Questionable: Character Names

Sharon S asked:

As a reader, I am always interested in finding out how and why authors choose the names of their characters. I’ve asked but never quite get an answer. I’m listening to Maybe This Time again. I’d forgotten Andy’s name is Andromeda. I’m guessing that is because of her strange mom? But what gives you your names? Please and Thank You.

Most of the time, my characters show up with their names. A few like Andie in Maybe This Time started with the wrong name, and those you just have to keep trying other names on for size. I think I went through four different names before I hit on Andie, and then reverse engineered that to Andromeda because of her mother and because it would make North’s mother nuts (although she named her kids North and Sullivan, so she has no room to criticize).

My preference is for names that are different because they’re memorable, but that aren’t so different that the reader can’t pronounce them. I have a character I love in a book I’m working on who’s named Scylla. It’s a great name, but people don’t know how to pronounce it, so it’ll probably have to go. One way to get different but familiar names is to go old-fashioned: Matilda, Dorothy, Mabel, Agnes, Annabel, Zelda (I’ve done a Matilda and a Mabel/Maybelle, but no Dorothy so far). Another is go with something from nature that isn’t usually used as a name like Peony, Petal, Amanita. Still another is to go with a name from literature or myth that’s easy to pronounce: Andromeda, Daphne, Mab, Ophelia, Diana. One caution here is that just because you know how to pronounce something familiar to you, that’s no guarantee that others will, especially from myths. Circe, Scylla, Demeter, even Medea can be problems there. The key is familiar but not used often as names today and therefore different.

But different is not enough; that name will also characterize because of stereotypes (Bertha is going to be large), associations (Alice connects to Alice in Wonderland, Tilda’s worldview was tilted), relationships (North’s character is diametrically opposed to Southie’s) and sound (Andie is a happy-go-lucky kind of name, Zelda is edgy, Agnes sounds like “anger” especially starting with that hard “Ag”). Other things I take into consideration: birthdate (different names are popular at different times), origins (tons of name lists on the internet”), what kind of people the character’s parents were (which explains how the name came to be and how they tried to shape the character as a child to fit that name), and how the name fits that character’s function in the text.

The McDaniel class does weekly chats, and last week I answered a question about names, using Bet Me as an example:

Min and Cal minimize risk and calculate the odds; they’re meant to be together. “Calvin” gives you an idea of how rigid Cal’s mother is, and Minerva gives you the set-up that Min’s mother was hoping for a goddess when her daughter was born.

Bonnie has a soft sound with that B at the beginning and the soft O that fits her softer nature. Liza has that razor sharp Z in the middle. I called the bridesmaids Wet and Worse because they weren’t on the page enough for the reader to recognize them by their real names; the nicknames also set up that Wet was the one who was always weeping for her lost boyfriend and that Worse was capable of much worse. Diana was another goddess name, plus there was the association with Princess Diana, the perfect daughter.

Cal, Roger, Tony, David. Cal’s the hero who calculates things. Roger is a dweebish name. Tony sounds like somebody who wears a baseball cap backward. And David is formal, business like.

One of the best ways I know to get a character firmly in mind before you write is to brainstorm his or her name. It’s like collage in that you’re working with associations: what does this name say to you about the character, how does it give clues to how he or she thinks, acts, talks, where he or she comes from, etc. A character named Poppy is different from a character named Rose; a character named Andromeda is different from a character named Diana; a character named Phineas is different from a character named Harry, and so on. Then there’s the function of nicknames: Minerva’s mother wanted a goddess but Min goes by a name that conserves space efficiently; Andromeda’s mother wanted her daughter to walk among the stars (she’s big into astrology) completely missing the whole victim by sea monster thing, and Andie preferred her strong, male nickname since she liked to think she’s rescue herself.

Basically, names are another path to character discovery. Thinking about the character’s name makes you think about the character in a different and possibly deeper way.

Index of Questionables

54 thoughts on “Questionable: Character Names

  1. Tangential: My mother and my sister have both named their GPSs. I think they are the same brand and have the same voice. Both a very practical, everyday sort of names that maybe reflect the kind of guidance they hope to get.

