July 24 – 30: “Do names reflect the character of the character?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week is all about character: A first name can date an individual, do character names reflect the character of the character, and do they offer their own tensions by defying a time period? We’re joined by ITW Members D.P. Lyle, Peter James, Donna Warner, Patrick Oster, Jonathan F. Putnam, Richard Billingsley, Billy Lyons and Meredith Anthony.


Meredith Anthony is the author of the new thriller, HELLMOUTH, featured in the July issue of The Big Thrill. She is the co-author of LADYKILLER, which received over 30 rave reviews. Her short stories appear in ELLERY QUEEN MYSTERY MAGAZINE and ALFRED HITCHCOCK MYSTERY MAGAZINE. Her mystery play, MURDER ON THE MAIN LINE, has had readings and development productions in New York and Philadelphia. She lives in New York City.


Peter James is one of the UK’s biggest selling crime thriller writers. He’s had eleven consecutive Sunday Times No 1 bestsellers with his Detective Superintendent Roy Grace series, published in 37 languages in 52 countries, with world sales of 18m copies. He is the recipient of the 2016 CWA Diamond Dagger for sustained excellence, and in 2015 was publicly voted by WH Smith readers as the Best Crime Author of All Time. He lives with his wife, Lara, and a menagerie of animals near Brighton in Sussex, where he was born and raised, and in Notting Hill, London.


Billy Lyons became an avid reader and writer of horror fiction in early childhood. He is the author of two published short stories. “Cell 334” was published in the November 2014 edition of Another Realm Magazine. “Black-Eyed Children, Blue-Eyed Child” was published in High Strange Horror, a horror anthology published in 2015 by Muzzleland Press, where Billy is a contributing writer of book and magazine reviews. Blood and Needles is his debut novel.


Richard Rowland Billingsley is the author of weird fiction. He is from Austin Texas and lives in Fayetteville Arkansas. He is a member of both the Horror Writers Association, and the International Thriller Writers. His book, Trance Logic was published by New Pulp Press. Trance Logic is the first book in a continuing series about Rainbeaux Le Blanc, a psychic spy demon fighter.


D. P. Lyle is the Macavity and Benjamin Franklin Silver Award winning and Edgar (2), Agatha, Anthony, Shamus, Scribe, Silver Falchion, and USA Today Best Book (2) Award nominated author of 17 books, and the co-host of Crime and Science Radio. He has worked with many novelists and with the writers of the TV shows Law & Order, CSI: Miami, Diagnosis Murder, Monk, Judging Amy, Cold Case, House, Medium, Women’s Murder Club, The Glades, and Pretty Little Liars.


Jonathan F. Putnam is a writer and attorney.  A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, he is a nationally recognized trial lawyer and avid amateur Lincoln scholar.  His books in the Lincoln & Speed mystery series include Perish from the Earth (just published on July 11, 2017) and These Honored Dead (2016).



Donna Warner’s novella, Targeted, published Nov. 2015, is book #1 in the Blair and Piermont crime thriller series. It’s set in the Caribbean on Roatán Island, Honduras. Book #2, Death’s Footprint, published Apr. 2017, takes place in Canada’s historic Québec City. Both Targeted and Death’s Footprint are co-authored with award winning mystery author, Gloria Ferris. A keen cottager, Donna enjoys the challenges of climbing in and out of her kayak without getting dunked and trying to outsmart fish. Home is a country property on the outskirts of Guelph, Ontario. She is a member of International Thriller Writers and the Crime Writers of Canada.


Patrick Oster, now writing fiction full time, was a managing editor at Bloomberg News and has worked as a journalist for Business Week in Europe, Knight Ridder in Mexico and covered the White House, State Department and the CIA as Washington Bureau Chief of The Chicago Sun-Times. He is the author of the nonfiction book, The Mexicans, a Book-of-the-Month selection. His award-winning comic thriller The Commuter was published by the Argo Navis imprint of Perseus Books. He also wrote the spy thriller The German Club. He is a member of the International Thriller Writers.



  1. I’ll kick off on this one! I remember as a kid ploughing my way though some of the Russian classics and the tasks of reading them was made harder by so many unpronounceable names, but more so by so many similar sounding names that I was constantly having to refer to the character list, if there was one, or keep turning back. So when I write, I try always to come up with, as much as possible names that are distinct and different. I really do think that names in many past memorable novels do truly reflect the character. Count Dracula. Dr Frankenstein. Sherlock Holmes. Scarlet O’Hara. Mary Poppins. Yossarian in Catch-22. James Bond. Mrs Moneypenny. Rosa Klebb. Chili Palmer. Just a few names that both seem to me to instantly define a character and in doing so have become iconic.

