What’s In A Name?

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?

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13 thoughts on “What’s In A Name?”

  1. Hi Pat,

    I’m with you – I can’t even BEGIN my stories until I have the name cemented in my head and know that it suits. I place special importance on names as well. I do like Lobo for your half-breed story. And Kira, “light” is perfect.
    My favorite name was Bodine, from my recent story. Bodine only had one name. And we don’t learn his first name until the very end of the story, only if you look real hard.
    Lily, has to be my favorite heroine’s name. She was awkward, gangly, and thin, then blossomed into a beautiful woman right before the hero’s eyes, just like the flower.

  2. I tend to pick men’s names with one syllable, it’s something I’m trying to fight because it’s a little predictable. Or if the name is longer, I shorten it in nicknames in the book.
    Clay, Gabe, lots of long A sounds.
    But because I’m trying to break that up, lately I’ve done Wyatt and Silas and Tyler (still with the long vowel sounds.
    One thing I’ve run into is…picking names that are also words. I named a hero Chance once and I when I wanted to change his name, I did a find and Replace All…well, the word Chance got changed to Grant in a zillion WRONG places. So I’m a little leery of it now, although I still love the name Chance.
    I name my heroine usually, but the name isn’t written in stone for me. And usually, I name the BOOK for the heroine, as a working title, until the right title comes to me.
    So my books are named: Sophie, Cassie, Grace, Hannah….for a long time.

  3. I’m so glad I introduced this topic. I love to know how other writers work. That’s really interesting about Chance. Never thought about that, but I’m aware now. Thanks.

  4. Hi Pat, names to me are one of the most important things in a story. I can’t imagine beginning to write without knowing the characters’ names. The name always comes at the first and, like you, usually arrives with the plot or a particular circumstance. I always look at the name meanings. That helps a lot. And I establish his roots by his name. Names carry all kinds of meaning and connotation. I love the naming part.

    I, too, get stuck with certain sounds like names that begin with Mc — McClain, McKenna, McCall. And girl names that end with the “e” sound.

    But then in Redemption, I named my hero Brodie Yates. Brodie for the way my last name Broday is pronounced. I thought that was neat. And his last name Yates for Rowdy Yates of Rawhide. And in Knight on the Texas Plains, I came up with Duel as a first name because of Duel McCall, Alex McArthur’s name in Desperado.

    It always amazes me the things that come to mind when we’re naming characters. An interesting subject, Pat! And yes, I name my villians after people I don’t like much. Doesn’t everyone? 🙂

  5. I named a secondary character in one book Rooster. It wasn’t for Rooster Cogburn, John Waynes classic character in True Grit…the guy actually thought he was a Rooster.
    He WASN’T the hero.

  6. Great post! I think names have to sound right together and fit the time period. I start out naming characters after people I know or have descended from…but a recent hero got named after a street name near my son’s house LOL. It just hit me that it sounded cool.

  7. Great post! I usually start a story with names only LOL! Sometimes I’ll have a story or plotline, but that’s about it. Sometimes secondary characters appear and I won’t know who they are until they introduce themselves to me (and the characters).

    Pamela S Thibodeaux
    “Inspirational with an Edge!”

  8. When I first started writing in my teens, my sister had gotten a baby names book at the book fair at school. I nabbed it for a while and jotted down every name I liked or thought was cool. Names I wanted for baby names when I grew up and had kids of my own, but then I realized that I would never use every name for children, so I turned to it for character names when I was in doubt about what their name should be.

    I’ve relied on baby name lists for a long time and every once in a while, I’ll check the online baby name lists to search for new ones I might not have listed, or when the ones I have just don’t seem to fit any character I have in my mind.

    I can’t start a novel until I have names. The characters, for me anyway, are nobody until I know their names. Usually I’ll get a general idea and the first thing I do is turn to my lists of names until one jumps out, if one hasn’t already appeared with the idea.

    So far my favorite male name of the ones I’ve written- Dawson, the strong and handsome plantation owner who’s determined never to fall in love again after losing his young wife in childbirth. (Young Catherine’s appearance changes everything.)

    My favorite female name- probably Melody, the country singer who’s haunted by her past.

  9. I liked your comment about April since that is the name of one of my daughters lol. As a reader I’m usually happy with most names as long as I know how to pronounce it. Otherwise I struggle through the whole book and it really bothers me.

  10. I can’t write a story until I know the names of my characters. Their names define them in my head. I can change names later, if need be, but that has happened only rarely. Sometimes my story just won’t take off, and it’s because I don’t have just the right name in place.

  11. I am not a writer but enjoyed this. I visit this blog often. If you ever need an interesting name, Athena, is a good one. This is my neice’s name and is a Goddess.
    An old fashion name is Alma which you don’t hear much. It was my Mother-in-law’s and is my daughter’s name. At least she never had anyone in her class who had her name.
    My Grandmother was name Eliza Jane, a name you don’t hear often today and she was always glad my Dad never gave me the Eliza part. My other Grandmother was Pearl Florence which I think is unusual.
    Just sharing. God Bless.

  12. Hay Linda,I am glad to here of the new book I am going to grab it and run and hide to read it.I got an Idea for a name for a good outlaw or hero as he is to me.Keep Tulsa in your book of names .He is a wonderful grandson of mine and he loves anything to do with cowboys.Corse I can brag he is my favorite .well i am still fishing for a publisher and i have some bites i am considering .Keep the good stories comming and take care of yourself and tell Jan and Rick I said hello if you get to see them soon

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