    I named mine Boopsie. I think I have a major problem with people telling me what to do . . . “Boopsie” is kind of disrespectful and shows my distrust for the GPS, but it also helps bleed off my frustration. How can I get mad at a “Boopsie”?

    “Oh, Boopsie, you are trying to guide me onto the high-traffic crazy street again. But how were you to know, dear one?” And I can ignore her until I really need her. “Good job, Boopsie! We got there!”

    Naming things somehow cement their character and my expectations. Some of my characters show up with names, but a lot of them wander around in a cloud of pronouns until I suddenly realize that “she” is Tiffany, or until I get too many hims and hers wandering around. By then, though, I know a little bit about them and can make a guess. Baby name lists and mythological lists also help.

    1. I changed my Siri voice to a Brit male, which means my iPhone navigation is also Brit male. I have named him Nigel. I was in Vegas for a girls’ weekend, and by the end of it, whenever we arrived at our location, I had the whole car saying, “Thank you, Nigel.”

      Because a Nigel is very efficient and helpful.

      1. I’m glad your Nigel is efficient and helpful, because the Nigel I knew in London was a total stick.

  2. It’s amazing how uncooperative characters can be when you’re calling them the wrong name.

  3. I know so many Jennifers that sometimes I think, “I can’t name this character Jennifer!” because I’ll associate her with my friend or this ex or whoever. But the thing is, she has to be a Jennifer. It tells you everything about the relationship with her mother, that this woman gave her daughter the most overused name of her own generation, not her daughter’s. It shows how desperately she wants normalcy and for her daughter to blend, but how she’s doing it cluelessly and is stuck in the past. So when her daughter starts making unusual life choices, it’s going to horrify her.

    Anyway, so: Jennifer. Necessary.

    1. As a Jennifer, I feel like I can’t use the name myself in fiction. Which is a shame because I can make sooooooo many jokes about it, and I have an awesome book title in my head that I can’t use for the same reason.

    2. Another bonus: I bet 85 percent of the Jennifers in the world will at least look hard at the blurb if you put their name on a book. (-: I know I did a double-take when The Lincoln Lawyer came out. The main character’s name is almost exactly my maiden name.

    3. I named a character Jennifer, although she was never on the page. People just talked about her. She had to be a Jennifer, too.

      When I was choosing my pseudonym, I asked to be Jenny Crusie, and HQ said no, because “Jenny” was a homey, sweet name and my books weren’t homey and sweet. They were probably right, but Jennifer still seems an odd name for me.

  4. I agree with all of this. My biggest problem seems to be when all the characters in one book turn out to have names starting with the same initial. Sigh.

      1. I do that all the time, too, so I stole your alphabetical list idea – it really helps! (I also have a bad habit of using friend/family names without realising it during the fast first draft and then I have to go back and change them all…)

    1. Oh, names that start with the same initial! I’m not defective then. Or not the only defective person.

  5. My daughters want me to ghost-write a book with/for them (they are nine and seven and find typing arduous). The heroine’s name? Kelly Green.

    1. I love this so much! Who’s the villain? Dee Red? (Sirius Black already being taken.) Bronze Shadow sounds like a delicious superhero or heroine.

    2. I think that’s great, Sylvia. Kelly Green is also the shade of green that coats Fenway Park. Nothing but good times ahead!

      Just ignore the current stats 🙂

  6. There was a romance written where the hero was Corey and the heroine was Cori(ann). It made for easy reading due to spelling but I wonder how’d it do in audio format?

  7. Was just talking about character names with hubby the other day. Been rewatching Downton Abbey & think Lavinia is such a fab name–so suits the character & evokes such specific traits in my mind.

    As a writer, I get particularly giddy when another writer really succeeds with something & felt that way about Lavinia’s name. Probably that’s because for me a great joy of writing is that feeling of finding that specific word or turn of phrase I just know is right. That’s one of the reasons I love Downton Abbey overall–the crafting of the language. Such a pleasure to watch.

