January 15 – 21: “Do names reflect the character of the character?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Character names – the first names can date an individual. Do names reflect the character of the character and do they offer their own tensions by defying a time period? Join ITW Members Tim Waggoner, Susan Furlong, Marietta Miles, David Housewright and Thomas Perry as they discuss character names. Scroll down to the “comments” section to see what the authors have to say!


Tim Waggoner has published close to forty novels and three collections of short stories. He writes original dark fantasy and horror, as well as media tie-ins, and his articles on writing have appeared in numerous publications. He’s won the Bram Stoker Award, been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and the Scribe Award, his fiction has received numerous Honorable Mentions in volumes of Best Horror of the Year, and he’s twice had stories selected for inclusion in volumes of Year’s Best Hardcore Horror. He’s also a full-time tenured professor who teaches creative writing and composition at Sinclair College in Dayton, Ohio.


Susan Furlong was introduced to the American Irish Traveller community when a family of Travellers worked on her home. After extensive research, her fascination with this itinerant subculture became the basis for her new suspense series. Susan contributes to the New York Times bestselling Novel Idea Mysteries, under the pen name Lucy Arlington, and is the author of other mysteries as well. Raised in North Dakota, she graduated from Montana State University. She and her family live in central Illinois.


Marietta Miles’ shorts and flash can be found in Thrills, Kills and Chaos, Flash Fiction Offensive, Yellow Mama, Hardboiled Wonderland and Revolt Daily. Her stories have been included in anthologies available through Static Movement Publishing and Horrified Press. She is rotating host for Noir on the Radio, Dames in the Dark and contributor to Do Some Damage Writer’s Blog. Her first book, ROUTE 12, was released February of 2016. Born in Alabama, raised in Louisiana, she currently resides in Virginia with her husband and two children.


A former president of the Private Eye Writer’s of America (2014-15), David Housewright has published 19 crime novels, including What the Dead Leave Behind (June 2017, St. Martin’s Minotaur). He has earned an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America (Penance) and three Minnesota Book Awards (Practice to Deceive, Jelly’s Gold and Curse of the Jade Lily). His 20th novel – DARKNESS, SING ME A SONG – will be published in January, 2018 (St. Martin’s Minotaur). His work has also been featured in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and True Romance Magazine as well as mystery anthologies including Silence of the Loons, Twin Cities Noir and Once Upon a Crime. Housewright has also published a collection of short stories entitled Full House (Down & Out Books). In addition, Housewright has taught novel-writing courses at the University of Minnesota and Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, MN.


Thomas Perry is the bestselling author of 25 novels, including the critically acclaimed Jane Whitefield series, Forty Thieves, The Old Man and The Butcher’s Boy, which won the Edgar Award.




International Thriller Writers Inc represents professional authors from around the world. Learn more about them, their work, and the sources from which they draw their inspiration at the Official ITW Organization Website.

Interested in becoming a member of the International Thriller Writers? ITW offers Active and Associate memberships.
  1. Yes, for me my characters names do have to be a good fit. I tried to change a heroine’s name once to something I really liked and wanted to use in a story but it just did not work for her. I ended up using it for the next heroine in the next book.

  2. I’m working on a book as I write this. One of the characters is an 80-year-old woman called Patricia. Patricia is Number Four on the list of top 100 woman’s names when the character would have been born according to Social Security. You know what’s not on the list? Emma, Olivia, Ava, Isabella and Sophia, numbers one thru five for 2017. It’s a small thing, I know, but one of the issues I pay attention to. See, I don’t write fiction. I write true stories about real people in the throes of honest emotions. It becomes fiction when I put something in a novel that makes the reader stop and say “That’s not right.” Like naming an octogenarian Khloe, Tiffany or Madison, for example.

    A few writers have told me that a character doesn’t really come “alive” for them until they’re named. I get that. But my books are plot driven versus character driven. With a few exceptions, I usually assign place holders for the names of my characters – GIRLFRIEND, THIEF, MOGUL, COP ONE and THUG TWO for example. About midway through, or when my spirits move me, I’ll assign names that I think are appropriate. That exercise is at least partially influenced by the age and location of the character. I will also play off of reader expectations. H. B. Sutton sounds like a banker. Cullen O’Brian sounds like a cop. Merci Cole sounds like a prostitute. So why not name my banker, cop and prostitute H. B. Sutton, Cullen O’Brian and Merci Cole? Or I’ll play against stereotypes to give my characters names the reader will not expect.

    What it comes down to is what it always comes down to – do your readers believe these are real people? If they do, you can name your characters any damn thing you want – Holly Golightly, Huckleberry Finn, Phileas Fogg, TS Garp, Sherlock Holmes, Uriah Heep, Milo Mindbender, and even Humbert Humbert – and readers will love them.

    1. That’s so true about the changing fashions in names. My mum died recently at 91 and she said there 7 Betty’s in her primary school class including her. Most of them were christened Betty rather than Elizabeth. I remember one Betty at school with me and I doubt my daughter knows any.

      Apart from the era I wonder if those 7 Betty’s had any similarities…

  3. Names can denote a time period, region, personality or character. They can also set atmosphere. Provide back story.
    Naomi is the main protagonist in the novella BLOOD AND SIN. The story is set in the south during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Her name is meant to show that she is a woman past middle-age, living in a time when race and gender determined the quality of life. While writing that story I often thought how different Naomi’s life would have been had she been born in a different time.
    ROUTE 12 has two young women at the heart of the story and takes place in the 1970s. Cheryl and Theresa, names from my sister’s group of friends when she was in high school. I don’t know why, but I feel like every girl in the 70s was named Cheryl or Theresa. Those names were also purposeful.
    My newest book is named after the main protagonist, May. She has a younger sister named June. At the beginning of May’s story those two monikers tell you more about her parents than it does May, but by the end it lends an atmosphere to her life and the story.

