October 15 – 21: “How do you choose your character’s names?”

This week we answer the most important question of all: “”How do you choose your character’s names?” Join ITW Members Michael W. Sherer, Claude Berube, G.M. Malliet, Judith Rock, Amy Shojai and Fleur Bradley for this can’t-miss discussion.

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After stints as a manual laborer, dishwasher, bartender, restaurant manager, commercial photographer, magazine editor and public relations executive, Michael Sherer decided life should imitate art. He’s now an author and freelance writer. Mike has published six novels in the Emerson Ward mystery series and ISLAND LIFE a stand-alone suspense novel in addition to NIGHT BLIND. He’s now working on the fourth book in the Blake Sanders series as well as BLIND RAGE, a thriller for young adults. Visit him at www.michaelwsherer.com.

Amy Shojai is a certified animal behavior consultant, and the award-winning author of 26 best selling nonfiction pet books. She writes THRILLERS WITH BITE! as an ITW Debut Author with LOST AND FOUND, a heart-racing story that incorporates dog viewpoint, a heroic cat, and an animal behavist. Amy has been featured as an expert in many venues including The New York Times, Reader’s Digest, Family Circle, CNN, and Animal Planet’s DOGS 101 and CATS 101.

Claude Berube is the author of THE ADEN EFFECT. He previously wrote three non-fiction books and over thirty articles. He has worked for two U.S. Senators and headed a terrorism analysis cell for the Office of Naval Intelligence. An officer in the Navy Reserve, he deployed to the Persian Gulf in 2004-05 with Expeditionary Strike Group Five. He currently teaches in the Department of History at the United States Naval Academy.

F. T. Bradley, author of middle-grade thriller DOUBLE VISION (Harper Children’s) is originally from the Netherlands and still likes to travel whenever she gets a chance. Her husband’s Air Force career has F. T. and their two daughters moving all around the world, but for the moment the family lives on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. DOUBLE VISION is the first book in her new middle-grade series about Lincoln Baker and Ben Green.

G.M. Malliet, winner of the Agatha Award for 2008’s DEATH OF A COZY WRITER, is currently at work on a new series for Thomas Dunne/Minotaur Books. The first book in the new series is the Agatha-nominated WICKED AUTUMN (Sept. 2011), which received starred reviews from Booklist and Library Journal. Library Journal and the Boston Globe also named it a Best Mystery of 2011: “Sly humor rivals Jane Austen’s.” The second book in the Max Tudor series is A FATAL WINTER (Oct. 2012).

For many years a modern dancer and choreographer, Judith Rock founded Body and Soul Dance Company in Berkeley, California, toured extensively as a solo concert dancer, and studied baroque dance. Research for her Ph.D. in art and theology took her to Paris, where she lived at the nearby Jesuit Cultural Center and researched the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century ballets produced at the Paris Jesuit College of Louis le Grand. Rock has written on dance, art, and theology for many journals, and has been artist-in-residence and taught and lectured at colleges, seminaries and conferences across the United States and abroad. THE RHETORIC OF DEATH, her first novel, was a 2011 Barry Award nominee.

ITW

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19 Comments
  1. For me, this comes at the beginning stage of writing a book, the pre-commitment stage I particularly enjoy. Since I write English mysteries, there is a large scope for unusual names for both characters and villages. The character name has to be just right and until it is, the character’s traits may not gel for me.

    I keep a list of names I come across in my reading. In a book about the Middle Ages, I recently came across the names Richard de Bully of Tickhill and Richard FitzTurgis. Who could improve on that? Who would want to? While I never use anyone’s real name (the benefit that comes from using some version of or parts of an historical name), I’m not above hyphenating two names to make a new one. I also rely on sites using online census records to generate random names, for example: http://www.kleimo.com/random/name.cfm

  2. How do you choose your character’s names? For “The Aden Effect,” I had two basic rules on selecting character names.
    Rule #1: Use history. I was a history major in college, grad school and now with my doctoral dissertation. I also teach it at the United State Naval Academy. When I was a senior in college, I wrote a paper on Revolutionary War General John Stark. I wanted my main character, Connor Stark, to be a descendent of John Stark with a family tradition of military service and what that means when he is court-martialed.
    Rule #2: Keep it simple. This was particularly true since most of the characters are foreigners or immigrants including Yemenis, Iranians, Somalis, and others. I wanted to ensure that the names I used were common to their respective regions as well as something that I could easily pronounce as I read each paragraph aloud. It also helped me keep track of the characters.