    1. For me,, Lavinia was always a bit of an “old lady” name — which, of course, means that the selection of that for Downton Abbey was not bad, considering the time frame.

      However, that all changed after I watched “Banger Sisters” with Goldie Hawn and Susan Sarandon. In that Susan Sarandon plays an uptight über-correct upper middle class housewife who only wears beige — but who is hiding the fact that she had an earlier life in the 70s as a groupie (along with Goldie Hawn’s character Suzette) whose goal was to, er, bang as many rock stars as possible. After a long time of not seeing each other, Suzette shows up and Lavinia (“Vinnie” in the old days) tries to get rid of her in a most patronizing way.

      Anyway…they have a fight during which Vinnie reminds Suzette that she is now “Lavinia”. The fight ends when Suzette walks out, but she turns around on the way out and says something ending with “La-la-lavinia” in a snarky tone.

      Now, for me, Lavinia always becomes “La-la-lavinia” (with much snark).

      1. Know the movie. Fun. Forgot the Sarandon character name, but do remember scene now that you mention it.

        For me, the name felt fresh on Downton & works for that character because it feels just classy & formal enough to be used by upper classes yet it has a softer, delicate side, which also works well for her personality & physical appearance.

        In “Banger” I imagine they chose it because it could come across both formal and informal when nickname used. So good choice there too given her dual personality and feelings of suppressing a part of her true self.

        That’s part of what’s interesting about writers choosing names–such different tones to these stories (& time periods) yet the name works in both. But I’m glad I didn’t have the Hawn snarky voice saying the name in my head when I “met” Lavinia on Downton–would have distracted me and stuck in my head every time her name was mentioned thereafter–love Goldie but that voice wouldn’t work in “my” Downton Brit world:)

  8. A zillion years ago, when I was just starting out, I heard some speaker at a workshop suggest that one should scan character names for beats and accents, the way you do poetry, to make sure that they don’t all have the same meter. I did that with the manuscript I was writing, which turned out to be my first published book, and I discovered that my character names were pretty much all trochees (two beats, accented followed by unaccented). So later when my editor suggested that I add a character, I made very sure that her name had an entirely different rhythm. While it’s true that characters often choose their own names, I always found this one quick step an easy way to ensure a little variety.

  9. I was given the name Hope in a time and a place where it was virtually unheard of and definitely odd. I was surrounded by Susies and Kathys and Debbies, and was asked on a very regular basis if Hope was really my name, and why would my parents name me that. (I was named for a very lovely elderly Quaker woman whom my parents adored.) Now there are Hopes wherever I look. I’m not totally sure what a Hope character is meant to be. Often smart, I think, sometimes reserved, anyway it’s become trendy and I hate it. I had to deal with it as a daily challenge and who are all these interlopers? On the other hand when my husband and I were coming up with names for our daughter, we each made gigantic lists and swapped them and crossed off every name on the other’s list we hated. We ended up with two names: Emily and Claire; no compromise possible. So despite our best efforts, our daughter is in the Emily generation and she actually loves it and loves her name and she is not in any way a sheep, totally her own person, as I know to my cost as her mother through the last 27 years. I wanted to name her Anthea after the oldest girl in Five Children and It; I often wonder how she would have handled it; my son for sure would have hated being Cyril (also from Five Children and It). I do hate it when authors (historical authors) give their characters names that are trendy now, all part of being historically tone deaf. Andromeda is one of my favorite character names ever. And by the way, I used to know a woman named Kelly Kelly. No Green that I know of. Kelly Green is already telling a piece of the story.

    1. When my mother named me Jennifer, I was the only person in our (small) town with that name. It was so odd that when another mother wanted to name her daughter that four years later, she called my mother to see if it was all right to copy her. Then came the 80’s and you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a Jennifer. I like to think I’m a trendsetter. Or at least my mother was.

      I love the name Hope.

    2. My name is Morgan, and I feel EXACTLY the same way. I had to work for that name, I got put in boy’s gym classes, and had to explain it at every new school. Now any (probably very nice) little twerp can use it.

