Tuesday, March 20, 2012

What's in a Name? How Do You Name Your Characters

By Karen Walters

Part of the How They Do It Series 

JH: Today I'd like to welcome Karen Walters to the blog to chat with us about naming characters. This is a question I get asked a lot during my school visits, so I know readers (or at the very least the younger ones) are very interested in how us writers come up with our names. A good thing to have tucked away for when you're speaking with your future readers!

Karen lives on the edge of the Hill Country in South Central Texas with her husband and son and daughter. She is working on her first novel set during the Texas Revolution and is blogging about it at http://scratchesonlinen.wordpress.com

Take it away Karen...

Recently I was having lunch with a friend and she asked me how I came up with names for my characters.

I want my characters to stand out so I look for names that are just a little bit different from the common and popular. My work in progress GTT (Gone to Texas) is historical fiction set in 1835 – 36 and in order to transport the reader I need to make sure I settle on names one would expect for that time period.

Sources of names are everywhere. All we have to do is look and be open to the endless possibilities. There are phone books, census records, diocese records, and baby name books just to name a few, and all of these can be found within easy reach on the internet.

To settle on a particular name, I listen. Sometimes the name jumps out at me and sometimes I have to gather a list then narrow it down from there. Ultimately, though, I have to find the one that resonates deep within me.

GTT is a novel with three distinct story lines, each with their own main character: an anglo woman, a male slave and a male Tejano, or Texas born Mexican.

To find out the name for my main anglo character, I started out by searching the internet for 19th century female names. One site mentioned that the name Melina was used somewhere in the New England area during my time period. Melina. I liked it. Not only is it feminine and different but it also has a lot of promise. This character masquerades as a man so Melina can be shortened to Mel, which can be short for Melvin. Because it’s human nature that we only see what we want, or expect, to see, the combination of her shortened name and dress would lend itself to a male figure and no one would think otherwise.

Picking out the rest of her name was not difficult at all. Middle names are a dime a dozen so I picked Ann. Her last name, however, needed to be as strong as she was. Strong sounding names have hard sounds, such as “k,” “p,” and “t” so I settled on Parker. Melina Ann Parker. Say it out loud and see how it rolls off your tongue. Feminine, easy to pronounce and strong. Perfect.

Let us now turn to my main Tejano character. You would think that since I live in south central Texas I should have no problem with this one. Wrong. In my experience Hispanic parents typically gravitate to the more popular names when they name their children and since I wanted one that was different, I had to go on the hunt once again. This time I didn’t find anything I was happy with so I turned to one of the authors who inspired me to write historical fiction--James Michener. I picked up his book Texas, skimmed through it and lo and behold, I found what I was looking for. I combined the first name of one of his Tejano characters and the last name of that character’s maternal grandmother, then finished the process with further research on historical accuracy. Let me introduce to you--Benito Saldana.

Naming my slave character was the hardest. After much brainstorming, I consistently came up empty-handed. When this happens, I’ve learned that I have to wait until my character gives me their name so in the meantime I use what I call default names. BG stands for Bad Guy and GG is Good Guy. Not very original but I have to use something. Sometimes when the character is neither the good guy nor the bad guy, I use the letter “A” simply because it’s the first letter of the alphabet.

During the early to mid-19th century slaves were either referred to as negro, negress, or the other unmentionable "n" word so this time I used the letter “n.” I could have used the letter "s" for slave, but I wanted to use the term “negro” because that is what was used at this point in time. In addition, it would set me in my fictional world much better than the term “slave” would. That is very important when trying to figure out a character’s name. My next step was to sketch out one of his scenes. I sketched and sketched and all of a sudden there it is. Ebenezer.

These are not the only ways to develop character names. Sometimes we wake up knowing the name and sometimes we mix and match names of family and friends and even mix and match names of folks who are neither family nor friends. The options are endless. So you tell me, what’s in a name and how do you name your characters?


  1. Awesome tips on naming a character. I usually look at Internet name generators or since I write fantasy, I have a book with magical names and their meanings that I like.

  2. I've used the 'Google a name and see if any of the people look roughly like my character' approach. I start out at the baby names websites, pick something that thematically fits the character and use that as a starting point. Then I just wander the images until I find something that works—sometimes it's related to my starting name, but not always.