    While they’re not technically “characters,” I also have ships in this military thriller. The Secretary of the Navy names U.S. Navy ships. I opted to name my own ships in my novel. In the case of the cruiser in “The Aden Effect,” I went to Rule #1 and named it the USS Bennington. Most Navy cruisers are named after battles and the Battle of Bennington was General John Stark’s greatest victory so I thought I’d tie that in to the main character. The destroyer at the end of the novel is the USS Lefon. Most U.S. Navy destroyers are named after individuals so I decided to honor a retired Navy Captain who was one of the top milbloggers before his untimely passing earlier this year.

  3. Just as there are “outliners” and “pantsers” when it comes to plot development, I think writers generally fall into two camps when it’s time to choose character names—“phone bookers” and “researchers.”

    Phone bookers essentially pick names at random (sometimes opening the phone book with their eyes closed and stabbing a page with a finger). I picked the name of my Chicago-based series hero this way. I lived in Denver when I started the first book in the series. Needing a name for the protagonist, I picked the name of the street on which I lived (Emerson). I liked the sound of it, liked the fact that my hero, a stockbroker turned freelance writer, had a name connected to writing. I chose my middle name (Ward) as Emerson’s surname, and for fun I threw in a truly strange middle name (Woolsey) which was the first name of a president of the college I’d attended (Woolsey Stryker—now there’s a name for you).

    Researchers tend to make sure names fit their characters by researching etymology of the name, ethnicity of the name, and whether it suits the character’s attributes (we all know that Harolds are geekier than Jacks, and Janes are more plain than Tiffanys). These days I use this latter technique far more than the former, at least when it comes to major characters. Thinking of a name for my new Seattle-based thriller series, I wanted something strong, but dark for a flawed character touched by tragedy who is strong enough to fight back. I also considered his background, where he came from, who his parents and grandparents were, how he’d arrived at the moment his first book begins.

    The name I ultimately chose, Blake Sanders, is the result of all that research. A casual reader might be able to tell from the name that Blake’s heritage is Scottish, at least on his father’s side. They might, if they’re intrigued and do their own research, discover that Blake is a Scottish word for “black,” a tidbit that jibes nicely with the fact that Blake’s grandfather was a coal miner in central Illinois and with Blake’s current situation living and working at night. Some deeper digging might tell them that “Sanders” comes from “Alexander,” a name from a Greek word meaning “defending men.” Blake Sanders is my “black warrior.”

    For me, at least, there’s a third factor in naming that some might even say is a third camp. The characters themselves let me know if I’ve arrived at the right name. In Emerson’s case, he took me back to his hometown in “Death On a Budget,” the sixth book in the series, where I learned, among many other things, that his four siblings also had been named after poets.

    Ultimately, our characters name themselves, I believe. They take on the names that suit them, giving readers an impression at the very least, and insight into their background, heritage and much more at best.

  4. Michael–where the English excel is in place names. JK Rowling
    lived in Chipping Sodbury at some point in her
    life. The natives of course called it Sodding Chipbury.

  5. As someone who grew up in Weston Subedge near Chipping Campden, I agree that us Brits have an advantage when it comes to place names. I have a series set in the fictional village of Kelton Bridge and another in the fictional town of Dawson’s Clough. Love those places.

    Choosing names for characters is something I find unbelievably difficult and until a name is exactly right, the character simply doesn’t work for me. If I’m trying to name a character born in the sixties, I start by looking at names popular for babies around that time (no, I haven’t yet called a character Ringo). A look through old newspapers sometimes helps, and I often think I’m the only person who actually reads the rolling credits when a film has finished. I’ve seen many a key grip or wardrobe assistant with a great name.

