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.
Whenever 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.
Sometimes 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.
I 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.
I 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.
My 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?
I 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?
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.