I’m often asked where – and how – I get names for my characters. I must admit that after fifty books, it’s getting a wee bit more difficult, but then some names come along with the first buds of a story idea. I’m always amazed when I hear some of my fellows writers say they don’t know the name of their characters until the middle of the book. They might call them x and z or just “he” and “she” until the right name pops into their head. I can’t do that. The name, to me, is an intricate part of who they are and how they are going to act and react.It was easy in the beginning. We all have names that immediately bring images to mind. In my western heroes, it was always strength. That usually mean short, stark names like Matt (Although my preference for that name probably comes from my long, devoted association with Matt Dillon).So my western heroes included Rafe, Rhys (an Englishman who tried to steal an earlier book and got his own western), Wade, Ben, Clint, Sean, Kane and Ben.Sometimes the name hits at the same time as a story line. One was MacKenzie. I knew from the very first inkling of the story line what his name would be. It came with the idea.. MacKenzie was the half-breed son of a hermit Scotsman who loved Robert Burns.
He was a ruthless Army scout accused of killing a sergeant. In escaping army custody, he kidnaps the general’s daughter. Her name also came easily. She was gentle and thoughtful and kind, the exact opposite of the brooding, defensive Mackenzie. What else but April? Reawakening. Soft. Gentle.
He, of course, was just plain MacKenzie until the last two pages when we discovered he was actually Burns MacKenzie, named after the Scottish poet.
Probably my favorite western hero was named Lobo, an illiterate Apache-raised gun for hire. Again the name came with the story. From the moment he was born in my mind, he was Lobo. Despised by Indians and whites alike.
His heroine too needed a name that described her. Willow was a school teacher well versed in the classics who got her job by submitting an application as W. George Taylor and who continually shocked her town, first by being a woman, then by taking in a collection of misfits, including the town’s prostitute and an alcoholic ex-sheriff. A willow, her schoolmaster father always said, was strong because it bent with the wind but never broke.
So basically I try to find a name that fits the character. If she’s a strong tomboy type, I lean toward a name that can be shortened to a nickname: Nicky, Samantha (Sam); Catalina (Cat). If she appears softer (though still strong), it’s something like Sara.
In “Notorious,” my heroine was an ex-prostitute who ran a saloon and was hard as nails. She took on the name of Catalina, but everyone shortened it to Cat. It suited her well. She had sharp claws. And she was perfect for Marsh Canton, a gambler who was her match in every way.
I love writing Scottish books as well as westerns. I’ve always thought Scotland and the west had a lot in common: a rough lawless land and heroes bigger than life. I really like Scottish names and have used them when some of my Scottish heroes go west (The Scotsman Wore Spurs). And their names are just plain fun. Alex or Alexander is probably my favorite. Strong and commanding (think Alexander the Great). But I’m also a sucker for Patrick and Lachlan and Ian and Rory.
There’s more leeway, of course, in my contemporaries. After fifty books, I sometimes run out of names. So I retreat to the baby name books. So I turn to one of my four baby names books. One is particularly valuable because it has names sorted by country of origin. Need a Norwegian name? It’s there. Or a Russian one? Yep, it’s there.
But still it’s a matter of finding exactly the right one for the character. It often takes several days or longer to weigh various possibilities and pick the exact right one.
In my current work in progress, my heroine nearly died as a newborn. Her mother found Kira’s name in a baby book. It means “light” in Latin, and to Kira’s mother her child was a special light.
The hero came from the streets. He was abandoned and he hated the name he’d been given by a foster family. He had ambitions, and so he changed his name to Maxwell. It had the sound of someone of importance. But when he achieved a certain level of success he became Max. It suited him, being a little of both: gutter fighter and successful attorney.
And so names come from different places. Villains usually carry the name of someone who displeased me at one time in my life. The names of heroes and heroines sometimes come from people I like (Sara) , or simply because they’re just “right” for the character.
Last names? Except for the principal characters, I usually pick them out of a phone book at random. Otherwise, I have a tendency to use the same names repeatedly.
How does everyone else choose names?