What’s in a Name?

MargaretBrownley-header

             Most Popular names of the 1880s                                       Most Popular names of 2015

(According to Social Security Records)

Boy                 Girl                                                                            Boy                        Girl
John                Mary                                                                          Noah                    Emma
William            Anna                                                                          Liam                     Olivia
James              Emma                                                                        Mason                  Sophia
George            Elizabeth                                                                    Jacob                    Isabella
Charles            Margaret                                                                    William                  Ava

Twice this week I was asked how I came up with character names for my books. My answer was very carefully. To me, the name is everything. If I get the name right, the character comes alive. If the name is wrong the writing won’t flow.  Sometimes the vision I have for a character changes in the writing of a book, and I’ve had to change the name.

nameSince I write books set in the Old West it’s important that names reflect the times. A name also has to say something about the character and carry the tone of the book. After picking a name I check the census for the year my character was born to see if the name existed back then.  (I’ve also been known to yell the name out the door like I did when naming my children, just to see how it sounded).

Recently I read an article cautioning writers not to name a historical female character contemporary names like Madison. Had the writer checked he would have discovered that name was not as modern as he thought. Thousands of females with a first name of Madison showed up on the 1860 census. I know because I named a heroine Maddie, short for Madison (Did she madden the hero with her bold antics? You bet she did!)

For my heroes, I look for strong masculine names. This means choosing names with hard consonant sounds like Garrett, Rhett or Hunter.

I’ll also work in a soft consonant sound, usually in his last name. That tells the reader that no matter how arrogant or difficult the hero is, he has a vulnerable spot that the heroine will eventually uncover. The sheriff and hero in my next book Calico Spy is named Grant Garrison (January 2016). The s sound indicates there’s more to him than meets the eye.

As for the heroine: It depends what her role is. If she has a humorous bent I’ll name her accordingly. In Undercover Bride, the heroine’s name is Maggie Cartwright. The name Maggie reminds me of the word giggle so we know she’s got a light side. Her last name makes me think of cartwheels. That’s an appropriate vision as she turns the life of the hero upside down.

The letter K makes me smile so I tend to favor names with that letter. You just know that Kate Whittaker will be a fun character.

The current series I’m working on takes place in Two-Time, Texas (ah, the joy of naming towns). I worried that readers might have trouble keeping track of the town’s many residents over the course of three books. I solved the problem by giving minor characters nicknames. The butcher is known as T-Bone and the barber called Ben the BaBa.

I’m constantly on the lookout for character names and keep a notebook handy to jot down names that catch my eye. I study movie credits and concert programs. I even came up with a name for my spindle-shaped mayor at a traffic light when I stopped behind a Troutman Plumbing truck.

What are your favorite character names? Have you ever come across a character who shared your name? Do you ever wonder why a writer chose a certain name?

 

 Oh, no!  She shot the Texas Ranger.  Now what?

Margaret’s story: The Nutcracker Bride

12brides of ChristmasAmazon

Margaret Brownley
Margaret has published more than 40 books and is a N.Y. Times Bestselling author and two-time Romance Writers of America Rita Finalist. She writes historical novels set--where else?--in the Old West! She has written for a day time soap and is currently working on a new series. Not bad for someone who flunked 8th grade English. Just don't ask her to diagram a sentence.
Updated: October 29, 2015 — 3:55 am

25 Comments

  1. I’ve always wondered how authors came about choosing a name? Now I know how authors go about it. I think it is cool and weird at the same time when a character has your name. Some books have had my last name and yes it is neat . Thank you for all your hard work! Jenny

    1. Hi Jenny, not all authors use the same methods. Maybe some of the other fillies will share how they come up with names. Curious minds want to know!

      1. I’ll have to remember to ask that question next time I attend a book party.

  2. I imagine picking a character’s name really is a task. I did come across a character in a book with my name recently. I thought it was really cool. But I’m sure there were a lot of people saying the name wrong as they read it. I am constantly getting called the wrong name or people pronouncing it wrong. When I come across a name that doesn’t flow right in a book or one that is just too difficult to pronounce, I give that character a nickname.

