Cheryl St.John: What’s in a Name?

Name Graphics

As the rest of you probably have, I checked out both Borders stores in my city for bargains. I put two baby name books back on the shelf, but bought one. The Big Book of 60,000 Baby Names. I already had ten name books. So…I threw away two of the old ones. I never even realized until making an inspection of my shelf that they were tattered and the pages were actually yellow. I use them all the time. All the time.

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 couple of fun pens, a cup of chai 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. I didn’t mention the name folder, did I? Oh, or the NY name index encyclopedia or my reverse name dictionary.

I am not obsessive. I’m thorough. (You may quote me.)

Most important for me is that the character’s name sound like a real person—and a real person I’d want to know. It must be a name that I won’t mind typing 400 times. I just checked one of my books, and I’d used the hero’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. 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, school band programs and baby name books. I’ve come home from many a burial with names from gravestones written on the back of my memorial folder. If you browse the library book sales and Friends of the Library sales, you can find vintage registers and books about county and state officers, townships, etc. filled with names. These type books often include maps with street names and businesses.

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 they 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:

For each book I keep a 5×7 index card with all the characters’ names handy. 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. The story person’s name had been nagging at me, because I never was quite sold on it. So I changed the name 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 on my blog to name him. As soon as I saw a particular name, I knew it was the right one. With his name in place, the character sprang to life.

My October novella in the Snowflakes and Stetsons anthology is about U.S. Marshal Jonah Cavanaugh. He’s all about duty and justice. Meredith Abbot is the rich spoiled daughter of a railroad tycoon on her way to Denver for a Christmas ball. He looks like Gabriel Aubrey and she like Debra Messing. Can you picture them? Mix in a gang of robbers after a gold shipment, a Pullman stranded in a blizzard over Christmas, and you have…well a lot of fun and some serious kisses.

The story I just finished is The Wedding Journey for Love Inspired Historical. Now it’s a continuity book, so the editors came up with the bible and the names for main characters. All the rest of the names are mine however. Secondary character Aideen Nolan is a young-ish spinster who is traveling to America from Ireland. She meets a mysterious cowboy on board. His name is Judd Norton. It’s an 1850 Irish immigrant story that takes place entirely on a ship, and that was my way to get one cowboy into the book. Other secondary characters are Goldie McHugh, Henry Begg, Margaret Madigan, Michael Gibbon and Reverend Theobald Matthew.

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? 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!

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30 thoughts on “Cheryl St.John: What’s in a Name?”

  1. Wow, Cheryl, does this post resonates with me. It takes blood, sweat and tears sometimes to find just the right name for a hero or heroine, and if you don’t give them the right name they just don’t talk to you (of course they don’t know who you’re talking about). In my recent ms, it must have taken weeks of me typing one name for the heroine then deleting it and typing another. I went through baby name books, history books, and listened to random conversations on the street finally finding the perfect name for her and the story took off from there.

    You’re so right; the character’s name defines their character. I try to steer clear of using exotic or difficult names, because I don’t want a reader so distracted with how to pronounce the hero’s name they miss all the action in the gunfight.

    And naming horses can send a person into a fit of apoplexy.


  2. The name of a character is soooo important and like you, I have to know that name before much gets done. I’ve had a couple of characters come to me already named (now that was an interesting experience) and I’ve used old family names. But for the most part, I spend a lot of time looking for names. I have one book I use all the time, and I love my reverse naming dictionary. Movie credits are a great place to find names–and listen to a summary of the movie’s background music. 🙂

    When folks try to get too exotic with their names–especially in fantasy or sci fi–I shudder (knowing that some of my names may come close to that sudderablity for some). I mean, honestly, there should be a limit to how many consenants or vowels can be in a row!

    I’ve treatd horses, just like any other character. And keep their names in my lists. Dogs too.

  3. I’m with you, Cheryl. I can’t really get started until my characters are named. And the names have to resonate. My biggest name resource is the online census records since you can go back to 1880 to find the most popular names of that historical period.

