June 1 – 7: “How do you choose your character’s names?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week ITW Members Jeffrey Westhoff, N. J. Paige, Kate White, John Farrow, Eric Red, Adam Mitzner, Scott A. Lerner, Mark Pryor, Lisa Von Biela, John Palisano and Paul Gistsham kick off June by discussing how they choose their character’s names.


fraternityAuthor and attorney Scott A. Lerner resides in Champaign, Illinois. He obtained his undergraduate degree in psychology from the University of Wisconsin in Madison and went on to obtain his Juris Doctor degree from the University of Illinois in Urbana Champaign. Lerner’s first novel and the first Samuel Roberts Thriller, Cocaine Zombies, won a bronze medal in the mystery/cozy/noir category of the 2013 Independent Publisher (IPPY) Awards. The second book in the series is Ruler of Demons. The Fraternity of the Soul Eater is book 3. Book 4, The Wiccan Witch of the Midwest, will be released on Halloween, 2015. Mr. Lerner lives with his wife, their two children, and their cat Fern. Lerner collects unusual antiques and enjoys gardening, traveling, reading fiction, and going to the movies.

boyJeffrey Westhoff grew up in Erie, Pa., and went to college at Marquette University in Milwaukee. He has worked a journalist and film critic. The Boy Who Knew Too Much, from Intrigue Publishing, is his first novel. He lives in Chicago’s northwest suburbs with his wife, Jeanette.


CODE COVN. J. Paige lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two children. Her favorite motto is “Life is a journey best taken one step at a time.” And one of her favorite pass-time activity is to hike through her local forest, where she gets inspiration from Tree-sprites.



WrongMan coverKate White, the former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine, is the New York Times bestselling author of six Bailey Weggins mysteries and four stand-alone suspense novels, including Eyes on You, and the upcoming The Wrong Man (June 16). She is also the editor of The Mystery Writers of America Cookbook.


Storm CoverJohn Farrow is the “crime” pseudonym for Canadian novelist Trevor Ferguson. His series with Sergeant-Detective Émile Cinq-Mars was called the best of our time by Booklist, and the best of all time by Die Zeit in Germany. The first novels were published in seventeen countries. The Storm Murders is the first of a new trilogy of Cinq-Mars thrillers, published by Minotaur, and has received starred reviews in Kirkus, PW and Library Journal.

silentPaul Gitsham has enjoyed careers as varied as a research biologist, receptionist, tracker of terrorists for a major UK bank and finally secondary school science teacher. He now writes the DCI Warren Jones series of modern British police procedurals. The first two books, The Last Straw and No Smoke Without Fire, were Amazon best-sellers. The third in the series, Silent as the Grave, was released in 2015, alongside an exclusive short story Blood is Thicker Than Water. He lives in a flat in the East of England with more books than shelf space.

WHITE KNUCKLE book coverEric Red is a Los Angeles based novelist, screenwriter and film director. His first novel, Don’t Stand So Close, is available in hardcover and trade paperback from SST Publications. His second and third novels, the werewolf western The Guns Of Santa Sangre and the sci-fi monster novel It Waits Below, are available from Samhain Publishing. Recent published short stories have been in Weird Tales Magazine, Cemetery Dance Magazine, Shroud Magazine, and the Dark Delicacies III: Haunted anthology. He created and wrote the comic series and graphic novel Containment for IDW Publishing and the comic series Wild Work for Antarctic Press. His films include The Hitcher, Near Dark, Cohen and Tate, Body Parts, Bad Moon and 100 Feet.

losing faithIn addition to being the author of three critically acclaimed legal thrillers (including a Suspense Magazine book of the year), Adam Mitzner is also the head of the litigation department of Pavia & Harcourt LLP, a Manhattan law firm. He lives in New York City with his wife and children. Adam graduated from Brandeis University with a B.A. and M.A. in politics, and from the University of Virginia School of Law. Most importantly, he is an avid Pez collector and a lover of all things Batman.

Relutant Matador_coverMark Pryor is the author of the Hugo Marston novels The Bookseller, The Crypt Thief, The Blood Promise, and The Button Man, and the true-crime book As She Lay Sleeping. A native of Hertfordshire, England, he is an assistant district attorney in Austin, Texas, where he lives with his wife and three children.


