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Naming Literary Characters: One author’s advice

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Best-selling, prize-winning mystery writer JEFF ABBOTT takes us inside his character-naming process in part one of a two-part guest blog.  Today he describes his methodology, tomorrow he reveals how he arrived at concrete examples–and, incidentally– of the part that’s been played by our very own books and website.

I think it is sometimes easier to name a child than a character in a book.

I have used Pam and Linda’s books to name characters in my novels now for the past several years. And they are perfectly geared to finding that ideal character name, given that the lists are organized by groupings such as style, energy, creativity, and so on. (My favorite all-time list as a resource: The Fitting In, Standing Out list).

I first used a baby naming book as a second-grader, when I was writing my first stories in pencil in a Big Chief tablet. I told my mom I was having trouble knowing what to name a certain character, and she gave me the baby name book she’d used. It listed names alphabetically, with ethnic origin and “variations and diminutives.” What I mostly learned from this book was that Teutonic meant German and I would have been named Caroline if I was a girl. (It was the only girls’ name circled in the entire book.) It offered a fairly slim list of choices, compared to today’s books, and I pretty much resorted to either trying to match a name to the feel of the character (like naming a pretty girl Melissa, which was the epitome of a pretty girl name at the time) or matching the name’s original meaning to the character. (I named a king in a very early short story Frederick because it meant ‘peaceful ruler’, and he was a nice king.)

I knew even then that picking a name because it meant ‘brave warrior’ in Old German had very little to do with how the name was viewed in our culture. And in the shorthand of fiction, you want a name that matches the character,that signals, however subtly, to the reader, a trait or feeling about this person.

When I started to write a new crime series about an ex-CIA agent who owns bars around the world, I wanted the characters to have names that matched their personalities. Now, the advantage of naming characters over kids is that you know the personality of the character, and you don’t know (yet) the personality of the beautiful little baby.

The first criteria I had for my hero’s name: it couldn’t start with a J, and it specifically couldn’t be Jack. Jack is the default name for every other action hero these days: Jack Bauer of 24, Lee Child’s novels about Jack Reacher, Jack Shepard from Lost, Jack Ryan from Tom Clancy’s novels, Jack Sparrow of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. I love the name but I didn’t want my new character to be lost in a sea of Jacks. But other J names have been heavily used: Jason (Bourne), James (Bond), James (Adams) in Robert Muchamore’s bestselling CHERUB spy novels for kids.

My first thought was to use Alexander, or some variant. But Alex has been used quite a bit in suspense fiction, notably for teen spy Alex Rider in the bestselling series by Anthony Horowitz. So then I thought I’d use Sander for short. I heard from an assistant at my UK publisher that she’d fallen in love with a Sander in Amsterdam one summer. Everyone liked the name—except my UK editor, who kept mentioning he couldn’t shake the image of a wood sander.

Then I thought of using Thane, which means ‘clan chieftain’ in Scottish Gaelic. But the name was hard to match with a surname I liked. Thane also, to me, sounded like a name that was trying too hard to be edgy or cool. The hero is a guy who can mix you a martini one second and defeat you in hand-to-hand combat the next; Thane felt a bit unlikely for him, although I think it’s a great name.

So I went back to basics: I wanted a short, simple name that could translate well. I searched through the books and Nameberry lists and found Samuel. SAM. A very solid name, from the Bible, one that went through its period of stylishness (with Jake and Max) but doesn’t sound trendy. The last crimefighter I could think of in suspense fiction who’d used it was Sam Spade, and that was decades ago. Because of all the Samanthas who go by Sam, it didn’t seem overtly macho, but still felt masculine. It was also the name of the son of some dear family friends of ours who had always encouraged me in my writing when I was a child. Sam sounds, to me, like a guy who might own bars around the world. The kind of guy you could turn to in your darkest hour for help. And for some reason, as soon as I thought of Sam, the last name Capra occurred to me. Sam Capra. Capra was short, and carried both the toughness of its Italian origin (it means goat) and the geniality of one of America’s favorite film makers, Frank Capra (It’s A Wonderful Life). Sam Capra. Everyone I asked loved the name—agents, editors, readers. An ex-spy fighting to find his missing family, future owner of bars in the world’s greatest cities, a hero, was born.

The next name I wanted to decide was that of the beautiful, tough Slavic boss of my main character. When looking at the list of Slavic names, I saw Feodora, which I liked a lot, and loved the suggested nickname Feo. Kicky and tough, like the character. But when I mentioned it to one of my editors in the UK, she noted that Feo means ugly in Spanish. Um, goodbye Feo. I went back to the Nameberry listing of Slavic names and eventually went with the short, brisk MILA – it’s easy to say and it was a classic, energetic name that suited the character.

The final name for the continuing characters in the series was for Sam’s best friend, his one ally remaining in the CIA as the agency hunts him. I found AUGUST in a Nameberry list and liked it immediately. I thought it would suit the character, a Minnesota farmboy turned CIA operative. At first I called him Gus, then Augie, and neither worked. August, in its full, substantial form, fit the character with its solidness and respectability. (Everyone should have a friend as loyal as August is to Sam.) I also liked, though, that the name, with its current trendiness, feels young again.

Please understand that I don’t just pick names I like for heroes: I pick names I like, or think are interesting, for villains as well. Just because I give a genuinely rotten character a name doesn’t mean I hate that name, or think it sounds evil. (I think Dezz, Jane, and Edward are very cool names, yet I used them for some of my most awful villains.)

Go here for more from Jeff Abbott on naming characters.

JEFF ABBOTT is the internationally bestselling author of twelve novels, published in over twenty languages. His latest, Adrenaline, is just out in the UK and will be released in the US in July 2011.

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