      1. @Maine Betty, these days some people think that “Morgan” is a woman’s name. A friend got into a heated argument with someone who was ADAMANT that “Morgan” was a woman, even though my friend pointed out that her son was clearly a man.

    3. My parents made up my name, so I was unique all the way. However, bizarrely enough, although made-up, I now know of others with it (mostly female, but at least one male). I actually have met only one: she was the then 7-yr-old daughter of a guy who worked for me (but was born long before we met). He brought her in one day so she could meet someone else with her name — and that was a first for me, although I was (mumble, mumble) years older than her!

      I actually like having a unique name, except that in my case people occasionally use more usually, phonetically somewhat similar names because they can’t seem to get it clear.

      My mother’s name is really, really unusual. We know she was named after her mother’s favorite teacher — but we have never ever found another person with her name. Well, I take that back. I found an article about an ancient Egyptian tomb of a guy with my mother’s name. Weird.

    4. I was the only Briana that I knew for a long time. My parents liked the name but had never known anyone with it. On that timeline of name popularity, my birth year is right before it starts showing up. And I fought teachers thinking it was a misspelling of Brian on their rosters, etc.

      NOW, though, there are lots of little Breeanns and Briannas, etc. I really like my name, but not some of the variations, especially when I get them.

  10. Absolutely. The names are extremely important. I recently wrote a short story with two female characters. One of them had a name from the start. It just popped into my head and stayed there. The other went through at least a dozen names before I hit on the right one. And you always know when it happens. The name just sticks and wouldn’t badge.

  11. True story-my mom’s best friend is Carol Carroll. Her youngest daughter is Lindsay. We She had a classmate who’s last name was Lindsey. You can imagine the jokes flying. But alas, she didn’t marry him.

  12. It’s one of the things that I love about Margaret Mahy (one of the many, many, MANY things) is that her character names are always a huge part of the story and a whole lot of significance packed into one word. I read Mortal Fire by Elizabeth Knox recently (another Kiwi) and loved what she did with the character’s name – Canny was a complex character whose layers and relationships were reflected in the various names people called her and her name became a core part of the story. It was like reading an undiscovered Mahy.

  13. I love names.
    In my WIP I have two secondary characters who are not often on the page together. One was Mike, the other one Mickey. When they eventually showed up together I knew one had to change. I was so frustrated, couldn’t find a name that I liked or that suited the character, and one day I just said, “Damn it Mickey, you are now T.J.”
    It really suits him. : )

  14. Decades ago, I had to write an updated fairy tale for English. I chose the Cinderella story, but named her Elizabeth. I wish I could remember why.

    This is an interesting topic. I am going through a Miss Marple story re-read period, and it occurs to me that Jane Marple is perfect for a character who uses being seen as an ordinary, elderly woman to collect information and get away with prying.

      1. Well, she did have a thing about criminality being in the blood. Strange by name, Strange by nature…

        1. I just finished The Murder at the Vicarage (again) this afternoon, and there is a Lestrange!

          Christie had some good names. Inspector Battle for a very smart man who looks dull. Lamb for a young Intelligence man. Lucy Eylesbarrow, who is British and also very practical. Of course, there had to be plenty of John and Mary types too, since most of the stories are set in England starting 1920.

  15. Prior to getting married, I had 3 names that could be male or female and put in any order. I did find 2 men who had as their first name, my last name and likewise, my last name as their first. I thought it would be amusing to marry one of them and have the same first and last name and it would be even sweeter if he had the same middle name I did. However, my hubby’s name didn’t work that way and I’d rather have him than a funny name.

    I also once supervised a Thomas Thomas.

  16. “Minimize” and “calculate.” Genius!
    Also, one of my sisters had a good friend named Kelly Green.

  17. My name is a traditional Indian one that was popular a “generation” ago. Many of my parents contemporaries had it. I did not like it and was on occasion teased as Aunt ____ !

    In recent years, the name hasn’t gained popularity. And many of those older ones that had the name are dead. I get more exotic as the years *pass*.