  4. I like to use names that fit a character, but sometimes I’ll choose names more randomly to simulate what happens in the real world. We meet all kinds of people, we learn their names, and before long, the name seems to suit their personality, and we can’t imagine them ever having a different name. I also make it a point to include first and last names to reflect the increasing diversity in America. I often set my stories in small Ohio towns since those are the settings I know so well, and the demographic changes taking place in the country are happening there as well. Not only do I want to reflect the world the way it is, but trying to be inclusive has other positive effects. For example, in my novelization of the film RESIDENT EVIL: THE FINAL CHAPTER, I added a secondary antagonist with a Spanish surname. The book was translated into Spanish, and a writer for a Spanish website interviewed me about writing the book. He was very excited that a Spanish character played such a prominent role in the novel and asked several questions about her. Representation matters, in ways both large and small, and name choice is one way to promote representation.

    1. Because Australia has an incredibly diverse immigrant population I often give characters other than Anglo Saxon names. The heroine in Find Her is of Chinese background. Her name is Jacqueline Xue, called Jax by her friends and Miss X by her school students. Apart from that I barely mention her ethnic background because she’s an Aussie.

      My first romantic suspense book Evidence Of Love, has a heroine of Serbian background—I called the family Djokovic. It meant my totally un-sporty cop hero could scratch his head and say ‘why does that name sound familiar?’ 🙂

  5. Yes, it really does make a difference if your characters are named Ruth and Martha, or Kyle and Caitlin. Names do follow fashion, and convey lots of encoded information about a person’s age, family, and traditions. But none of us has any trouble decoding them when we read a novel. As David Housewright mentions, the Social Security list of names is a good source for them. Henry James used to find names in the social announcements in the newspapers, and if we think about Henry James’s characters, that was a perfect source for him. Names are powerful words, and writers have to pay attention to powerful words. A well-selected name can tell a reader volumes about a character. Even nicknames can carry important messages. An easy example in Faulkner’s Go Down Moses is the twins Theophilus and Amodeus McCaslin, whom everybody refers to as “Buck” and “Buddy.” The names are messages about the family and about the characters, and about the part of the world they inhabit. In the novel I wrote that came out about a week ago, The Bomb Maker, the man who makes the bombs is never given a name, and that conveys a message too.

  6. A character’s name makes an immediate impression on the reader and should reflect the writer’s vision for that character.

    The protagonist’s name is one of the first decisions I make when beginning a new book. My stories are character driven and I write backstory for each character before I start plotting. I need to know the main character’s name up front and rarely do I change a name mid-story.

    Brynn Callahan is the main character in my latest book. She is a former Marine, female, and from an insular community of Irish Travellers who have settled in Appalachia. I wanted a female name that conveyed her strength, uniqueness, and Irish roots.

    I usually find names on the internet or on my social media feeds.I found the name Brynn while on a research trip to Eastern Tennessee. I visited a church with a large Traveller congregation and picked up a bulletin. I plucked the name Brynn from a listing of newly married couples.

  7. Somewhere along the way in my medical training one of my mentors told me that the patient’s name is one of their most important possessions. It’s important to get it right and if you don’t know how to pronounce it, ask the owner. Names indeed are meaningful and can signify or at least suggest race, gender, age, social class, ethnicity, national origin, religion, and even sexual preference.
    It is only natural that our chosen names for the characters in our novels usually reflect their character because we as the author-creators know everything about them – i.e. who they are as adults.
    This is obviously much different than reality because when parents name their child, they may have hopes, but really have no idea how the baby will turn out- mentally, physically, socially, occupationally, etc. in adulthood not to mention its eventual character traits. This creates name-character mismatches which I think are actually more interesting in some ways then the stock/standard character names. For example, a hulking heavyweight boxer named Percival. I suppose in reality the boxer would take on a nickname like Buster or Rocky. The ultimate name mismatch is in gender and is the basis of the wonderful song “A Boy Named Sue” made popular by Johnny Cash but actually written and first recorded by Shel Silverstein. The lyrics tell quite a story full of passion and conflict.
    A name-persona mismatch in Hollywood is of course corrected by a name change (e.g. Kirk Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch).
    Do we as authors choose a pen name to reflect our character? I’m not sure about that. I can only speak for myself. I was born in Germany to German parents and was named Ludwig Alexander Lettau. I grew up in this country from age 2 and the natural wish as a kid is to be a mainstream Billy, Jack or Joey. Growing up, I got used to it and had several different nicknames which I will not divulge. And I heard lots of references to drum sets, a famous German composer and a mad King. When it came time to publish my novel my agent and I decided on Alex (over L. A.) which is less ethnic and more mainstream than Ludwig – but it’s still one of my possessions!

    1. Names are so interesting. Like you, Alex, my husband changed his name after migrating to Aus as a 6 yr old (with his family) from Holland. He was teased relentlessly about his name Kornelis, and one day announced to his family he was now Colin.

      I wrote a book about a character whose name popped into my head first before I had a story–Primrose Pretty. She hated it as a child but stuck with it and was generally called Rosie. It helped define her personality in a sense–resentment for being lumbered with the name, surviving the childhood teasing, feeling apart from her odd, dysfunctional family etc. Pretty was the last thing her family was.

      1. I agree. There is often a fascinating and revealing backstory associated with people whose names are unusual or have been changed.
        I also think that birth names can have an influence in shaping personality and character. It seems as if I have never met a Heather I didn’t like. Then again maybe only nice parents would choose a name like Heather and a pleasing personality derives from the genes and home environment.

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