What’s in a Name?

Stained glass depiction of Salmon in Columbia River - Kootenay National Park Visitor Centre - Francis Guenette photo

So much to learn, so little time. As I edit the third and the plan the fourth novel in the Crater Lake series, I have come to the conclusion that naming characters has more to it than I realized at the start of my fiction writing days. Looking back, I have no idea how the characters in Disappearing in Plain Sight got their names. Where did Beulah come from? I have never met or heard of anyone named Beulah. The group of people who came to life in my first novel seemed to have arrived in my head with names.

I don’t necessarily advocate such an approach as I sit and ponder passages where I have Beulah, Bethany and Brigit at one table and Jeremy, Justin and Jesse all showing up in the same scene. I only wish my son had asked me sooner, “What is with all the names starting with B and J?” But the dye was cast, or the cast was cast … I was already into the second novel in the series and stuck with all the names from the first.

That doesn’t excuse Brigit, a character in the third novel, Chasing Down the Night. I definitely know better. But Brigit is Brigit and, strangely enough, she resists the urge to be called anything else and cares little that she must exist alongside of a Beulah and a Bethany.

I was shocked to realize, as I worked on the initial drafts of Maelstrom (my mother’s unpublished manuscript that I am making my own) that there were two characters named Chuck. Shocked, not because my mother had stepped into such a writer faux pas but because I was into a third draft of my reworked version before I noticed.

When making a conscious choice for a character’s name, I have resorted to strange rituals. Here’s a good one – I open up my twitter feed, scroll down and grab a first name and then scroll a bit further and grab a last name. I’ve deliberately chosen names I liked and names I didn’t like. I’ve plucked a last name from a family friend and a first name from the air. I’ve thumbed through the phone book – oh, come on now, you do so remember what a phone book is. I’ve checked out Google lists of common and uncommon surnames as well as popular girls and boys names by birth year.

If you are a fan of literary fiction (and, seriously, who isn’t? But we’ll put that debate aside for now) you’ll know that authors can put a great deal of thought and effort into naming characters. A reader can burrow down through layers and layers of meaning pondering a single character’s name. I’m going out on a limb here, but I’m sure Joseph Conrad put some thought into giving names to Marlow and Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. And if you come across a modern-day novel (or TV series) that has a character named Kurtz and one named Marlowe, rest assured, the writer plans for you to float down a metaphorical river that takes you into a heart of darkness.

Or perhaps he or she simply used the twitter feed method of character naming or thumbed through the phone book.

If you write and are willing, tell us one of your preferred methods of coming up with a character name. If you’re a reader, tell us what gets your goat when it comes to how authors name their characters.

First daffodil at Winter Harbour - Mar. 2, 2015 - bruce witzel photo

11 comments on “What’s in a Name?

  1. evelynralph says:

    Reblogged this on evelynralph and commented:
    Reblogging this because yes, it is an interesting way to find character names. But also, it yas a daffodil.

  2. Luanne says:

    It just has to feel right to me, but there is quite a bit of reading and experience that probably trickle into the opaque sludge of intuition ;).

    • No doubt on that reading, experience and intuition bit 🙂 Your comment has me reflecting on how much of what seems to come to me in the writing process is all about the way I manage to dig through my huge pile of buried (subconscious) treasure and pull out something worth using. Nothing happens by chance, as the saying goes.

  3. Gwen Stephens says:

    I’d have to say most of my characters have been named by a process akin to osmosis.Typically the character begins to develop in my mind, I think about him or her and his or her respective situation, personality, story problems and goals, and somehow the name just comes to me. Suddenly, he or she just has a name, and I know it’s right. I can’t explain it better than to say that given enough time, it just comes to me. I like your Twitter method. I’ve also heard of people looking through high school yearbooks and watching the credit roll at the end of a movie for inspiration.

    • I think that is the key component of the whole thing, Gwen – we live with these characters in our heads, listen to them, walk around with them until – suddenly, as you say – these people just have names. Great explanation.

  4. Roy McCarthy says:

    I’m with Gwen, names just attach themselves without too much thought. One though came to me after I snorted with laughter at the given name of an applicant for a secretary’s job at the office where I work. That evening one of my minor characters adopted the name and I’ve gone on to use her in a short story, and I may feature her again down the line sometime. Chantilly.

    • Oh, goodness – what a writer couldn’t do with a character named Chantilly 🙂 That happenstance applicant was a gift indeed. I think that to be writers is to be capable of being snagged by things all around us. Stuff catches on us – names, situations, appearances, conversations. Then we begin to spin our story web.

  5. Must admit I spend ages thinking about names. Names to me go with certain characters, and I look for appropriate name that fit my characters. Online lists of names are most useful, especially if you want something more unusual or distinctive than the usual John, James, Jean.

    In my last book I had characters whose names started with the same letter of the alphabet, and as I had read that this should be avoided in case it hinders character recognition by readers, I decided I’d have to change them. That was quite a wrench and very difficult to do. If you have known and lived with a character called Chuck, Lippy, or whatever, then changing their names is like changing the character.

    • Yes, exactly on the wrench of having to change a character’s name. I had a girl named Lily for one book but a previous book in the series had a character named Lillian. I thought those two versions of the name were miles apart. Early feedback suggested otherwise and Lily became Willow. I never got used to her being named Willow and still sometimes think of her as Lily.

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