appropriate French, Spanish, Hessian (German), English and Ojibwe names from 1780 to roughly the 1920’s. When writing about a corrupt French officer in 1785 working alongside the Spanish government on American (then Spanish-controlled soil)- you can’t call him “Ethan” St. Claire, but instead “Etienne” St. Claire (his name wouldn’t be Anglicized yet). It’s been strange to watch this evolution of research over the last 18 months… but I will admit- if I need a throwaway character’s name, I will randomly look around the room for ideas (DVD racks are awesome), or I’ll look at an object like a clock… and think “It starts with a C…”, then I’ll go “I could call her Catherine, or Cat for short… no, I need to save that for a more endearing character… maybe Celia… no, I like it, but not for this character… maybe something that starts with an L… Lisa. Perfect! Your name is now Lisa…”

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