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!