DustOfTheDead cover fixedJohn Palisano‘s non-fiction has appeared in FANGORIA and DARK DISCOVERIES magazines. His first novel from Samhain Publishing, DUST OF THE DEAD, will be released in June 2015. John Palisano’s short stories have appeared in anthologies from PS Publishing, Terror Tales, Lovecraft eZine, Horror Library, Bizarro Pulp, Written Backwards, Dark Continents, Darkscribe, DarkFuse, Dark House, and more. His stories have twice been Bram Stoker Award Nominees.

skinshiftLisa von Biela worked in Information Technology for 25 years, then dropped out to attend the University of Minnesota Law School, graduating magna cum laude in 2009. She now practices law in Seattle, Washington. Lisa began writing short, dark fiction just after the turn of the century. Her first publication appeared in The Edge in 2002. She went on to publish a number of short works in various small press venues, including Gothic.net, Twilight Times, Dark Animus, AfterburnSF, and more. She is the author of the novels THE GENESIS CODE, THE JANUS LEGACY, and BLOCKBUSTER, as well as the novella ASH AND BONE.

  1. Aaah, naming characters. My big bug bear! I hate coming up with names. In the first few books in the DCI Warren Jones series, I took a scattergun approach to naming protagonists, plucking a name from the ether as I met them in the text for the first time.

    The result was a lot of Find & Replace and a list of repeated names from my proof-readers (book 3 in the series had three Johns at one point!). I would like to make it clear that I do not advocate this style of writing!

    Of course, sometimes this does work. For example, the name of the main protagonist, DCI Warren Jones, actually came about by accident. As was my usual style I had thrown myself into the narrative with little in the way of planning, least of all character names. I knew who my detective was, just not his name. He also had a side-kick, who rather inconveniently required a name also. Since I was ‘in the zone’, I decided to use place-holders. DCI Jones and DI Smith.
    Well by the time I reached the end of the first draft of The Last Straw, I’d rather fallen in love with the names and so I sent it out to close friends for feedback. Their response was pretty good, but one comment was repeated, time and again, “Do you really want to keep on writing about ‘Smith and Jones’? It sounds like the TV series.” And of course they were right. In the UK, Smith and Jones immediately conjures up images of Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones’ eponymous comedy series. I loved that show, but it really wasn’t the first impression I wanted readers to have when they read my gritty police procedurals. And so one of them had to go. I had already fallen in love with Warren Jones and so DI Smith became DI Sutton, a popular Essex name.

    For the next books in the series, I have decided to be more methodical about naming my characters. I am keeping a list of names already used, and when I need a new one, I am again using a place holder. The main antagonist in this book has been given a surname far too impolite for me to repeat here; suffice to say it neatly sums up his character and will be substituted for a more appropriate name when the inspiration strikes. Similarly, several other individuals in the story are from specific ethnic backgrounds. I need to choose appropriate names, so at the moment they too have an easy to replace place-holder.

    As to where I get the inspiration for naming my characters, well all I will say is that some of my colleagues may find themselves doing a double take….

  2. LOL, Paul! I’m from the OCD side of the spectrum. I figure out my key characters and outline first. At that stage, the characters have names like Victim 1, or suchlike. By the end of the outlining stage, I have a better idea of their nature. I then start giving them names before starting the first draft…

    In general, I try to give characters names that connote (at least for me) some of their personality. Short, to-the-point names for no-nonsense types, etc. For key characters, I’ll look up what first names were popular for naming babies in their approximate birth year and pick from there.

    If there is something regional about the book, I’ll name accordingly. For example, THE JANUS LEGACY was set in Minnesota, so I opted for some Scandinavian names in there.

    For central characters, I’ll look on the Internet to see if there is some famous person with the same name. It’s happened! If so, I’ll usually change something up before I start the first draft.

    I like for the first and last name to flow nicely together, unless I have a reason for them to be dissonant. So I look at the number of syllables, how the first name ends and last name begins, things like that.

    I also don’t like it if my characters wind up with similar-sounding names within the same book (Jim and Tim, for example). I’ve caught myself doing that a few times and used global replace to switch one of them.

    Something else I like to do is name a character after a deceased acquaintance as a sort of private way to honor them. People I’ve known, but not well enough to merit a dedication, that sort of thing. I’ve done that in two instances so far.

    It’s going to be fun to see how others approach this!

  3. I didn’t struggle much in creating names for my characters. For the most part, they just came to me. That may be because THE BOY WHO KNEW TOO MUCH is my first book and I have just begun to tap my mind’s reservoir of character names.