    Sometimes, I use names that match the character in a subtle way. Like Adelaide Proctor. She’s a teacher. Proctor – Teacher. Jericho, the hero in my first book, had walled off his heart like the city in the Bible. The heroine marches him around in circles until those walls come down. These little nuances help the names really connect with the character in my mind. The reader may never pick up on them, but it’s fun for me.

    Thanks for a great post!

  4. I’m kind of the opposite with names. Sometimes I have an idea first. As I work on it, the characters change, and that leads to different names. In the thinking stage, all my heroines are named “Susan.” Why Susan? I have no idea! Maybe It harkens back to the children’s books with Tom, Betty and Susan. Eventually the heroine outgrows her “Susan” name and I find the one that’s really “her.”

    What gets me these days is that I’ve used most of my favorite names, especially for heroes. For some reason, I’m partial to “J” names, i.e., John, Jake, Josh and Jonah 🙂

  5. I’m with you, too, Cheryl. I can’t go ahead with my character until that name is in place. I also need the H & H names to sound good together, and I have to make sure that her married name will sound ok when the HEA comes. I also try to make sure my major characters have names that start with different letters of the alphabet (unless they’re twins), and that none of the names rhyme. Prevents confusion.
    Obsessive?? Yeah, I hear you, girl.

  6. Karen, I was you for a minute there, sorry.

    Spot on about the online sources! I found ship’s manifests and marriage license documents a while back that have provided a great resource.

  7. Names first – because names lend “character” to a person. I also scan the obituaries. I have an Irish and a celtic baby name book, couple of generic ones and my 35,000+ standard. I pay close attention to setting – I once read a historical where the heroine’s name was totally not appropriate for that time period. Some names are more “rural” while others have a “city” feel. Geography plays a big part – you wouldn’t find Bubba in the north, for instance. It gave me a giggle to read that John Grisham’s favorite book in his office is his 10k baby name book.

  8. Cher, what a great list of tips. I’m going to have to steal some of these. One place I love to get names from is cemeteries. I love reading those old tombstones. But, like you, I also have some baby name books. Those often contain other valuable information like the place of origin and things like that. I guess we all have methods that work for us.

    Can’t wait for your Christmas anthology! Sounds wonderful. It seems our minds were thinking alike somewhat when we plotted our anthologies. My Christmas story that also releases in October deals with passengers on a train stranded by a blizzard. I’m sure they’ll be very different though. Love Snowflakes and Stetsons. That’s catchy and different for a Christmas anthology.

    I’m currently reading Her Wyoming Man and I love it. Ella has such bad past to try to overcome. And Nathan is just the one to help to her.

  9. Cheryl,

    Her name is Hannah. It’s funny, because it’s the second ms in a series and I set aside this story to work on some edits in the first. I’d named a little girl in the first story Hannah and when I came across it, I knew that was my heroine’s name. So, the little girl got a name change and my heroine was born. :o)

  10. HI Cher, great post. I too am obsessed with names. I do have a heroine named Tiffany coming up this fall LOL. She does fit the part, though.

    You sound so wonderfully organized. It’s something I have yet to develop. I have Wyoming Man on the Kindle and hope to find time soon. On I love the names Ella and Nathan! Good job! oxoxxo

  11. Bailey, I didn’t know that about John Grisham. Cool fact.

    Linda, we’ll definitely trade books when our author copies arrive, eh? I didn’t pick the title of the anthology or my own novella title actually. You just roll with the punches in this biz, eh?

    I’m excited to know you’re reading about Ella this week!

  12. Tanya, if you could see my desk right now, you would take back that comment of me being organized. LOL

    If you go to Kindlegraph, I can sign your copy of Her Man for you!

  13. I’m sure Tiffany works for your story, Tanya! I know a wonderful persona named Tiffany–our pastor’s wife, in fact–and it suits her perfectly.

