A Character By Any Other Name

My stories don’t begin to unfold until I’ve named my characters and named them correctly.  How do I know if a name is right?  I can’t explain it.  If their name is right, I can see them.  I can hear them talk.  I can create scenes and situations for them.  If a name is wrong, there is no story. 

baby_name_book.jpgWhenever I get an idea for a character or a plot or theme, I grab my binder with my worksheets, a notebook and a fun pen, a cup of coffee or tea, and then make myself comfy on the sofa.  I use a story grid to flesh out my characters’ goals and motivations and the points of the story.  But I use a stack of books and folders to find their names. 

I keep lists of everything, so of course I have lists of names I want to use. Most important for me is that their name sound like a real person, and a real person I’d want to know.  I must be a name that I won’t mind typing 400 times.  I just checked The Lawman’s Bride, and I used Clay’s name 403 times. 

26names.gifSometimes I fall in love with a name, but it’s tough to type quickly, so what I do is create an autocorrect for it in Word.  For example, if the heroine’s name is Elisabeth Ann, I create an auto correct so that each time I type in elsb+spacebar, it changes to the name I want. Where do I get my lists of names?  Lots of places, but mostly from “research meetings.”  I’m an avid movie watcher and also check out the new season TV shows. 

If I sit with a notebook and a fun pen (notice how pens are required to be special?) I can call it work.  So I watch every line of the credits and write down names I like.  If I’m watching a movie, I’ll take notes regarding what worked for me and what didn’t.  It’s research. 

pen.jpgI save graduation programs and baby name books. What else is important when choosing a name?  Sometimes nationality.  Sometimes connotation: I probably wouldn’t name a nuclear physicist Tiffany.  No offense to any nuclear physicists named Tiffany, but it just wouldn’t work for most of us.  Tiffany is a teenager’s best friend.  On the other hand, you can go against stereotype, for instance naming an enormous woman Daisy or a tiny dog Rambo. 

It’s confusing to the reader if two characters’ names are similar or their names start with the same letter.  Personally, I get lost if a writer does that.  I catch that first letter and if there are two similar, my brain doesn’t associate it quickly enough, so I constantly rethink and recheck to see who this person is and am jerked out of the story.  Here’s how I prevent that confusion and others with names: I keep a 5×7 index card with all the characters’ names on it.  At the bottom I write the alphabet.  Every time I use a letter in a first or last name I put a strike through a letter.  Of course I often use a letter two or three times, but some are for last names and others for secondary characters that won’t be confused. 

list.jpgI also create a “style sheet” for each book.  This is a page or two that I turn in with the manuscript.  It contains a list of all the character names and all the places, streets, businesses, proper nouns.  This reference helps me in creation of the story and in turn helps the copy editor.  Sure comes in mighty handy when I do a sequel! 

Once or twice I’ve gotten hung up in the creation of my story in the planning stages or first chapters.  Their name was nagging at me, because I never was quite convinced on it.  So I changed it and the story moved on. Once when I had revised a story proposal, taking out the hero and replacing him, I was completely stumped for a name and couldn’t develop the guy.  I held a contest to name him.  As soon as I saw the particular name, I knew it was the right one.  With his name in place, the character sprang to life. 

small_typogenerator_1168875275.jpgMy current hero and heroine for my work in progress, titled A Hero’s Embrace, are Jonas Black and Eliza Jane Sutherland.  Jonas was a trail rider, did a stint in the Army, and now runs a saloon, a hotel and sells employment vouchers to itinerant workers.  Eliza Jane loved working in her father’s brick factory, but never earned his approval or recognition.  When her sister took ill, she left her position to care for her.  Her sister is Jenny Lee.  Can’t you just see her?  Frail and sickly and not wanting to be a burden. 

Royce Dunlap is married to Jenny Lee, but he wants Eliza Jane and the majority of shares in the company.  Shades of Snidely Whiplash? Then there’s Marshal Warren Haglar, Nora Cahill, the helpful neighbor, Miss Fletcher the schoolteacher and Bonnie Jacobson who runs the tea room. 

