Category: naming book characters
By Kathleen McIntosh
Just as parents exhaust name books and websites searching for the name for their wee ones, so do we writers comb them too for not one or even just a handful of appellations. The prospect of naming an entire cast of characters can be overwhelming, and if perusing the SSA Top 1000 and countless other name lists isn’t your thing, here are a few methods to find the perfect character name. and hopefully minimizing the madness!
I’m a name nerd.
True story: In college, I spent hours compiling data for a study on the attractiveness of male and female names. Amanda? Very attractive. Mildred? Not so much. Ken was more attractive than Keith, while Liam was about as attractive as Levi. By the end of the study, I had an Iliad-length research paper and a major caramel-macchiato addiction.
Believe it or not, even after all of that research, I still get excited to dream up the perfect names for the characters in my books. Finding just the right character name actually helps a story start to take shape in my mind. Since I have a tendency to get stuck on finding the perfect name (Maura or Mara? Lila or Lily?), I try to break the process down into just three steps.
One of our favorite guest bloggers is best-selling, prize-winning thriller writer JEFF ABBOTT, whose recently released novel Adrenaline is receiving accolades across the national mediascape. To commemorate his success, we’re revisiting the blog that takes us inside his character naming process, complete with concrete examples–and, incidentally–an acknowledgement of the part 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.