    Ultimately, however, I think characters choose their own names. The more I write about a character, the more I know him. And the more I know him, the more likely he is to tell me his name.

  6. I’ll jump in this morning…

    I was very deliberate in choosing my main character’s name as Lincoln. He’s twelve years old–an age where you’re becoming more aware of who you are, and how your ideas for your future (if you have any 🙂 don’t necessarily line up with your parents’.

    Lincoln (or Linc, as he’s known) thinks he’s named after a car, since his dad has an auto shop. Hopefully, I’ll get to prove him wrong in a future book in the DOUBLE VISION series…

    Names are such a great way to add depth to a character and his or her story.

  7. In my debut thriller LOST AND FOUND some of my characters seemed to name themselves, while others were a struggle. My protagonist is September, and that opened up lots of questions about why she’d been named for that month. Answering those questions helped establish not only her character but also her family. As it turns out, her parents named all the kids for their birth-months, so a secondary character (her sister) is named April.

    I also wanted to keep other names simple, but not too similar to cut down on confusion to the reader. Too many characters with a name that begins with the same letter–Doug, Danny, Dinah, Deanna–can become problematic so I was conscious of that. Since the book is set in North Texas, I am familiar with some of the common names of the region.

    For my audience, the pet names also are very important, especially since one of them is a viewpoint character. Pedigreed dogs often are named in specific ways according to the registering body. In this instance, the German shepherd breeders keep track of litters by designating them the “S” litter, for instance. I also wanted this service dog’s name to offer clues into his purpose and character–and as the partner of an autistic child, and being solid black, the name Shadow seemed to fit. That said–for the earliest drafts of the book I used my own dog’s name as those chapters were written, which helped with characterization for me.

    Before the book was published, during the last edits, I also held a NAME THAT DOG and NAME THAT CAT contest for the minor pet characters. So readers got to post suggestions and then vote. Readers who love pets become very interested and vested in the story, too, when they have input into such things, and I know in the past some of my favorite thriller authors have auctioned off the opportunity to have a reader’s name become a character in the book.

  8. Hi, everyone–jumping in late, but enthusiastically. (I’m in the mind-scrambling process of finishing my fourth series novel.) So. Names. When I choose characters’ names I’m juggling several concerns. My series is set in 17th century France and written for English speaking readers. Which means that the French names have to be reasonably easy for non-French speakers to pronounce. The names also have to have been actually used in the 17th century–there were, for example, few men named Georges at that time. I sometimes find accurate names by going through the index of research books based on primary 17th century sources.

    When I started the series, I confess that I chose the main character’s name out of the air–short and easy to pronounce: Charles du Luc. (Though English reviewers sometimes call him Du Lac…) I decided that he was born in 1658, in Languedoc, the south of France, and grew up outside the town of Nimes. Then I thought, oops, I should google that name, to be sure Charles du Luc wasn’t a known serial killer. And I found Charles du Luc, from the south of France, born in the 1650’s, who became the bishop of Marseilles. To top that off, nearly all the men in the du Luc family (which still exists) were named Charles… So my Jesuit Charles suddenly had a family history, a background, and ecclesiastical connections. His ‘cousin’ Charles the bishop figures offstage in the first novel. Another ‘cousin,’ the brother of the bishop and also named Charles, a galley captain and later Louis XIV’s ambassador, figures in the fourth novel, the one I’m finishing. Finding my Charles’s family was a startling, exciting, and odd experience…

    I also use historical characters, like Nicolas de la Reynie, first head of the Paris police, as characters–and so am stuck with whatever their parents called them.

    The longer I write the series, the more I find that the simple act of choosing a name often leads to discoveries that make what I write richer…and stranger!

    Judith

  9. Amy, strongly agree that names within a book can’t be too similar sounding or readers might easily be confused. It’s a challenge as the cast of characters within a book grows. Though I keep a log of names I’ve used as I go along, I find that even I get confused sometimes. In my latest WIP, a YA thriller, for some reason I referred to a character I’d named Matt as “Mark” and wasn’t even aware of it until my daughter pointed it out. I’d done it five separate times.

