Book Character Names: Peeking into the process

How did Rachel Lyon go about naming the characters in her about-to-be-published debut novel, Self-Portrait with Boy?

By Rachel Lyon

When I began writing what would turn out to be my first novel, Self-Portrait With Boy, for many months—years, even—all I had was jibs and jabs: A basic premise, a bunch of seemingly unrelated research and scenes, and a character by the name of Lucy Rile.

All I really knew about Lucy Rile was that she was a photographer. I named her Lucy because Lucy means light, a photographer’s medium. Rile because I had a sense that, eventually, she’d outrage people.

Over time, her character became clearer. She was androgynous, ambitious, friendless, direct. The name Lucy began to seem too sweet and girlish. I shortened Lucy to Lu, a name I loved for its androgynous simplicity.

But Lu seemed like a nickname—and that opened up a new line of questioning. Had Lu been named Lu as a baby, or had she become Lu over time? What did Lu’s birth certificate say? I had to consider her parents, an introverted blue-collar guy from Massachusetts and the teenaged daughter of Slovakian immigrants. Would they name a baby Lu? Not likely. I considered the name Louise, its brassy sass, its reference to real-life artist Louise Bourgeois. Yes, Louise was good.

In the process of naming my protagonist I’d discovered more about who she was, and what her story would become.

A name is an efficient way to evoke character without indulging in too many tangents or plot detours. Giving the characters in my novel memorable, meaningful names that evoked something essential about them both made it easier for me to channel them during the writing process, and helped telegraph who they were.

Many of my characters have names with some preexisting meaning that’s closely related to their character or role. Fiona Clay runs an art gallery. Tammy Day has a sunny personality. The last name of the grief-stricken character Kate Fine is a nod to the longing she feels to actually be doing fine.

Kate, like Lu, is a serious character, but many of my supporting characters are more humorous. The landlord Gary Wrench, a miserable bumbling man with a bad case of eczema, is named ironically. He never actually picks up a tool to fix anything in his decrepit property. The swaggering real estate developer Wayne Salt—a cross between a pirate and a cowboy, reckless and unabashed, with a peg leg and a dirty mouth—is named for the salty water of the East River that flows into the ocean, and for John Wayne, because the post-industrial neighborhood where my book is set was so lawless, vacant, and uninhabited during the period when the novel takes place that people used to call it the Wild West.

It amused me to give the characters in Self-Portrait With Boy clear, simple, sometimes weirdly obvious names, but in the work I’m writing now there are no Clays or Wrenches, Days or Salts or Fines or Riles. In truth I started growing out of naming my characters this way before I was even finished with the novel.

I was in the final quarter when Lu Rile’s last name began to annoy me. It was one thing to name my more incidental, supporting characters this way, but for my complicated protagonist, it seemed reductive and on-the-nose. I considered striking Rile from the manuscript entirely. I tried to think up a new last name for Lu.

But there was no going back. She was, she is, Lu Rile, and always will be.

In jazz improvisation, a wrong note is only a wrong note if you shy away from it. One way of integrating questionable choices is to make them with self-awareness, boldly. If I couldn’t change Lu Rile’s name, I decided, I had to embrace it, to show that it was purposeful, to let Lu herself in on the joke.

Late in the book, then, an article about Lu Rile appears in the New York Post, a publication famous for its punny headlines. It reads: “Art World Riled Up.” Lu reports this to the reader with a snide aside. “As if we didn’t all see that coming a mile away,” she says.