  2. Greetings fellow authors. I’m looking forward to this week’s discussion on the importance of picking character names that fit the profiles we develop for them. One tool I’ve used is a free App called, “Nameshake” that helps select names according to gender and ethnic background.

        1. Downloaded it this morning. I’m sure it’s going to be very helpful. Thanks again.

  3. How important are character names? Do they make or break a story? Can a name suggest a character’s personality? To answer these questions, let me share something I learned from a master of crime fiction – – Elmore Leonard. It was many years ago at the now defunct Maui Writers Conference that I met Elmore. He was one of the featured speakers. As fate would have it, I had the opportunity to sit and chat with him about writing for about 45 minutes on two separate occasions. I used that time to not only get to know this gracious and funny man, but also to pick his brain.

    He is known as the master of dialogue, and for good reason. Every writer should read his work as each is a textbook for dialogue writing. But I was more interested in his characters. They are always deep and complex and so well drawn. So I asked him if he did character sketches or exactly how did he create such wonderfully flawed people. His response was that, no, he didn’t do character outlines or anything like that but rather he would spend weeks, sometimes months, thinking about a character. At some point the character’s name would evolve. And once he had the name, he knew the character.

    The beauty of this struck me instantly. What he was saying is that he lived with these characters for those weeks and months until he knew them. And once that familiarity was established, the name appeared. Basically, he mentally created character sketches. The results were classic crime fiction. I mean, could Chili Palmer be a neurosurgeon? No, only a loan shark. Linda Moon is, of course, a lounge singer, and Raylan Givens is the perfect name for a US Marshall from the coal mines of Kentucky.

    So what’s the take-home message? Live with your characters, get to know them, and the name that fits will come. I’m sure, like me, you’ve named characters and began writing a story only to realize halfway through that the name you chose just simply didn’t work. The reason? I didn’t know the character well enough yet to know what that character’s name must be. But, if you live with the character for a time, a better name will appear, one that fits the character like old jeans.

  4. Thanks, Doug, for the Elmore Leonard story. How perfect. I have a slightly different take.

    My new thriller, HELLMOUTH, which is set in a small town in Western Pennsylvania in the 1980’s has a female protagonist, Helen Goode. Helen, although she is middle-aged and somewhat above the ideal weight still has a mysterious sex appeal for a certain kind of man. Thus, Helen — which is both a somewhat dated woman’s name and also, according to Homer, irresistible.

    Beyond that, Helen Goode is roughly based on my mother, Martha Sweet, herself a bit of a bombshell at that period of her life.

  5. Readers need to pay attention to names because authors are often trying to send them a message, subtle or direct. If you spoke German, you might have had a clue that Darth Vader was Luke’s father long before that came out in the plot. It means Dark Father in German. I have a main character in my latest thriller, “The Hacker Chronicles,” whose name is Wachter, which means watcher in German, and that is what he is in this world, someone who watches what others do online or at the surveillance camera agency he works for. Names can also be a challenge or at least an irritation if they are out-of-time monikers. In my first thriller, “The Commuter” I have a key supporting character who is a tech whiz who helps the main character. She was named Hortense after her grandmother, which is not exactly a 21st Century name. And what’s the nickname kids give you? Hor? Not so great. She changed it to Tesla, after the amazing scientist who invented AC electricity (and not after Elon Musk’s car, though that gives her a bit of cachet).
    Beyond that, authors want to have strong names for their heroes. The detective at the center of my thriller “The German Club” got the name of Matt Ritter. I think of Matt as a strong name and he is a big, brusing guy. And Ritter means knight in German, and he is on a bit of a quest to solve the murder of a twin brother he never knew he had. If you want to make fun of a character, you can do what I did with the last name of a White House spokesman in the book I’m working on now. I called her Saralee Huckster. There are all kinds of variaitons on the name game, and the main advice I’d have to those thinking up a character is to put some thought into what that person is called. And consider some foreign language equivalents. People react to names, fairly or not, so don’t just use some throwaway like John Smith, unless you are aiming at a nameless character in some dystopian tale.