    As a teacher we see often movie inspired names. I’ve taught Neos and Trinitys. I often say that I’m quitting teaching as soon as the Bellas, Edwards, Cullens, Jacobs and Renesmees show up.

    1. The interplay of pop culture and baby names is interesting. Some writers/ tv show creators use popular baby names for older characters, and then the names become even more popular for new babies, in a loop.

      I met a little Marianne years ago who’s parents heard the name on the show “Cybil”. They didn’t name her after the character, but heard it said and liked it.

  18. Sure Thing, I also have an old-lady name (I was 14 before I ever even HEARD OF another Peggy who wasn’t somebody’s great aunt…) and it’s ALSO a nickname, so I get to introduce myself to everyone as “Oh, call me Peggy, I only get called ‘Margaret’ when I’m in trouble,” which is sort of fun. I think Peggy suits me much better than Margaret does. 🙂

    Picking names for characters is always fun; I definitely think most of them show up with their names already.

    The problem I’m having now is when a character’s name is the same as the name of someone I know… Like, in a story I’m working on, I have a Laura. Laura is a very sweet, not super smart blonde who’s married to a much-older guy. She loves him, but also loves that she doesn’t have to work outside the home because she married him. And he’s a mobster.

    This will only ever be a problem if my cousin Laura (also blonde, but super smart and not a shallow gold-digger at all!) decides to read my work… Hahaha.

  19. As a high school teacher, I run a contest (in my head only) every year for which kid has the “fakest” name–the one that sounds the most like it was made up for a story. I’ve never had a Kelly Green, but I did have a Crystal Waters, a kid with the middle name Green and the last name Dollar, and a kid with the middle name Fire and the last name Sparks. Also a Sparkle, a Talon, a Prestige, and a Sabra. And a kid named William Blake (he didn’t know there was a poet of the same name).

    Then, of course, my personal favorite: Keaton LaFever. REAL ACTUAL NAME!

  20. Just been watching Horrible Histories, which claims that Minty Badger was an actual Victorian name. Now, that’d make an interesting character.

  21. I went to university with a girl who, at age five, made her parents change her name. They had named her Margaret but she loathed it, she preferred Martha so Martha she became. Her parents made a mistake, she wasn’t a Margaret at all. I guess wrong names get pasted on real people not just fictional ones.

  22. I’m finding this discussion on names very interesting!
    My full name is Jacqueline but when I was young I wanted to be Jackie, but Mother said I could only do that if I put a “Q” in it. This has been somewhat problematic all my life.
    My sons girlfriends name is Cass Andra XXXX and she said she was called Cassy all during her youth but didn’t like so now in her mid-twenties firmly calls herself Cass … although people still want to call her Cassy!
    I just finished listening to your audio book “Wide Ride” which I was almost sure after 10-15 minutes I wouldn’t like because it was off-the-charts sci-fi (???). But I must admit all the characters grabbed me (especially Mab) and eventually so did the story … which I listened to with baited-breath to the very end.
    Now I want a sequel to find out how Mab’s baby turn out.

  23. My name is Carolyn. I have noticed that Carolyns are never the heroine or the protagonist in books. They are always the annoying sister of friend (Caroline Bingley) or the other woman who’s trying to steal the man, or the boss who is super uptight, wears high stilettos and has no empathy…. This makes me wonder what my name really evokes in others!!!!

  24. My daughter is Lucinda (named after hubby’s deceased grandmother). She was Cinda in grade school and high school, Lucinda in college and either Lu or Red in grad school. She colors her hair.
    The point is that I can tell how long someone knows her by what they call her.

  25. As a reader I’m confused when two characters have got names that are more or less alike. I prefer real names and not ‘creative ones’, b/c a name tell you a lot about where that person comes from, her family, or her social class, for instance. It’s a way of characterise your character.
    I’d like writers to be careful when they have to name somebody from a foreign country, b/c there are different rules about first & family names. Portuguese rules are not the same as Spanish rules, for instance. And they are not the same as in Italy or Russia or Iceland. Those are little details that can put a reader off, and they are easily avoided just reading the wikipedia.

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