Rachel Lyon is a writer from Brooklyn, NY. Her fiction has been published, or will appear, in McSweeney’s, Joyland, Bustle, The Toast, The Iowa Review, and elsewhere. Her debut novel          Self-Portrait with Boy is about to be published by Scribner. Visit her at

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8 Responses to “Book Character Names: Peeking into the process”

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Selkit Says:

February 2nd, 2018 at 12:21 pm

Congratulations on your debut novel! This post is particularly relevant and timely for me, as I’m also an aspiring novelist. My project is pretty different from “Self-Portrait with Boy”–mine is a futuristic sci-fi/speculative YA novel–but I’m having a similar struggle with naming my protagonist. Originally I named her Mae, but since her character arc deals with a lot of internalized anxiety and self-isolation, I’ve begun to wonder if Mae, like Lucy, is too light and girlish. At the moment I’ve tentatively changed her name to Wren, which feels a bit more grounded than Mae, but with the bird connection that symbolizes her desire to be free from her emotional struggles.

Thanks for this post; you gave me lots of food for thought!

josephinedagnall Says:

February 2nd, 2018 at 1:15 pm

Congratulations! As an aspiring writer myself, I find this post very helpful. The book I’m writing is a YA fantasy/sci-fi novel, but I still remember the difficulties I had trying to name my characters. I originally named my main protagonist Jennifer – shortened to Jenny – but then began to feel that the name was too over-used and well-known for my world and character. I ended up changing her name to Genevra, and found that, as her character evolved inside my head, Jenny no longer seemed like a nickname that would suit her very much. In the novel, she now goes mostly by either Gen or the full Genevra. I particularly liked the fact that ‘gen’ is British slang for information, and Genevra is a smuggler who deals in untold secrets. In this way, the name I finally chose for her seems to suit her a lot better.

Armor Says:

February 2nd, 2018 at 4:53 pm

I have a short sc-fi novel in the works myself. I ran into the same problem of the name being too girlish with “Lenore” for my main character. I eventually changed it to Avalon, which is the name of an island from an Arthurian legend where Excalibur was supposedly forged, symbolizing both her lone-wolf personality and her skill with weapons. It also fits her well, which is relieving as I was afraid no other name would feel right.

Bobcat108 Says:

February 2nd, 2018 at 11:15 pm

When I was a kid I used to tell my imaginary friends stories…one recurring one involved a dying queen, far from home, & her sending her newborn daughter out of the kingdom w/the loyal squire from her home country. From that I’ve been playing around w/world-building, & finding the correct name for a person or a place is super important to me. Sometimes I’ve heard something that “just fits”…so the main trading city is Atalassia (one letter added to a name I ran across) & commerce takes place at the Atalassian market. As soon as I read the name I could see the city in my mind’s eye. 🙂

Bassilly Says:

February 3rd, 2018 at 1:49 pm

I really enjoyed this article!! I dream of writing a novel one day, and I thought this had great insight.

Birdie Largo Says:

February 4th, 2018 at 10:01 am

I actually am writing a romance novel right now and my book(called Fire for the protagonist red hair/fiery spirit and temper) was how I found Nameberry. All of my characters have Victorian era names. The main character name is Harriet, not with the nickname Hattie because I thought it was too stuffy, but one of my own creation, Arry. The true love of Arry is a prince(I know a cliche, but I thought it should be a classic but not) named Augustus with the nicknames Aug, Auggie, August, Gus, Gussy, Gusty, Gustus, but mostly Gust. I thought the two went together well; Harriet and Augustus, Arry and Gust. Other favorite names in my book are Luella nn Lu, Alma(for a girl), Dexter, and the twins Oliver and Oscar, all siblings of Arry.

Birdie Largo Says:

February 4th, 2018 at 10:03 am

All except Dexter who is a sibling of Gust.

Willowleaf Says:

February 6th, 2018 at 8:17 pm

I’m writing a book right now, and the names are so important! When I’m trying to find a name for a character, it either springs into my head right away or I mess around with it for ages. For my novel, two of the main characters are named Cobwebs O’Toole and Muscles Moynihan, because my sister and my father were talking about second-rate Irish rappers and four-year-old boxers. I loved the names so much I begged them for months to use them. It worked. My two other characters are named Emma Merritt and Johnny Levine. Their names were not quite as painless…

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