"Gabrielle Holly spins her stories in a way that will take you on an emotional rollercoaster you'll never forget!"
~Paranormal Romance Junkies

Monday, January 13, 2014

What's in a (Character) Name?

Our characters are our creations. We give birth to them, nurture them and guide them. So, it’s no surprise that assigning monikers to our little bundles of joy (or heartache, or mayhem) can be as vexing to authors as naming flesh-and-blood progeny.

It doesn’t have to be. Here are some tips, tricks and devices that I – and those much smarter than I am – have come up with to help you win the Name Game.

Don’t Get Hung Up on It
If you’ve got a killer plot and engaging characters don’t wait around for the perfect names. Get to it!

I’ve started writing plenty of books knowing who my characters were – but without a clue as to what to call them. I just use ‘placeholders’. I’ve gotten pages into a manuscript with “Hero,” “Heroine,” and “Best Friend” doing and saying interesting things.

When their names do come to me, I employ the search-and-replace function and can finally stop calling my darlings Hey You.

Your Name Suits You 
Scholarly papers have been written about Charles Dickens’ knack for descriptively naming characters. He had a way of dropping clues as to who we were dealing with by their handle alone. Ebenezer Scrooge – not a nice guy. Uriah Heep – likewise, not a nice guy. Polly Toodle – sure to be sweet and kind.

aptronym (also aptonym)
1. a person’s name that is regarded as amusingly appropriate to their occupation.

1. a name that aptly represents a distinctive trait of a fictional character.
So is this Dickensian naming device still effective after nearly 200 years? I think it can be. But what about turning it on its ear? Humor writers might want to consider naming their timid male character Studs Lionheart rather than Mousey Wimple.

It’s a Family Name
Well-chosen names can help set a tone, or give us insight into a character’s upbringing.

In our Getting Personal With interview with author J. Rose Allister, she explains how she came up with her hero’s name - Nature Antillean, aka Nate the Crate – in her contemporary erotic romance “Nature’s Bounty.” 
"I like titles that play on words or have dual meanings. Nature is the hero Nate’s full name, something he gets teased about in the book. I thought it would be fun to have a hard-bodied, no-nonsense bounty hunter with a name that sounds like his parents picked it out at Woodstock." ~ J. Rose Allister

All About Alliteration
Using alliterative names for main characters (the first and last initials are the same letter) has been popular since Tiny Tim first hobbled into readers’ hearts.

King Kong, Bugs Bunny, Peter Parker, Olive Oyl, Bilbo Baggins, Lex Luthor and Severus Snape all double-down in the monogram department.

It’s an old trick, but one that can signal a character’s importance.

Which One Are You Again?
Don’t make your readers work too hard to keep your characters straight. Make sure everyone has a unique name – preferably with different initials.

I broke this rule in my Ghost Encounters series—my heroine’s name is Toni and my hero’s name is Thomas*. Because they are different genders, it works. What didn’t work was when, in the first draft of book 1 Soldier of Love, I introduced a secondary character named Trevor Todd. Not only another 'T' character, but a double-T at that! My editor caught it and I renamed him Arthur Edwards.

*Thomas Becker, the hunky ghost-hunting star of the television show Paranormal Research Team, has a deeply personal need to prove the existence of ghosts. He wants to believe, but is skeptical. I gave him his name because he’s my ‘doubting Thomas’.

Perfect Timing
Alice and Mildred are great names for female characters born in 1920. Reagan and Kennedy are not. If you’re writing a period piece, make sure that character names fit the era—and, if applicable, the place.

Most of the secondary characters in my Viking romance books “Delivering Kadlin” and “Rescuing Kadlin” were found by searching historical references online. I never would have come up with ‘Hjortr’ and ‘Finnr’ on my own!

The U.S. Social Security Administration has a great resource – Popular Baby Names by Decade that can generate ideas and help you make sure your character names are historically correct.

Make it Mean Something
I was very careful in choosing the names in my historical Viking romances “Delivering Kadlin” and “Rescuing Kadlin.” The hero’s name – Bjorn – means ‘bear’ – which fits him perfectly. The antagonist in “Rescuing Kadlin” is Ginna, which means deceiver or enchantress.

While those characters literally “mean something,” the names you choose can have special meaning to you. As noted above, my skeptical hero on the Ghost Encounters series is named Thomas – as in ‘doubting Thomas’.

The location and character names in my paranormal/werewolf romance series Wolf’s Mark were chosen as an homage to the 1941 film “The Wolf Man.” The Lon Chaney, Jr. classic is one of my favorites and inspired so many of my nightmares… and fantasies.


Behind the Names in “Animal Behavior” and the Wolf’s Mark Series:
  • Talbot – the town where most of the story takes place is the surname of main character Larry Talbot in “The Wolf Man” (1941).
  • Gwen Chaney – Our heroine takes her first name from the female lead character in “The Wolf Man” and her last name from the lead actor Lon Chaney, Jr.
  • John Chaney – Gwen’s late grandfather takes his first name from “The Wolf Man” character Sir John Talbot (the hero’s father in the movie).
  • Jenny Williams – This duplicitous little new werewolf takes her name from the doomed best friend in “The Wolf Man.”
  • Henry Waggner – The kindly barber (and werewolf) is named for “The Wolf Man” director, George Waggner.

A Word of Caution
Avoid at all costs naming characters after real people. It might be tempting to name your hero after a high-school crush, or your villainess after the conniving coworker in the next cubical, but Do.Not.Do.It! It’s not worth the exposing yourself to the potential backlash.

I’m Still Stuck!
Here are a few online resources that can help:

  • Social Security Administration – Popular Baby Names by Decade
  • The Baby Center has LOADS of articles on choosing names including those inspired by gemstones, places, nature and holidays.
  • Behind the Name has a fun random name generator. Just check off one or more parameters and click Generate a Name.
If your book is set in a foreign country, I would suggest searching the Internet. For example, Google “Popular Irish Boy Names.”

A Final Thought
Names are important. Spend some time choosing the best ones for your darling characters. After all, would Scarlett O'Hara have been as memorable if Margaret Mitchell had just said, "Eh, Jane Doe sounds good enough"?

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