    I did have something definite in mind when I named my main character. My book is a teen spy thriller. Other protagonists in teen spy novels — Alex Rider, Jason Steed, Colt Shore — have action hero names. I didn’t want that. As the title of my book implies, I have taken the Hitchcock route of throwing an ordinary kid into an extraordinary situation. I wanted to give him an everyday name to stress he could be any boy walking down a high school hallway. I was also reminded that Ian Fleming, one of my prime inspirations, chose to name his hero James Bond because he thought it was a dull-sounding name.

    Originally my hero was named Eric Parker. The name popped in my head and I liked it. That name stuck through three drafts of the book, but because the villain is named Eck I finally realized the names were too similar. As I read through such passages as “Eric looked at Eck,” “Eck picked up his gun and leveled it at Eric,” etc., I started to get confused. And if I wrote the damned thing, how would a reader keep it straight?

    Also, I have a nephew named Eric and four nephews not named Eric. Why stir up family problems?

    It took a few weeks of brainstorming other “ordinary” names before Brian Parker clicked with me. Eric became Brian’s middle name, but it’s mentioned only once.

  4. I type the initial draft of my books. As such I love short names. My main characters are “Sam”, “Bob” and “Susan”. All three names are short and easy to type.

    Sometimes I have to stray from my formula. In Cocaine Zombies the evil pharmaceutical company is called Schlangenol Pharmaceuticals. I wanted a long German name (since it is a German based company with Nazi ties) and the word “Schlangenol” is associated with the word for “snake” in German. Thus is seemed like a good name for a drug company selling “snake oil”.

    In The Fraternity of the Soul Eater one of the main characters is named “Lark”. Birds in my books tend to be a harbingers of bad things to come. In The Fraternity of the Soul Eater Sam receives the gift of a mummified falcon as a warning. I wanted the reader to be unsure of Lark’s motivations. I felt the name helped with that goal.

    I also like short names for reasons other than the fact that they are easy to type. A loved the book The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo but was somewhat distracted by the long Swedish names. Obviously, a book that takes place in a foreign country needs names that reflect that. Yet, I strive for simplicity in names when at all possible.

  5. My main characters often have names that have meaning to me, even if it’s not apparent to the reader. Sometimes I pick a name that has an association with the person I’m basing the character on, or there’s something about the name that sounds like the type of person I’m envisioning. My first protagonist was named Alex Miller, and more than a few people assumed that I named him after myself, which was only partly true.

    I use my friends’ names, but I always get their permission first. Invariably they ask that I make their namesake better looking or taller, and one friend asked that his character not use any profanity. Sometimes I agree to minor tweaks to make my friends happy; other times I change the name.

    I have auctioned off naming rights a number of times at school benefits, and that’s always fun for me. One woman asked me to name a character after her father, and she told me that he was an avid Mets fan, and so whenever that character appeared in the book he was wearing a Mets cap.

  6. I choose my characters based on the flavor: metaphorically speaking, will the actions of the character leave a bitter taste or sweet taste in the reader’s mouth? Also the tone, and the feeling or affect I would like the reader to experience.
    For example, in my novel, Code Human, I chose to have the main character, Fenesia Thornbark evolve from childish innocence to a skilled and determined warrior.
    Conversely, the flavor is also in the brutality of the Kakus society. The tone is in the measure of fragmentation and instability of the society. And the effect is what the reader takes away from the novel.

  7. An aspect I consider is that a character may need to use many names. I’m likely to look for a moniker that shifts easily among surname, given name, nickname, diminutive form and possibly job title. For instance, I have a character show up as Pascal, but only those people who think they are close to him use it, whereas he asks his true friends to use his surname, Dupree, while underlings say Sarge, which he hates, but having three names for the one person lets me both break up the usage and also distinguish the relationships in play. People must even change what name they call him if they go up or down in his estimation, which is fun.

    My main guy is Émile Cinq-Mars. A unique and relatively rare name was meant to suit a detective I want to be highly individualistic. A took my time to divine that one. The genealogy is murky. His enemies have translated his surname as March 5th, to be derisive of him, but the name might also be a corruption of Saint Mark, or refer to the fifth son of someone called Mark, or Mars, or March, or from a town called Saint Marc, or something else. Given that I’m living with him over many books, that open-endedness appeals and allows me to play on different possibilities.

    For all the others, I sometimes run with what first pops to mind, or I go hunting. I’m not afraid to start with one name and drift to another. What I’m looking for is the character’s identity to grow into the name and vice versa, and if it doesn’t, then something needs fixing. A name should help me burrow into that unknown person, and attract interesting details to him or her. If that’s not happening, I check to see if a name change, or a character change, is in order.