    I have never done a Hannah, Kirsten.

  14. As I reader I am glad that you all spend so much time naming your characters. I do not care to read a story with difficult names and by that I mean names that are too similar, or difficult to pronounce(think) or way off the wall.

    My first daughter was a Kjerstin for months before she was born. When she was born with black hair, Angela seemed to fit her better, so Angela she is. Of course she lost all that black hair and became a blond as a child. 🙂

  15. I had enough difficulty in selecting names for
    our children! I’d never be able to name characters!
    I’d be changing the names every day!

    Pat Cochran

  16. Hi Cheryl–great post!

    Too bad we have to name our children before personalities become evident. Apparently I was misnamed because everyone including my teachers called me Kate. Every once in awhile people still call me Kate–don’t know why.

  17. Cheryl,

    Great post I have a collection of books on baby names. I love unique and different names. Example, Sage I think that is such a beautiful name. Anyway thanks for the post

    Walk in harmony,

  18. Lol, Cheryl! What’s in a name indeed.
    Have you ever tried to change a character’s name? I had two secondary characters whose names started with N – Nelson and Nathan. When I realized I’d done it, I politely asked Nathan if he would mind a different name. No way! Luckily Nelson was a little more easy-going. He was willing to become Logan, but I had to ask him VERY nicely.

  19. Interesting post, Cheryl. I know I struggle with teh names of my hero — usually my editor changes them, however. So I don’t always sweat over the names for that reason. 🙂

    But goodness how I sweat over them, also.

  20. Cheryl this was so interesting. I have never thought of an authors process for picking names for her characters..

    Now we know when we read one of your books, just how interesing a name can be..

  21. Cheryl, what a great blog! Believe it or not, but I originally read it about 6:45 this morning, but didn’t have time to make a comment (grandkids to get off to day school LOL) … and now everyone has said what I was thinking! Really thought provoking. I love the tip to keep track of the first letter of the names, because that’s something I have problems with. My last story, I got totally through with it before one of my critique partners realized I’d began almost every woman’s name with an “L”, including my heroine. So change, change, change. Love your tip. Our friend Hilary Sares gave me a tip a couple of weeks ago. Don’t use names that ends with an s. It’s hard on the reader and also, needless to say, hard to punctuate sometimes. Guess nobody will ever use Phyliss then! I get character names from a baby book, but also for historicals, cemeteries. Like most of you, I spend a lot of time working on finding the perfect name and it has to fit 100%. Big hugs, P

  22. Cheryl, has your Christmas story appeared somewhere before? The names and story sound familiar. Maybe it is ESP : )

    I can imagine how it must become difficult to come up with good names after writing so many stories. It really does make a difference what a character is named. Sometime the name will really be a good name, but it may have a negative association for the reader because of someone they know. Not much you can do about that.
    A good combination of names makes for an enjoyable read. I am glad you take such care with the names you choose.

    Margaret, funny you should have that name problem with Kate. I had a professor in college who called me Deborah for 3 years. No one else had ever done it. However, just recently someone called me Deborah again, 40+ years later.

    Thanks for an interesting post.

  23. Goodness, Patricia, I surely hope this story hasn’t been somewhere before! LOL It’s a brand new one I just wrote and hasn’t been released yet.

    But you know, Solomon said there’s nothing new under the sun. Obvious when Tanya said she just wrote a book about people stranded on a train in a blizzard. Go figure.

    Karen, I think I’d have a hissy if an editor changed my hero’s name. I did have an editor suggest a name change early on at the proposal stage. His name was Aiden and she didn’t want any A names.

  24. I’m late to the party! Sorry 🙂 I had a character named “Elizabeth”, but I didn’t want to use that name because my critique partner had just published a book with an “Elisabeth”. I tried to name my character “Isabelle” but my fingers kept typing “Elizabeth.”

    My critique partner finally said it was, “Okay.” She’s very nice. And also super good looking and smart.

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