Tuesday, May 29, 2012

What's in a Name?

We all know that names are important. We love our name or hate it enough to change it once we reach legal age. Women are less willing than their grandmothers to change their last names when they marry, hence the advent of the hyphenated surname. 

I have told people that I don't name my cats, they tell me what their name is. On occasion I've named a cat only to change it later when the cat subtly let me know his displeasure.

It's the same with characters in books. Sometimes the name comes into my head immediately. Other times I have had to search long and hard for the right name. One of my favorite places to find an unusual but apt name is in the obituaries. Of course, I don't take the entire name and plop it in my book, I am as averse to being sued as the next writer. I mix and match.

Baby name sites in the Internet are good because they give you the meaning of the name. Do you want your character to be manly? a leader? wise and good? You can find appropriate names here.

And, at a pinch, I turn to the telephone book.

The lead character in my current WIP is named Marcie. I wanted her to be kind and sympathetic, almost to a fault. Mercy would be too obvious, but Marcie--I hope--leads the reader to subconsciously translate this quality from her actions. The male hero is Adam Shepherd. He's a minister. 'Nough said.

A secondary character is named Moon. It isn't a nickname, Moon was born in the sixties of a Flower Child mother named Light. She called her three daughters Sun, Moon and Star. When Moon complains that Sunny and Star got the best of the deal, while she was always subject to teasing, she is asked why she doesn't change it.

"Because it's my name," she says incredulously.

That's one that popped in my head. Maybe as I revise it will be abandoned. Or maybe not.

One name I had to change was Beth's husband, Dan, in "The Lunch Club". I originally called him Dave. Then I  realized that was the name of the main character in Linda Evan's Book, "Jobless Recovery." Both Daves are out of work. My Dave was older and married, but I still felt badly about stealing her name. So I changed it. Dan will always be Dave to me, though.

How do you come up with names for your characters? Do they pop into your head or do you spend hours finding just the right one?

Remember, Margaret Mitchell originally called Scarlett O'Hara "Pansy." Would a Pansy have sailed virtually unscathed through the Civil War?

I think not. And neither did Mitchell.



  1. Names pop into my head, Sandy.


  2. Usually, names come easy to me. But sometimes, I need to use the baby name dictionary to help. But what I really like, is to start with a name I don't necessarily like, and the character suddenly takes hold of that name and makes it his own.

    In my current manuscript, my hero's older brother is Francis. I was told in English it could be both for men and women, but Francis is now Francis, and there is no way under this sun he could be confused for a woman.

    I'd thought to change it to something more manly, but now I can't. He is Francis.

    1. You are correct -- the feminine version is Frances. So ddon't change it.

  3. HI Sandy,
    For the over 40 crowd, A BOY NAMED SUE, comes to mind. I'm addicted to BabyNames.com for my characters names. I want to make sure the meaning of the name fits the charater.
    Great blog.

  4. I keep a list of names I like for future books. But sometimes, the characters name themselves. As I'm writing, a name will just pop into my mind and into the keyboard! Not the one I wanted, but somehow, better!