Thursday, January 13, 2011

Naming Characters

It always fascinates me to hear how other writers work, how they write and what happens during their creative process. One of the things I always wonder about as I start a book is where the character's names came from. I think it's because I know where mine do--from everywhere and anything and sometimes from nowhere and nothing! That makes sense, right? LOL. I'm one of those people who'll scan the credits of a TV show or movie for interesting names, look at the contributors list in magazines, gosh I've even been known to scan my kid's school contact list! I have a number of baby name books as well. One of them has 20,000 names in it! It's the one I used to name my kids, so it's kinda special.

Sometimes I'll just hear a name somewhere or I'll see it and I'll file it away for later. That's what happened with Rio from PAY UP. I've had that name identified as one I would use eventually for a long time. I just needed the right guy. I actually have a document that lists possible names and I usually look at it before I start a book UNLESS the story has started with a character so strongly, that the name is already there. It happens like that sometimes. The character will just pop into my head, fully formed and already with a name. I'm sure it's something from my subconscious, but it sometimes feels like it's come from thin air. Occasionally, I'll be developing a character profile and I'll get to a certain point and the character suddenly 'becomes' someone. It happened that way with Jillian from PICTURE THIS. Jillian is not a name that would have normally gotten my attention, but when I created her profile, she just 'seemed' like a Jillian. To me, anyway.

I try to pick names that are easy to pronounce and wouldn't have a reader wondering how they sound, but past experiences also come into play. There are particular names that have connotations and associations that would make it impossible for me to use them for heroes or heroines. It might be people I know, family, those from the past that have too many echoes (positive or negative) that would prevent me from relating to them enough to write them. I also have this issue sometimes as a reader. If there's a book with a name that I too readily associate with a living person, it can make it challenging to really engage with that character and become invested with them. Of course, a good writer telling a great story can usually get me past that.

So, you really care about character names, one way or the other? Would other writers like to share how they name their characters?


  1. I find character names interesting. When I read books I get really into them, at least if the book is good I do. It is like I am the fly on the wall watching the story unfold. So if I have to stop and wonder "what kind of name is this" or "how do I pronounce that?" It distracts me.

    That being said I do like unique or clever names as well, as long as I can pronounce them.

  2. I'd be really interested to see what the readers say.
    I'm like names come from everywhere. Once I took a name from a police blotter I was looking at!

  3. Like you, I keep a list of names I like. I might come across them on credits, in phone books, online etc... But they stay on a list until I have the right character. When it comes to actually choosing a name for a character, I look up meanings and origins in baby name books or their online equivalents. I take into consideration the state/country/region or heritage of the character because the name has to make sense. Beyond that, once I've narrowed down a few, it's a gut you had with Jillian. It'll feel right, almost like when your baby is born and after one look you know which name fits. I'm also limited by people I know. There may be a name I love, but if it belongs to a neighbor I consider it off limits, LOL! Great post, Kaily! And love your skiing avatar :).

  4. Hi, Tink! I struggle with names I can't pronounce in books as well. I usually just make up something so that I can get back into the story with it, but I never know if it's right ot not. I try to find a balance with mine between recognizable but not too common.

    Amber, yeah, you just never know when you're going to come across an awesome name. I guess out writer's hats are always on.

    Rula, the funny thing is my list of 'great' names keeps growing, but I rarely use one right off the list. I'm not so much into name meanings unless there's some specific significance, but certainly the background and culture of that character has to come into play. Rio Reyes for example. You're right. You just 'know' when it works!

    Oh, and if I don't ski well? I can only hope to look as stylish as my avatar!

  5. Character names are very important to me as once I start reading a book and it is one that is really gripping and I just have to get to the end to see what happens,the character names help me to form the mental picture that the books give me of what the character looks like and if I get a image of a hero that is strong and powerful then his name should match. The same goes for when the heroine is one who is truly beautiful and her name should match her elegance and or beauty . I hope I have made sense !

    All the best
    Have fun on your trip !

  6. I haven't thought of just building an idea bank - good idea. I recently decided that I hated the name of the lead female in the piece I'm working on. It didn't fit her, didn't fit the story and it was boring. Led to a brainstorming session and a good deal of using the "find and replace" command.

    I think simple, ageless names work best. I couldn't connect to a heroine named Myrtle, for instance. Marie, Jill, James, Joe, etc., yes. That's something I greatly admire and wish I could capture about most of the earlier Nora Roberts books. She does such a good job writing that you can build and hold an image of the characters in your head but in retrospect the story could have taken place anytime in the past 30 years. She used that several times to build a storyline and then shift it into the past to be able to tell the children of the main characters' stories.

  7. Desere, makes sense! The name is one part of enabling a reader to really engage and relate to the character. In the book I'm currently working on, my heroines's name is Lily. She's coolly beautiful and elegant (at least on the surface) and the name just fits. Thanks RE the trip. I'll try to not throw myself down any slopes LOL!

    Dreama, Nora Roberts is one of my favorite authors. Her stories are timeless as you say and she is a master at characterization. She always has characters names that just seem so right.

  8. I also watch the TV credits for names! Especially for last names. Usually my character names just come to me...but I have to be careful because I'm drawn to certain letters. In one of my novellas, I realized at the end that I had five characters with names beginning with the letter C. I had to go back and change some of them. One poor guy went through five name changes until I found one that fit.

    One source I use for naming is the social security website. It lists popular baby names by year. So I can look up age appropriate names.
    Here's the url:

  9. Cara, I was reading a book recently where that happened and had slipped through the publishing process. Three of the central characters had very similar names and it was very confusing! Of course, right now I'm fuzzy from cold medicine so I'm doing good if I can keep my own name straight!

  10.'s funny how our minds work...the way they latch onto things. I'm glad I caught my mistake!

  11. Character names are not always easy for me. I try to make the name fit the genre I'm writing. But still, I do like easy to pronounce names when I'm reading a story or book. lol, some of my characters in SF are not always easy. so I guess I can't complain about other author's character names.

  12. Cara, I have a website I usually check as well for common names through the years. Very useful!

    Dreama, I've read a book as well where I was confused by the character's names. It was the hero and villan that was very similar. Very distracting.

    Hey, Kaye! I can imagine SF is a bit more challenging :)!