What’s in a Name

What’s in a name?

Picking names

I have no idea why but one of the questions that I’m always asked when I talk about my books is: “How and why did you pick the names for your characters?”

Until the first time that question was asked, I really hadn’t given it a lot of thought.
My first reaction was to answer with “I just pick names that I like or that sound good”. But then I realized that I actually put a lot more effort into selecting names than I thought. I didn’t just randomly pull names out of a hat, or find cool names on the internet. I had a process. And, that process was to find a name that fit my character’s image.

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Names and Images

Without realizing it, all of us form an image when we hear a name. That image can be based on someone we know, or knew with that name or an image we build in our mind from the name itself.

As an example, I went through school with a crush on a girl who called herself CJ. CJ had dark hair, was tomboyish, smart, pretty and popular. I also liked the ring of CJ as a name.

On the other side of the spectrum, I have never personally known anyone named Shannon. But when I hear that name I immediately think of Irish, smart, perky, red hair, pretty with lots of freckles.

Your image of CJ or Shannon may be totally different than mine but that’s why, as an author, you need to describe your characters. Tell your reader what you see and want them to see.

However, it’s really important that you pick a name that fits or at least doesn’t fight with the image you want your readers to see.

If I were to poll most of you, I think we would all share some common traits for a Shannon. Even if we didn’t, I think you would be able to picture Shannon as Irish and having red hair and freckles. While CJ I suspect would be neutral to most of you; which is a good thing. That’s because it would allow me, the writer, to form her into whoever I want. To make you see the CJ I see.

But what if I pick the name Storm or Beatrix? How about if I try to make Storm the girl next door that’s shy, bashful and has dirty blond hair? Or, a middle aged Librarian with mousy brown hair, thick glasses with boring frames and a permanent glare.

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Does that image fit the name? Not for me. (In this case, not even for the horse.)

Storm should be like her name. Wild, carefree, a whirlwind of fun and danger with dark brown, black or fiery red hair.

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And Beatrix? Should she be short, anorexic skinny, with blond hair and be from Norway? Well, the blond hair and Norway parts would fit but certainly not the short or anorexic skinny parts. Especially coming from Norway! That’s not to say that there aren’t short, anorexic skinny girls from Norway! There are! Or were! They just all moved to France and became runway models!

A name isn’t just a name

Okay. So, my point to all this is to be careful picking the names for your characters. Make sure they reflect the image you want the reader to see, as best you can. If not, keep them neutral so you can build that image and most of all, don’t pick a name that will conflict with your image.

Unless you’re doing a humorous story! Then … all bets are off and go for the most far out conflicting names and images you can find. Make Storm a wimp and name your witch Beatrix! (Oh god, every Storm and Beatrix will be hexing my Web and Facebook pages! Honest! I love witches and Storms and Beatrixes (?) Beatrixi (?)!)

Have fun with your names

Which brings me to my final point: Have fun with your names. No matter what genre your writing in.

Some of the names I used in my books?

Shawn (not Sean) because I grew up with a Shawn and we were always kidding him that his parents couldn’t spell. A line I used in my book, about his not being able to spell it right.

Aoife (Pronounced ee fa) because I loved the name when I saw it on a waitress’s name tag in Ireland and everybody (including me) still stumbles on it every time they see it.

Rae, Leigh, Paige and Jessie because they’re not common names and therefore help my readers remember my characters.

Bert, Matt and James because they’re common and manly and fit my secondary heroes, who back up Shawn.

So ….off with you Igor (or is it Egor?)! Go carefully and pick your character’s names. And don’t forget to have some fun with them!

Happy writing!

Let me know:

What are your favorite names and why?

If your a writer, how do you find names and select them?

If your a reader, what names do you love to find in stories? Names you don’t like and why? Finally, what names are overused?

2 thoughts on “What’s in a Name

  1. Great post. I agree that picking a character’s name is very important to their overall image and the image as a writer you want to portray. One of the favourite things I love about writing is picking a character name. I have been known to change a character’s name as I’ve got to know them more because the original name I chose for them didn’t seem to fit. However, I do get annoyed when writer’s a name of girl Grace and she’s a dancer. Way too cliched! I love the name Shannon and also Siobhan. Very Irish!

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  2. Thanks Casey. I remember how much time we spent picking out names for our co-authored Light My Way. And how much fun it was because we both think so much alike.

    Like

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