Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The Biggest Blocks: Creating Names and Titles in Your Novel

By Bonnie Randall

Part of the How They Do It Series 

JH: Character names and novel titles. Some writers can pull great ones out of the air, but for the rest of us...it's a struggle every time. Bonnie Randall shares thoughts on finding the right names for your novel.

Every writer has at least one hurdle that confronts their creativity. I happen to have two:

1. What’s in A Name?

A lot, actually. Names are as crucial to characters as setting is to plot. Sometimes, when I am very lucky, a character will waltz onto the stage of my imagination with his or her first and last name as clear as their plot, darkest hour, and denouement. Most times, though, I have nameless heroes and equally blank villains, and I will struggle through the process of creating a birth certificate that somehow echoes the plot, will be pleasing to the ear of the reader, does not step outside the boundaries of the era his or her story takes place in, and is also unique or meaningful enough that the name will be that character forevermore for the reader who connects with that story.

This, friends, is Hell. Maybe JK Rowling was onto something when she visited Edinburgh graveyards to come up with names for her lengthy cast of characters.

Seriously, though, when is obvious too obvious and when is implicit too obscure? For example, is the surname Waite for the character whose life hinges upon his place on a transplant list too much of a groaner? Or what about Kerry or Carrie for the character who hauls the weight of the world on her shoulders throughout her story? Too obscure?

What if you like the name Wilma, yet your character was born in 2010? On the flipside, I once got spanked by more than one beta-reader for using the name Cory for a character’s Dad. “No one’s dad is named ‘Cory’.” I was told. And don’t even get me started on ethnic names—are they tethered to culture, or is a name free game?

It pains me.

Places sometimes afford me some luck; I have looked at maps, finger racing down the twists and bends of ink-drawn highways and bumping over fantastic names—like Isley, Faust, and Beardy. (I cannot wait to create a character named ‘Beardy’).

Reedsy.com (and others like it) can be pretty cool too, but they always make me feel like I am cheating.

What advice do you have? How do you name your characters? Is it easy or difficult? If it’s something you love doing, then for the love of all things holy, tell me how!

(ps: Also share authors who seem to have a knack for sensational names. There are so many out there, but one of my favorites is Southern Chick-Lit queen, Joshilyn Jackson. Her character names are always spot-on). 

(Here's more on What's in a Name? Naming Your Characters)

Then there’s—

2. Titles

…are close relatives to character names, and create for me similar strife.

The title is your first crack at a good hook, and I hate coming up with them. It’s a chore that comes second only to writing the cursed synopsis and falls far beneath other chores like sifting the cat box, scrubbing the toilet, and washing the family’s dirty skivvies.

I troll Goodreads and the titles on my feed are always so clever and witty and doggone deep.

I want to crank out titles like that.

Yet, just like names, they’re an uphill struggle, and my two full-length novels are testimony to the difficulty: Divinity & The Python is a title that came to me easily, and with little second-guessing or effort. Still, to date I’ve had people say “So…is this a religious book?”

Hell, no!

Within The Summit’s Shadow? Same struggle, except worse because I am still not sold on the title, and far prefer the original, working title it had in its early drafts: Breaking Hymn, which was a play on the theme of the story which is all about breaking him—as in the hero, Andrew.

So this all begs the question: how do you come up with those titles that are meaningful, witty, and deep? Do you pull the theme from your book and then craft a short list of possible contenders? Do you poll your beta readers and see what they call your story? Or are you one of those phenoms who has a title in mind before you even start scratching out the story?! (GASP!) 

(Here's more on Titles: The First Impression a Novel Makes)

Share your tips. Share your trials. Let’s pool our wisdom and misery and bust down these blocks! Thanks in advance and, for those of you celebrating this week: HAPPY (AMERICAN) THANKSGIVING


Bonnie Randall is a Canadian writer who lives between her two favorite places—the Jasper Rocky Mountains and the City of Champions: Edmonton, Alberta. A clinical counselor who scribbles fiction in notebooks whenever her day job allows, Bonnie is fascinated by the relationships people develop—or covet—with both the known and unknown, the romantic and the arcane.

Her novel Divinity & The Python, a paranormal romantic thriller, was inspired by a cold day in Edmonton when the exhaust rising in the downtown core appeared to be the buildings, releasing their souls. The series continues with her newest release, Within the Summit's Shadow.

Website | Blog Facebook | Goodreads |


Andrew Gavin knows he's a train wreck. Before he even became a detective, Andrew’s first trauma—at only seventeen—occurred when he witnessed a gruesome suicide. Ever since, a delusion he calls The Dead Boy appears when his anxiety spirals too close to the edge…


Goaded by The Dead Boy, Andrew shoots and kills an unarmed teenage bully in what appears to be a fit of rage. Suspended from the force, and awaiting a possible murder charge, he retreats home to the Rockies. There The Dead Boy taunts him daily. Except…


Elizabeth McBrien, the childhood sweetheart he scorned, is back home in the mountains too, and shocks Andrew by revealing that she too sees The Dead Boy. Astonished that the spirit is not a delusion, but real, Andrew is further unnerved when he learns that The Dead Boy has ‘befriended’ Kyle, a gravely ill kid Elizabeth adores.

Now it's specter vs. cop in a race to save Kyle's life, and The Dead Boy insists that Kyle’s survival hinges on secrets Andrew holds about that long-ago suicide. Yet Andrew knows the entire truth will destroy him, and also annihilate any new chance he may have with Elizabeth. But they are running out of time; Kyle is dying, and The Dead Boy is ready to sacrifice anything in order to once again walk among the living…

Within the Summit’s Shadow is a paranormal romance unlike any you’ve ever read. Set in the resort town of Jasper amid the splendor of the Canadian Rockies, this novel combines love, mystery, and a persistent, deeply psychological, very personal haunting. Randall really delivers the goods with this one.”


  1. After a block buster movie there is a long list of names, I have a trick, I look at the last names and match one with the one below it as first and last name.
    Spencer Cook, Cook Rodgers, Rodger Turner. I find unique names and keep a name morgue.

  2. honestly i find people names way easier than titles, so i tend to title things after the main character. i've usually put enough thought into the names that it sounds passably cool. i definitely use names as a culture marker, when that's appropriate. i tend to just start with a name i love and like the sound of if it fits the character. i think about the culture i'm inventing (since i write SFF) and what i think the name trends are going to be, sometimes reading about past name trends or, yes, going on baby name websites. for instance, for my near-future sci-fi there were a lot of strong, punchy names that were just slightly off existing names, with a significant minority of space and science names: jax, cee, jain, brin, as well as nova and stella. for my space opera, the protagonists are from a planet that has a catholic majority, so i went with traditional virtue names: mercy, patience, justice. so that book is called patience and justice. for a pirate story, i figured out the nationality of the first name (which i picked cause i'd heard it and liked it), then looked at lists of surnames of that nationality until i found one that sounded sufficiently swashbuckling: rhatigan. thus, book title: captain rhatigan.

    will these titles survive to publication? idk. i feel like they rarely do anyway, so they're passable for now, right?

    1. Carly! <waves? I like the popularity angle. That's so true to our real world now. And yeah, titles do get changed after the sale a lot (mine did).

  3. I find names for my characters by hunting down the names popular in the year(s) of my characters birth. I hate reading a novel where the characters names are very similar, so I do as much as I can to have different sounding names with different first letters. As for titles ??? Well, like every one else I struggle with titles and I believe when you submit a manuscript the reviewer is as much affected by the 'working title' as anyone who looks along a shelf in a bookshop. If anyone has a formula or such for creating titles I'll be one of their first customers.