Can you guess who Luther Vernon works for?  Who do you suppose Tyler is? 

silver.jpgI don’t like frivolous names or names that are difficult to pronounce.  Even if I’m not reading aloud, I want to be able to know how to “think” it correctly.  How about you?  Is there anything you find distracting about a particular name or spelling of a name?  Do you like names plain or exotic? 

Did you ever think about how much work goes into naming an entire cast of characters?   

And don’t get me started on naming a horse!

Today, I’m putting all the comments into a cowboy hat and drawing a name.  The person whose name I draw will choose a name for a secondary character in A Hero’s Embrace and receive an advance reading copy.

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23 thoughts on “A Character By Any Other Name”

  1. Can I just say that I hate the books sit in England where the men have Texan names? Really, that bothers me to no end. All the Hawks and Falcons and so forth, one would almost think the Indians left this country and moved over the Pond.

    Or the days when the women had those sugary stupid names that you KNOW were historically incorrect. Grr.I would rather read about a Eunice than a Barbie traisping around a medieval castle.

    So I guess I am more attracted to historically accurate names than the exotic ones.

  2. Call me old-fashioned, but I like plain names. Too many kids today have names with extra letters throughtout. It makes me wonder if they have a hard time spelling their own names! lol My kids have easy-to-spell names. 🙂

  3. One of my pet peeves are names that don’t tell you if the person is a man or a woman. And then there’s the accurate use of foreign names. I once read this book where one of the main characters was a Finn whose name was Jarl Hendricks. I found it hard to enjoy reading the book, because I just kept thinking “what kind of Finnish name is that supposed to be?!” Not that we wouldn’t have foreign names here too, but still…

  4. Cheryl, I often find names for my characters in cemeteries. That’s a good place for historical accurate ones. I also belong to a genealogy society and have access to lots of old names. Like you, I don’t like to read books where I can’t pronounce the name. And like Terry, I don’t want to read modern names in a historical. I tend to like them plain and a bit old-fashioned.

    Love the tidbit about your work in progress! It sounds like a winner. Good luck writing it. 🙂

  5. Hi Cher – I feel the exact same way. My characters’ names have to fit! I ponder for days and days and the worst is when your editor, doesn’t like the name and makes you change it. That only happened once to me, but I found a way because Elaine, became Elena and was called Laney by her close friends. Elaine just didn’t work in my head for the character. I use a baby name book and for my western heroes I go on the PRCA (rodeo) website to check out great hero names. 🙂

  6. Cheryl, good topic. When a story idea pops into my head, the name of the hero usually pops with it. The perfect name. It’s him. But sometimes, the name doesn’t pop, and when this happens I nearly pull my hair out trying to come up with a name. Nothing will do, nothing sounds right. No, it isn’t him!

    Secondary characters are a snap. Even the heroine is a breeze compared to coming up with that all-important hero name. I’m wondering if everyone else thinks the hero’s name is harder to fit, especially when every name you like or seems to fit has been overused.

    I have a story that’s been in the works for a long time. I love everything about it. It calls to me, wants me to write it. I have written several chapters and a bare bones skeleton of the entire thing, but I can’t seem to make any real progress with it because the hero’s name remains a mystery. Yep, that guy doesn’t has a blank to fill in everywhere his name should appear in the ms. Everyone else in the story has THE perfect name. I can see his face. I know his character, and it’s driving me nuts that no name will suit. I’m thinking I’ll have to come up with an invented name that no one else has (at least no romance hero).

    I like my heroes to have strong names, but I also like them simple to pronounce. I hate the cutesy stuff I see in some books. Mostly names that I think people should have tossed in this day and age, much less given to a historical heroine. Ai-yi-yi, they hurt my eyes to read.

  7. Cheryl, you sound like me. I had never thought to jot names from television and movie credits though. Good idea. I just recently “updated” my print out of baby names I found online…names I love, names that call to me and tell me there might be a story in there.

    I’m fascinated by names and like to keep my lists close at hand when I’m either brainstorming or have an idea for something but need the names. Until they have names to me, they’re not much of anyone…but once I find the name that calls out and says, “Hey look over here! See me! I’m your next one! Tell MY story,” then I’m set.

    I do the same as you though too…I curl up on the couch with coffee or tea, lists and pad and pen…and it HAS to be a GOOD pen a special pen…I’m a pen fanatic.