    1. Michael, I’ve had the same thing happen with confusing myself over names! It’s interesting, too, how readers can sometimes “assume” or mis-remember a name incorrectly. One of my reviews (all great ones, thank goodness!) calls my September character “Summer.”

      Since this is my first foray into fiction, and I have at least two more books to write in the planned series, I’m taking notes on all the tips and tricks. A name log is a great idea.

  10. Judith, don’t get me started. My YA thriller is told from multiple POVs, but the first-person narrator’s name popped into my head unbidden. I’d come up with a name, but the character objected and told me his name was Oliver Moncrief. When I delved into why the name resonated so strongly, I discovered I had the character’s family history back to all the way back to the 1600s. Oliver, it turned out, was descended from the Clan Moncreiffe and named after Oliver Cromwell.

    Amazing what happens when these imaginary people start talking to us.

  11. Michael–

    Makes you wonder how imaginary they really are sometimes, doesn’t it?! Another interesting thing I’ve learned about having cross-language names is that they sometimes communicate something unintended. In my first novel–The Rhetoric of Death–there’s a character from the historical Guise family. In French, pronounced Geez with a hard G. But in English, of course, it’s ‘guise’–as is disguise, deception, etc. Which I actually never noticed until a reader said, ‘How clever to call a nasty character ‘guise…’ In that case, the resonance worked really well, but if he’d been a good guy, it might have left that reader wondering. Do you find that readers tend to see symbolism where you didn’t intend it?

    Judith

  12. I have several chapters set in Scotland and England in the first part of my novel. Having lived for a while near Peterborough and the incredible English countryside, just for fun I nearly created an English town of “West Hamingtonshirevilleborough-on-Avon”

  13. Judith,
    Yes, I think readers find all sort of unintended symbolism in our books. (Perhaps the only books in which it’s all completely intended are Rowling’s Potter tomes.) Even funnier to me is that people who know me assume (or should I say presume) that my characters are based on them when in fact they’re rarely based on anyone in real life.

  14. Michael–Yes, people often ask where the characters come from. And tend to assume that they must, somehow, be versions of me. My characters’ roots are in what I know or am curious about and can communicate, certainly. And it seems to me that central characters have more traits in common with their creators than other characters. But Charles du Luc is still not me–though I think we’d be friends if we met. Without dragging postmodern whatever into this, it seems these days that characters and much else in novels gets very boringly reduced to biography. Maybe an effect of our personality-worshipping culture as well as an effect of reductionism?

    Judith

  15. Judith–I’m also finding that readers ask if my main character is me. Actually that’s a bit flattering since September is prettier, younger, more athletic and smarter than I am. I suppose as long as they don’t ask if the villains are me (or the animal characters!) I won’t protest too much.

    I recall Lee Child saying in a seminar that he believed many authors wrote heroes as “better” versions of themselves. Perhaps that’s true to an extent. I just don’t want to bore readers, or myself. To bring the post back around to character names, though, I think we do need to make the names memorable enough yet still have enough distinction to have readers finally say, “That character couldn’t have been named anything else.”

  16. Amy and Shirley–

    I do know what you mean about characters who tell you their names. In my second book, The Eloquence of Death, a woman I had intended as a minor character, first encountered sitting in the shadows in the corner of a room, turned out to be a serious presence in the book–her idea, not mine!–and informed me that her name was Reine. Queen, in French. She’s a woman with a very checkered past, a beggar in her old age. I never learned her family name, or whether she named herself or was baptized Reine. Maybe in a future book, she’ll tell me…

    Once, in a class I was teaching back in the 80’s, the novelist Frederick Buechner came to visit, and a student asked him where his often very startling characters came from. He looked bemused and said, after a moment, “maybe from the same place dreams come from.” Wherever that place is, it seems they often come already named.

    Judith

  17. Characters seem to come from nowhere based on no one, don’t they? That is the mystery of this writing thing we do.

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