    Patrick Oster


  6. I work ever hard selecting character names. I’ve read many authors, Ian Fleming, Raymond Chandler, Patricia Highsmith, Terry Rossio, and others who say the character name is one of the most important parts of creating a character.
    Given that we are all really writing about ourselves in our stories, the character names we select are what we think about the character. Choose wisely, Grasshopper, as the Shaolin Master said in KUNG FU.
    On balance Alfred Hitchcock said in the book HITCHCOCK by Francois Truffaut, that there are character driven stories and plot driven stories. In a plot driven story you have an everyman protagonist. It doesn’t matter who is in the story, the idea is that the public identify with him/her. In that case one could argue that a simple name stills communicates the author’s intention. In this case to provide a blank screen that draws the reader into the story and lets the reader participate.
    So for me it comes down to authorial intention about the kind of story you, me, we want to tell.

  7. Yes, it can be confusing to readers if we assign names that sound the same.

    The co-author of my crime thriller series, Gloria Ferris, often reminds me to select character names with varying lengths and avoid assigning names that start with the same letter.

  8. I was given a great tip years ago if you are stuck on a character name. Take the name of your first pet or family pet as the first name and the street you first lived in as a child as the second and bingo, you’ll have one! And then just move on through pet names and streets! My first one comes up as Toby Carlisle. I’ve not yet created him in a book, but I’ve banked him….

    One thing that I do is collect names, constantly. I could be driving through a town and seen the name of a real estate agent, or a funeral director and think, hmmmmn, I like that for a future character, and I keep a master file of first, last and full names. One of the favourites I’ve ever collected, but not yet used, is one I read in a newspaper: Mr Ocelot Sparks. One day I will have to bring him to life!

  9. Peter, I like your idea of assigning a former pet’s name as a character’s first name and the name of the first street I lived on for a surname. I’ve had a string of cats over the years so can have some fun trying out different name combinations, e.g., Splat Metcalfe, Fluffy Metcalfe, Tawny Metcalfe.

    1. So of course now I like this idea so much I’ve spent the last twenty minutes making up character names. Great idea and will provide some much needed original names!

      1. Playing with character names makes for a nice distraction from writing, doesn’t it Liz? I see you write under the pen name of Jamie Tremain and published your first novel with co-author, Pamela Blance… The Silk Shroud. Congrats.

  10. I write historical fiction, so often my characters are actual historical people. I’m stuck with the names their parents gave them. That said, I’ve had some very good fortune in the naming department.

    My books form the Lincoln & Speed Mystery series, and my two protagonists are the young Abraham Lincoln and his real-life best friend Joshua Speed. The series is set on the American frontier of the 1830s, when Lincoln was a brand-new lawyer in Springfield, IL. Lincoln & Speed work together to solve mysteries that arise out of the court cases Lincoln is handling, which are in turn inspired by actual cases of the time.

    “Lincoln” is, of course, one of the most recognizable names in American history. Enough said. But “Speed”? By sheer dumb luck (for me in the 2010s as well as for the young Abraham Lincoln in 1837), the first person Lincoln met when he arrived in Springfield was a young, well-born southerner from a wealthy, plantation-owning family in Louisville named Joshua Speed. The two men shared a bedroom for 4 years in Springfield — the time period in which my series is set — and remained lifelong best friends.

    As a character name, “Speed” suggests a man of action, a quick-thinker, perhaps a complement to Lincoln’s studious approach. And I’ve drawn him as such. If Lincoln had happened to meet and move in with a man named Jedediah Slow, I’m not sure my series ever would have gotten off the ground.

    My latest book, Perish from the Earth, revolves around the fate of a real-life newspaper publisher and abolitionist named Elijah Lovejoy. Again, history has done me a great favor. Lovejoy is a fascinating and tragic figure, and I suspect he would have been sympathetic to the modern reader under any name. But “Lovejoy”? How can you help but root for him?

  11. The pet name idea reminds me of the supposed rule for porn stars, which calls for using the name of a city or street as a film name. I had a little fun with this in a novel in progress that involves a ditzy hooker who has to introduce herself to a hitman as she’s tied up in handcuffs. The dialogue goes:
    “What’s your name?”
    “Maureen, which I hate. Maureen Dingle….Like the peninsula. But I’m thinking of using a stage name. Carl says I should use a city or a street for one of them. I think there’s a porn rule about that, like Dallas Broadway or something, but I grew up in Skaneateles on 16th Street, so that doesn’t work.”

