Monday, June 14, 2010

What's In A Name?

The names of characters in books. Yeah, I’ve been known to stress over them. Sometimes the names for my characters come at me fast—kind of like that insurance commercial. State Farm, is it? I forget. Anyway, I’ll see or hear a name for a main character and it will fit like a glove.

And I have a notebook with pages of names that I see (or hear) that I like, saving them for just the right novel or short story. I choose them for all sorts of reasons—they’re interesting, they sound cool when you say them, the guy was hot. I also find names in gobs of places—newspapers, magazines, books, movies, baby name books, friends, friends of friends, parties. One time I found an intriguing name in an obituary, but I’ll never tell which one. I’ve also been known to use a few names from family members. For example, one of my most favorite names for a male character is Joseph. It also happens to be my father’s name, my brother’s name, and even my brother-in-law’s name. We have a lot of Joe’s in my family.  I'm pretty fond of that name.

And a name has to “fit” the personality of the character. Sometimes this is easy, but not always. For example, let’s say I need to choose a name for a nasty teenage girl. That’s easy. A name (and a very specific face, unfortunately) for that character will always come to my mind, loud and clear. But I can’t call my villain the same name in every book, as much as I’d like to. Taking it to the other extreme, let’s say I need to choose a name for a hot, hunky guy. Sorry, but names like Ed, Chester, and Cecil don’t scream hot, hunky guy but maybe that’s just me. These are extreme examples but you get the idea.

In my latest book CAPTIVE SPIRIT, I had a different challenge. All of the characters in this book, with the exception of three, are Hohokam Indians. Obviously I chose Native American names for the Hohokam Indian characters and I chose them because of their meanings. Aiyana is my lead character in the book and her name means “Eternal Blossom.” When I found her name, I knew it would be perfect for her. Honovi is her love interest and his name means “Strong Deer.” Love his name, too. Now whenever I think of Honovi, the Honovi in CAPTIVE SPIRIT comes to my mind’s forefront. He grew into his name.  And he is a sight to behold, I promise you. ;-)

Even though I wasn’t initially familiar with all of the Native American names in CAPTIVE SPIRIT, as I started to develop and write the characters, their names became more alive for me. And after I finished writing the book, I couldn’t have imagined any other names.

Writers: How do you go about choosing names? Readers: Are names important for you or are we authors stressing over nothing? Bonus question: Are there names that have certain connotations for you?


Unknown said...

Names do have (some) meaning for me. It depends really. I try to pick names that go with their cultural background, but since I deal with vampires who've lived for centuries, sometimes it's not really surprising that they've chosen different names than one might expect.

That said, some names are meant to convey certain things. For example, the hero in my first work is Anthony Michael Caldwell, (if he's in England) Duke of Savage Crest. I needed fairly English-sounding name, but with the title, it's about building up the arrogance/condescension factor. Another character, Christine Javert, changed her last name b/c she was a big fan of the musical "Les Mis". That's just how out there Chris can be.

Liz Fichera said...


Yes, so true about cultural context. Love the name Anthony, though. That's one of those timeless names, I think, like Christine, which I think is so beautiful.

Jude said...

I am not a fan of those trendy type names, like the ones where people are named after cities.

Liz Fichera said...


So names like Paris, Dakota, and Brooklyn are probably not your cup of tea? ;-) I'll admit, they're not my fav names either, but let's say you're writing a young adult novel, you've got to consider your audience. As Elizabeth pointed out earlier, sometimes your names have to fit your times and the cultural context. Kids reading young adult novels today don't expect to see names that were popular maybe 30 years ago.

Maria Zannini said...

I go through a great deal of trouble when picking out names.

In my last book, Touch Of Fire, the setting is 1200 years after an apocalypse, and there is one group of people where the given name of a newborn is taken from what the elders see that day.

For example the MC is: Greyhawke Tam.

I research meanings of names too to make sure they fit with the personality of the character.

My biggest pet peeve though is when authors make up these long, preposterous names I can't pronounce. They lose their intended effect and just makes me grumpy. :/

Liz Fichera said...

Maria, Touch of Fire sounds cool! And I'm with you on unpronouncable names. I'm okay with long, as long as it can roll off my tongue.

Angelina Rain said...

I agree about the super long, complicated names. If I can't pronounce the name, I don't want to read about the person it's attached to. Although I'm unpublished (attempting to publish) I avoid naming my characters Jane, Joe, or John, just because there are so many books with those same characters. I try to use rare or classic names. Sometimes, I check out soap opera websites because they have a lot of cool rare names. When reading, I also hate it when useless characters have fancy names. If the housekeeper appears in only one scene, she should not be named Esmerelda Slovez and have a big back story when she will never be seen again. That name should be reserved for a bigger character. The bestselling author Sandra Brown tends to do that a lot. Although I love her books, I hate it when she goes into great detail about some character, their appearance, back story, ect. and then that character is never seen again other then to occupy five boring pages.

Liz Fichera said...

Lia, checking soap opera websites is a GREAT idea. I must remember that one. Totally agree with you on too much backstory for insignificant characters. To me, that's just filler. Why get me emotionally invested in a character and never bring him/her back to the story? Makes no sense.