    Here’s a clue though: we file names in our heads alphabetically. Sometimes, if trying to remember the name of an old acquaintance, we can get to it but starting at A and running through the alphabet until the name pops up. So if characters in the same story are filed in the same quadrant of a reader’s head, they are more easily confused with one another. When I want to differentiate people, say within a group of friends, I make sure that their names are well spaced alphabetically.

    Searching for a pen name for myself taught me something. I thought it might be cute to name my writing self after a character previously created in a literary novel. I discovered that that was impossible, because the characters had taken the names for themselves and weren’t letting go. Educational, to discover how deeply the names become embedded in the people the characters become.

    Will I check out baby-naming websites or Name Generator in Scrivener? Of course. Especially if I’m browsing through an ethnicity not familiar to me. There’s no rock that won’t be overturned in search of a good name, but ultimately, as with naming a child, even though many factors are in play, it has to feel right.

    1. I like that you mention filing names alphabetically in our heads. In daily life, if I am struggling to remember someone’s name, it’s their first initial that pops into my head first, and I will remember their name from that. For characters in books, the initial is often all I remember (unless their name strikes something in me). So if characters’ names are too similar, I will get them confused.

      1. That’s exactly it. In a way, we’re “colouring” the characters as would a painter. The visual artist would have to have very specific reasons to give everyone the same colour hat, for instance. Spreading the names out alphabetically works in our heads to separate them from one another, or, if you will, give them a different coloured hat.

        1. John,

          I’ve thought the same…we color the characters. In my mind, I start out with stick drawings, then they have outlines, then they have basic color, then I layer it. Same with the plot. It’s iterative, and deepens as it progresses.

          1. Lisa,

            we agree on colouring (sorry about my “u” in there, I’m Canadian!), but fundamentally our approach and process is different. I cannot be begin with a stick character or an outline, as that will mean we are fitting people in to suit the action. In my process, who the people are will determine what happens, not the other way around, so I always begin with (in my mind, anyway) living, breathing people (fictional, but real to me) and I’m always trying to learn more about them. Given them names is my job, but in a sense I want them to reveal their names to me. Different strokes for different folks here. I will not play God with my characters, and assume that I have no right to move them around like chess pieces on a board. I let them guide me, not the other way around.

          2. By mentioning stick figures, I didn’t mean to imply my characters start out as “nothing.” I was just trying to use contrast to explain that I get to know them better with each draft. They’re acquaintances when I start out, and by the time I’m done, I know them well–we’ve all lived through the process of the development of the novel.

            Outlining, yep, I just can’t “pants” it. Can’t stand the idea of potentially leaving a loose end!

  8. Hi folks,

    This is an interesting discussion – I used to have a terrible time coming up with names but then I hit upon an ingenious scheme involving small pieces of paper, a fedora, and my three kids.

    Here’s how it works: at a book signing, I tell the audience that I need character names for my next book. Everyone perks up at that point. I then have my kids hand out pieces of paper, on which folks who’d like to have a character named for them write their name and email address. Those go into the aforementioned fedora.

    At the end of the talk/questions, each of my kids picks a name from the hat, and bingo! If I need more names, each kid picks two names… you get the idea.

    Now, I will add that because I’m a lawyer, I do take precautions. I tell the audience that, and this is my example, “You could be a dead Spanish prostitute.” That doesn’t seem to put anyone off. Then, I get them to sign a waiver there and then. Finally, I email them before putting cursor to paper, just to be sure they still want to.

    I also give my friends the same option, but always get them to sign waivers, too. (These are humorous, yet oddly legally binding… I’ll find a copy and paste it here in a bit). My latest book, THE RELUCTANT MATADOR, comes out this week and is almost entirely made up of the names of people I know.

    An added bonus to this cunning scheme is that the people named tend to buy an extra copy or two… 🙂 Win-win, I think, and a lot of fun, to boot.


  9. I don’t think of myself as a weird person but the name stuff is a kind of weird process for me. It generally involves two steps: gathering and selecting. In terms of gathering, I keep a list of names from all sorts of places–people I’ve known, names I’ve seen in the newspaper, etc. Sometimes I’ve even gone through the phone book, and about three months ago, when I was at the Morgan Library in New York checking out a Lincoln exhibit, I copied down all the major donor names because there were some cool ones. But it’s when I start to assign names to various characters that it gets weird. I have to like the way it FEELS. The protagonist of my new book, a stand-alone called The Wrong Man, is Kit Finn. I just loved the sound. I’ve changed a character’s name mid-stream because it didn’t feel right. And I’ve named about five people Jack and two people Maverick over 10 books simply because I like the way those names feel. The protagonist in my mystery series is named Bailey Weggins. Bailey is the name of a friend’s friend and I always loved the sound of it. And I just made up Weggins because, well, it just sounded right, too. I feel totally kooky writing this. But I swear I’m not.