    1. Hi Janine, Your idea of replacing a hard to pronounce name with a nickname is clever. I’ll have to remember that.

  3. I do wonder how they find names. Not too many with my name though.

    1. Hi Debra,

      I like your name but have not used it in a book. It sounds modern but actually Debra showed up twice on the 1810 census. By 1880, 465 women in the country were named Debra. So now you know.

  4. very interesting post,,I hardly ever see my name,,its Vickie not Victoria,,although ive had a lot of ppl call me Victoria,ill answer ,my grandmother called me Vic and i liked that,,my middle name is Lorraine,,yep named after Lorraine Day the actress,,i was born in 1955,i think my Mom watched too many old movies and i have red hair so my nickname growing up was ,yes of course “Red”

  5. Hi Vickie, I love hearing how people got their names and what was going through a parent’s mind at the time. In 1860 Victoria showed up more than 8000 times(no doubt because of the queen), but there was only one Vickie. She’s the one I’m curious about. She sounded like an independent miss to me, and one who bucked society. Not that’s my kind of heroine.

  6. Margaret, I love your post! I am interested in names and I love how you work so hard to give your characters just the right name. My name is not one seen in books often but it was in Gone With The Wind and that is exactly where my name came from. My mother was on bed rest before I arrived so my dad brought home the book to help pass the time. She loved the character, Melanie, and the rest is history! That was sixty years ago!

  7. Hi Melanie, great name! Melanie rose in popularity following GWTW. Scarlett did not. Thsnks for sharing.

  8. I don’t think I have ever found my name in a book.

    1. I definitely think Quilt Lady should be in a book!

  9. Great post! I believe that the name does play a huge role in the character and how I read the book. So I can imagine how much more of an impact it is for you writers. Names mean a lot to our family. My husband and I always knew that when it came to naming our kids we would pray about it but also choose something that has meaning. My boys are named Kaden James Baltazar, Kolton James Baltazar and our newest edition not even two months yet, her name is Kendall Danielle Baltazar. Each name has a meaning. I have never really seen my name in a book, but I would love to have a great heroin share my name in a book.

  10. Hi Cori, those are nice strong names you’ve chosen for your children. Names mean a lot to our family, too.

  11. I like your idea about yelling the name out the back door before naming your children to see how it sounds. Listening to children being called or disciplined. If I had listened a bit more carefully, I might have named our son something other than Matthew.

    I have not found my name as a character, but evidently there was a woman with my name who was an author in the late 1800’s – early 1900’s. I found one of her books in a collectable book section of a local store. By the time I decided to break down and spend the money, it was gone. I did find my husband’s name as the hero in a Regency romance.

    i don’t really have any favorite character names. It is just important that they fit the character.

    1. Hi Patricia, yes, the yelling out the door trick helps, but it does make the neighbors wonder about my sanity.

      As a child I was fascinated with the author whose name was Margaret Wise Brown and I wanted to be just like her. Never did I guess that my married name would be Brownley.

    2. I meant to add, you may not be a character in a book, but they named a hurricane after you. LOL 🙂

      1. A bit funny. I am a Red Cross disaster volunteer. So far, I don’t believe any from our region have been called out to respond to the damage she has done. I think I would hide my name tag if I did. It is heartbreaking to see the damage disasters do to property and people’s lives. We can help them catch their breath and get started, but it is such a long process whether it is a local house fire or a national disaster.

  12. “Linda” was a 1950s name so I always know how old a woman is by her name.
    I live across the road from a little cemetery so I always see interesting names when I take walks over there.

    1. Linda, I’m afraid most of our names give away our ages.

      I’ve actually “borrowed” names from the cemetery, especially children’s names. I like to think I’m giving the child a second chance at life.

  13. None so far because my name is not kimberly it’s kim which is a male asian name.

    1. That’s interesting Kim, I didn’t know that. I remember a beloved character named Kim on As The World Turns.

  14. Margaret, I know that my name is old. Lois Ruth….I was named from the women in the Bible. Your reader.

  15. I have yet to come across my name (Joy) in a book. I taught school for several years and only had one student named Joy but i taught a lot of girls named Joanne, Joan and Joyce

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