    The last NaNoWriMo I had such a hard time coming up with names that I just picked a color for everyone. Now that I'm starting to poke around in the ruins of that draft I'm finding it hard to change them… Somehow I don't think readers would let me get away with it, but I wish I could leave them be. *sighs*

  3. Great advice. I also like to use less common names where I can. There are too many Jacks and Johns in fiction. Sometimes I'll look through baby name websites and see if I can find one with a nice meaning. Other times I'll take a name whose sound "feels" like the character.

  4. Great post! I love the naming process. Most of the time, my characters tell me their names right off the bat. :)

    But I love these suggestions for the times I need to brainstorm. Baby name sites are also really helpful. And, Karen, I do the "fill in the name later" thing too!

  5. Wow, you put a lot more thought into it than I do. But I haven't done anything yet set in a dramatically different time or place, so regular names have worked fine for me so far. Sometimes a name pops into my head, other times I have to search for it.

    I like your tip about hard sounds for strong names. And filling in the name later if you can't think of a good one now.

  6. I'm fussy about names, too. If I'm stuck, I like to look at the credits for TV shows. There are some wonderfully different names in there and it breaks me out of the rut of only using ones I am familiar with. Of course, I write contemporaries! Thanks for sharing your process, it was fun to read.

  7. Natalie - Thanks! I haven't tried Internet name generators yet. I'll have to put that in my hat for future reference.

    Martha - You named your WriMo characters a color? How unique and different. I can also see your dilemma because it seems that now the name somehow fits...

    Paul - Thank you! You are so right about there being way too many Jacks and Johns in fiction.

    Nicole - Thanks! It's great to hear of another author also playing "fill the name in later" game.

    R.E. - I actually don't really think about this process at all. It's just one of those things that when something doesn't work I bide my time and try something else, knowing that one day I'll have the right name. Sometimes a name pops into my head too but that's pretty rare for me.

    Imelda - You're welcome! What a great idea to check out the credits for TV shows. I had never considered that. And with you writing contemporaries that's a great source for you!

  8. My character names come from baby sites, genealogy, and different spellings and word mixes.

  9. I always start by considering the setting/character limitations, too.

    For example, in one fantasy series I'm writing, the native nobility give their children plant names—but the realm was conquered a generation before, and those folks have different name origins (and cultural sensibilities, for that matter).

    I also look at the parents, name origins, name meanings, and so on. It's fun. :)

  10. I search the internet for names and use baby books etc, but when I settle on a name I google the whole name to check that it isn't someone famous or has been used in another book. I once named a major character only to find that there was a whole series of books written about a character with the same name, so I had to change it.

  11. For fantastic settings an option can be the shareware program Everchanging Book of Names (EBoN. This won't necessarily create real names, but will construct names that meet particular patterns related to different places.

  12. Aidan, very cool, thanks for the link!

  13. Your approach sounds like fun & I've tried some of them. One of my characters I deliberately gave the bland name of Jack Smith. But most people uh, characters don't know he goes by his middle name. He's secretly an artist that signs his works with what looks like a happy face. It took a while to find a name to match that. Capital letters C, G, O or Q for the circle; a letter with a dot for an eye, another that's crossed like f or t for the winked eye, a letter with a hanging tail for the smile. I now introduce you to Quintyn Jack Smith II. (You should see that signature) His father goes by Q. Some other MC names are mixtures from our family tree. Names of background characters were found in magazines or wherever inspires me.

  14. Oh. His son is now an aspiring artist named Andrew Thomas. Jack decided to let him finish a mural for the first time, so it took a while for me to figure how Andrew would sign that one. He chose to put "A. Thomas &" on top of the smiling face. The A and the & are the ears. The rest looks like curly hair on top. (You should see that one too). Other names I use are those with honorable meanings.

  15. Names are a major weakness for me. Many times I will be at least a chapter or two into the book before even my main characters have revealed their name, so I will substitute the names of people I know or past characters that this 'person' reminds me of.

    I've used the mentioned substitution method, though I surround the place-holder with <>. I've found it makes the later mass substitution easier.

    It's also handy for those times I can't think of just the right word or there's something "large" like a description or place/time so I can go back and replace it with the proper name or whatever later.