  10. I’m loving reading these over because I feel a little less weird in my approach. I like what Lisa said about starting with a general name, like Victim 1, and then giving the real name once you have a better feel for a character. I might try that some time.
    One tip I forgot to mention. Once I establish a character’s age, I Google the most popular baby names from that year and make sure the name makes sense for when the person was born.

    1. Oh, I don’t think you’re weird at all–that, or two weirds make a right. 🙂 I saw a *school* of all things on a road trip once that had the coolest name. It was made up of two school districts, but it formed a first and a last name really. That was years ago. Finally, I’ve got a chance to use the “last name” piece for my female protag in my work-in-progress. Love that name!

  11. Something I forgot to mention.

    When using placeholders, if you want to find and replace seamlessly, you need to take note of whether the placeholder or its replacement end in a letter S.

    In UK English, this determines how apostrophes are used. For a possessive, a name ending in S eg James will just have a single apostrophe at the end, eg James’ cat. Whereas a name that doesn’t end in S will have ‘s, eg Mary’s cat. I believe that this is less relevant in US English.

    Therefore, where possible I try to substitute with a name that ends similarly.

  12. Sometimes your mind works subconsciously. In THE BOY WHO KNEW TOO MUCH I have an unscrupulous CIA officer who kidnaps the hero, Brian Parker, early on and pushes the plot into motion. This time I did want to character to have an action hero name. The last name, Silver, came to me first because I thought it sounded cool, and then I gave him a dashing first name, Jack. Jack Silver has a secret agent ring to it that would excite the imagination of my spy-obsessed hero.

    While still in the early stages of plotting the novel, I realized I was writing sort of a modern version of TREASURE ISLAND with spies instead of pirates. In fact, I thought, Jack Silver plays a similar role as Long John Silver.

    Then, and only then, did it dawn on me that I had given my roguish antihero the same name as Robert Louis Stevenson’s treacherous pirate. I attribute this to my subconscious telling me the story I was going to write before I even started writing it. As I had never actually read TREASURE ISLAND, I immediately bought a copy and dived in. I was surprised how much I loved it. To turn my unknowing theft into an homage, I gave my Jack Silver a limp and decided that injury was the cause of his disillusionment with the CIA.

    TREASURE ISLAND led to another character name in my novel. I read a pirate history book and learned of an early buccaneer named Skyrm. What a perfectly evil name, I thought, and awarded it to my villain’s top henchman.

  13. I have seen articles about people providing two identical resumes
    but the one with a more Americanized name getting more job offers. Thus, people are more willing to hire a Joseph than I Jose. I wonder if writers should make a point of trying to avoid negative stereo types in the names we give our heroes and villains. On the other hand is that the responsibility of an author? Is our job to simply entertain people or to try and change society?

    1. Interesting thought. I like to subvert a little, so going against a stereotype, just to mess with readers expectations appeals to my sense of mischief, if nothing else.

  14. For the last decade, I’ve kept a file of character names that has since grown to several thousand first, last, and complete names for men and women. Whenever a name pops into head or I hear a good one, it goes into the file. Otherwise, I’d forget. When starting a new book, as the characters start to develop, I consult my file and the right names kind of pop out. Am always on the look out for good real life names. Five years ago I bumped into a security guard in Burbank with the name Rudy Dykstra, which later fit the character of the good guy trucker in my new book WHITE KNUCKLE perfectly.

  15. I’m not sure why, but I used names of former teachers — from preschool all the way through college — for various characters. Last names only. And it seems several of those teacher names went to villains. I have nothing against these teachers, but their names stuck in my mind over the years.

    For my main villain I used the name of one of my high school French teachers, and he was one of the nicest people I’ve met in my life. Worked for the Peace Corps. But his last name was Eck. I thought that was a great villain name. Short, blunt, ending with that gutteral consonant. I gave him the first name Roland because Ian Fleming is my inspiration and I wanted the name to sound memorable and regal. Plus, his first initial and last name formed a pun that amused me: R Eck. I don’t spell that out in the book. I’ll just wait to see if anyone catches it.

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