    I also try to keep the names straight- making sure that if there are two of the same first letters, they’re different from first and last name, etc and I make sure none of the names rhyme so as not to cause more confusion. I wouldn’t have a main female named Kate and her hero named Tate. My head would be spinning out of control and I wouldn’t want rhyming first and last either.

    It makes me think of The Wedding Singer where Drew Barrymore was going to marry the jerk and her married name would become Julia Gulia. LOL

    I haven’t recently come across any names that bothered me, though I’m certain I’ve read some and thought…why that name? Or did that name exist during this time period? That stuff bugs me.

  8. Names are hugely important to me, too, both as a reader and a writer. You all hit the nails on the head: stupid made-up names (I too hate it when actual parents do it to their poor unsuspecting newborns), historically inaccurate ones and characters in a story starting with the same letter. Although, hmmmm, my hubby and I start with the same letter LOL. Thanks, Cheryl, for a great, helpful post!

  9. I agree with all of you about not caring for exotic names, name swith too many letters, and names that are inaccurate for the time period. I have a picture of a Barbie castle in my head now, though. And Barbie’s dream steed, oh and Sir Ken.

    Love the cemetery resource.

  10. My Goodness you put a lot of thought/work into naming your characters LOL!

    That’s great.

    Personally, I’m lucky to know anything other than the name when I start a book…I am DEFINITELY a SOTP writer. 🙂

    Great post!

  11. I agree it has to be a name that I can pronounce. The names that people are nameing their kids now days is crazy. Apple and on and on, and the way they change the way they are spelled it is hard. I have a friend who named her boy (Blair) and the girl (Baubie) I know the way she spelled Baubie it looks like a girls name but if you just told someone that your kids names were Blair and Baubie they would not know which one was the girl and who was the boy. It always bugged me, I just that is just a silly little thing.

  12. P.S. when is there going to be another book signing? I loved that pen I got from you there I loved the way it wrote. Someone took it so they must have liked it too.

  13. I never thought about all the work it takes to create a great story and the names in it. The names of family members can be strange at the beginning of a story for me but as I am pulled into the story then I don’t notice it anymore. Also, names I can’t pronounce are distracting.

  14. When I try to write a story, finding a good name is one of the most difficult things to me. It has to be a name that isn’t too difficult and it has to fit. F.e. you don’t call a bitchy woman Linda.
    I think it’s a difficult thing, finding a good name.

  15. When reading a historical novel I like the names to be approprite for the time period. I also like names that I can pronounce and not have to think about.

  16. Hmmm I wonder if all authors put that much thought into it! I can forgive almost anything but a name that I can’t pronounce which stops me through the whole book – if it’s a strange name just let us readers know in the beginning 🙂 Oh and I so agree with not having two people with the name that starts with the same letter. I’m almost finished with 100 years of solitude (feels like it’s taking me 100 years to read it). Anyway, not only do most of the names start with A, a lot of the characters have the same name!!! what the heck!!!!

  17. What a cool post! I love learning about the writing process and enjoyed hearing about how you name your characters.

    I like all kinds of names, but I am sure I am butchering some of the pronunciations I see in paranormals and historicals.

  18. Have you ever noticed the Suzanne Brockmann names her characters truly bizarre and, I think, fun names.
    Adele Yakazinsky (not sure if that’s right but it’s like that)
    Wolchonik. Paoletti. < those are stars of the books, too, Adele isn't. And HI JENNIFER!!!!!!!!!!! I just did a guest blog on Jennifer's blog and had a great time.

  19. Hi Cheryl… remember me!!

    I really am happy that authors take time naming characters, it is really important for me to have a nice name attached to my favorite heroes.

  20. I kind of like simple names. I named my son Joseph, short and simple. My niece just named her baby girl Charly. I hate it. That’s a boys name it you ask me. I have not called the baby by her name as of yet. I call her The Little One. I may always call her that.

  21. I remember having to write stories in school and having the hardest time thinking up character names!! Let alone the plot I wanted to write…LOL!

    I enjoy reading books with “traditional” names rather than exotic. They just make the book more realistic for me.

  22. I have to agree, the name has to fit the story and the character. Names that are hard to pronounce, even in your head, can throw me off when I read a book. It’s happened in the past, although I can’t think of one offhand.

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