  12. First names have always played an important role in fiction. Can you think of a better first name for a young boy who smokes a corncob pipe and searches for treasure than Huckleberry? How about one that more aptly describes a woman straight out of Puritan America than Hester? Isn’t it almost impossible to conjure a better first name for a brilliant, yet insane serial killer than Hannibal? Sometimes it’s not the first name’s connotation that’s important, but the way that it rolls off the tongue. Even if I don’t know that Dracula loosely translates to ‘son of the devil,’ the sound it makes when read lets me know that this is not a vampire to be messed with. Add historical accuracy into the mix, and the choice of a first name takes on more importance than one might think.

    When I first started writing, however, I didn’t give the choice of first name as much consideration as I should have. I picked the first one that popped into my head, and if it didn’t sound stupid, I went with it. Eventually I realized how important name selection is, and currently devote much more time to the process than before.

    For example, in the short story I’m currently writing, one of the main characters is a woman from the 1920s. She’s beautiful and sophisticated, so my first choice was Andrea. I don’t know any Andreas, but, for whatever reason, I associate that name with beauty and sophistication. When I thought about what female first names might be common in the early part of the last century, however, Andrea just didn’t ring true. Sure enough, when I googled it, Andrea was 692 on the list of top 1000 most popular female first names during that time period. As a result of my research, Andrea is now called Evelyn (12th most popular).

    In my novel, Blood and Needles, the female protagonist (and leader of the vampires) is named Anna Marie. However, there is a part of the book that tells about her life in Egypt, so Anna Marie obviously wouldn’t work. When she was in Egypt, she was the Pharaoh’s daughter, and was as alluring as she is today. As a result, I needed an Egyptian name, but didn’t want one that sounded so foreign to my readers that there might be a disconnect with the character they’d already come to know. I chose the name Amirah, a currently popular Middle Eastern female first name. It may not be 100% historically accurate (I couldn’t find any female Egyptian names during the time of the pharaohs that sounded right to me), but it sounds sexy as hell, and works.

  13. I keep thinking about Bond girls. (Thank you, Peter James!). Honey Ryder, Plenty O’Toole, Bibi Dahl, Xenia Onatopp and, of course, the immortal Pussy Galore!

    Yes, I’m secure enough in my feminism to enjoy them!!

  14. In addition to conjuring up a character name that fits and are memorable, it’s wise to not name every character who has a minor role in your story. Occasionally, referring to “the butcher next door” is preferable so readers don’t feel the angst of character name overload.

  15. Also, it’s wise to have only one name per character. For example, let’s say Admiral Adam Jones, Commander of the Pacific Fleet appears in your story. If you call him Adam, Jones, Admiral Jones, the Admiral, the Fleet Commander, etc., you risk confusing the reader. Particularly early in the work while the reader is trying to sort everyone out. So call him Jones and maybe Admiral Jones and stop at that. Obviously, in dialog this might change as one or more characters might know him as Adam, but in the narrative keep it simple. Choose one name and stick to it.

    1. Very good point, D.P.

      Another reason for taking time to name your protagonist, as Richard points out, is if you decide to write a series. The name of your protagonist will be stuck in your head for years. Make sure you don’t regret the name you’ve tagged him/her with.

      1. So true. And who knows, the series could take off and the name could become iconic. Bond, James Bond. Better have a good name if that happens.

  16. One other thought on continuing use of names once a character is introduced: for the most of your important characters, especially those who represent good, use first names, male or female, to establish an intimacy and rapport — or even fear — with readers. It’s their story. For all others, use last names. DON’T give secondary characters who are women first names and men last names, which can sound stronger or more dangerous, depending on the situation. They all should be strong or dangerous. Or just neutral. In dialogue, of course, it’s fine to drop in a first name in direct address. But in attribution, say, “(LAST NAME) said.

  17. Really interesting observation Patrick, definitely referring to someone by their first or last name changes the “feel” of that person, from friendly to businesslike or dangerous.

    Separately it is always interesting to me how characters come up with their names. I was on a panel at Thrillerfest, brilliantly moderated by Sandra Brennan and she asked Lee Child how he came up with the name Reacher. He said it was because he was very tall, whenever he was in a supermarket invariably some old lady would ask him if he wouldn’t mind reaching up and grabbing something from the top shelf. I think he said it was his wife, Joan, who suggested the name “Reacher” because of that! I think Ian Fleming got the names James Bond and Felix Leiter from other people in the Intelligence Services with him. He took the name of his villain, Blofeld, from someone he was at school with, who was the father of the famous British cricketing commentator, Henry Blofeld.

    In the Murder Manual, the essential guide that all homicide detectives follow and abide by in the UK, one of the first steps in a homicide investigations it says, is: “Clear the ground under your feet.” Writers could all use that dictum when searching for character names. I always like to associate a name with a face, and that naturally works best by drawing from people I know, whether it is a lawyer, a plumber, a nurse, etc.

  18. And speaking of villains… Let’s talk about how we name them. I think revenge is a great name generator. I like adapting the names of people who have pissed me off. It keeps me focused and keeps the anger fresh! Also, it’s fun!! A secret that only you know.

  19. Love it Meredith! I put the names of anyone who has pissed me off on mortuary fridge doors and toe tags! And I had one magazine reviewer who gave a really nasty review, lying dismembered on a mortuary gurney, and the magazine being used by someone to put under cat litter! But my favourite act of revenge was a character called Amis Smallbone who had a one-inch appendage and appears in two of my Roy Grace books. He was inspired by a bet with Ian Rankin, after the writer, Martin Amis (who I had been at school with) had been crassly rude to me 40 years later. I tweeted that I had just met the world’s rudest writer. Ian tweeted back to ask who it was and I told him, and that I was going to create a scuzzy villain with a small dick as revenge! Ian bet me £100 to charity I didn’t dare. I have a framed photocopy of Ian’s cheque on my office wall! So you are right, Meredith, nothing like a bit of anger…!!!!

    1. Fantastic, Peter. I once did a story published in EQMM called Murder at an Ad Agency in which I paid back everyone at Saatchi who ever annoyed me. One guy with a vaguely familiar name took 3 pages to die. So satisfying. I’ve never been happier.

  20. For Death’s Footprint, I searched the FBI’s Most Wanted List and found a face that matched the profile of the nasty character I was building. Then created a name similar to that felon’s surname for the villain in our story.

  21. I use the first names of friends and neighbors for minor characters, especially if they have been guinea pigs to read an early MS version. At a minimum, when I tell them they are hidden in the book, it usually spurs them to go out and buy a copy.
    On villains, I try not to use a first name that sounds too positive and likable. I’m not saying it needs to be Vladimir, but don’t call the serial killer Buddy or Bob — unless that helps the villain hide in plain sight.

  22. I’m really enjoying the feedback from everyone. This topic occasionally surfaces at author panels I’ve moderated or participated in. It’s helpful to have new ideas on naming characters to share.

    The novel I’m currently reading has a character with the first name of Axell. Never thought of using a car part for a first name. Think I like it.

  23. These are interesting takes on figuring out names, although I must confess that the idea of using your first pet and the name of the first street you lived on has long been known as forming your “porn star name.” Regarding some of the iconic names that were tossed about: James Bond purportedly came to Ian Fleming when he saw a book called Birds of the World, by James Bond. Sherlock Holmes was originally named Sheringford Hope by Arthur Conan Doyle, but his wife urged him to change it. Doyle took the last name of Sherlock from famed violinist, Alfred Sherlock, and the last name of U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, who had just written a book on criminal justice.

  24. One variation on Donna’s idea about translating a name is just to look up what the origin of it is, which means you need some idea of what it is before you do. Just try out a few, and you may be surprised where a name comes from. Serendipity.
    I have a character in my current thriller “The Hacker Chronicle,” who is nicknamed Vic. His formal name is Aloysius. A rare, odd name, but I was looking for something different, like a Sherlock, that my hero would have to grapple with, and that one just popped into mind. Turns out the origins of the name include being a warrior — from the Latin, Ludovicus.
    That is what he is the book, warring with cyber bad guys, using his hacking skills to solve a murder and then some other crimes in a series of adventures And from the middle of that Latin name, out jumped Vic, which sounds like his fate might be to be victorious. (A lot of names in novels are given by authors to prefigure fate, in my experience.) But he loses as well as wins. The key thing is: as a self-proclaimed defender of damsels, he is always in the thick of battle.

  25. D.P., Peter, Patrick, Jonathan, Richard, Billy, & Meredith. Thank you for sharing ideas during this week of Thriller Roundtable discussions. It’s been an informative and entertaining exchange. Hope we cross path again. All the best, Donna.

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