What's In A Name“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

So what’s in a name and why does it matter to a novelist? Remember that third grade substitute teacher who pronounced yours incorrectly? Or how about the playground bully who always called you Bucky or Stretch? How about that delectable boy–or girl–in high school? Didn’t you die a little every time he or she had to ask your name, even though you’d met half a dozen times before?

If you think hard enough you’ll remember why the theme song from the television show Cheers made such an impact. “Where everybody knows your name.” Where everybody knows who you are and connects it to that word by which we recognize and affirm you.

What’s in a name? Wow!

Names came up this weekend on my author Facebook page. I realized as I was working on my new book that when I changed my heroine’s name to one beginning with “L” I hadn’t factored in another more minor character whose name also began with an “L.” Lester, a man in his late sixties or early seventies, is a country clubber, politically conservative, wealthy, demanding, and a stickler for appearances, Now I had to change it.

Why?

Great question, I’m glad you got this far.

Through the years I’ve learned a lot about naming characters. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Names should be easily distinguishable from each other. For example most of the time no two names should begin with the same letter.
  • The most common names are the easiest to forget. 
  • Choose a name that’s ethnically and regionally appropriate, or explain why not. 
  • Choose a name that’s acceptable if not overly common for an era.
  • Use nicknames that explain themselves, or if not, make the explanation part of the character’s story.
  • Avoid names already used for major characters in my 70+ novels.
  • Consider carefully before choosing a name that is easily associated with a famous character. Example: Linus or Atticus.
  • When all the above have been taken into consideration, choose a name that “feels” like the character.

So what does a character “feel like,” you ask? That’s impossible to explain. But until MY characters have names, I can’t feel them at all. So it’s a two-way process. I get a vague sense of the person I’m creating, then I find a name, then the name and the character together begin to solidify.

I decided to ask my Facebook readers for their suggestions. There were so many! I whittled down their list to 20+ which I’m still considering. Along the way, though, a few readers took issue with my choice of “Lester.” Lester, they pointed out, was a name from a different generation than my character. Nobody was called Lester in the 40s when he was born. I should call my character Tom, Steve, Doug–there actually is a Baby Boomer Douglas in this story–or something more common for a Baby Boomer of that era.

That, of course, hearkens back to my second point above. Names must be easy to remember. Some names blend into the page. They are so common they disappear, and readers can’t remember who they are. I try to avoid those.

So a few more points:

  • Don’t forget that names are passed down through generations. That boy you knew as Tim might have a birth certificate that reads Osborne Timothy Smith III. 
  • Sometimes people go by names that have nothing to do with their birth certificates. I had a beloved aunt I called Ronnie all my life. Her real name was Laura. My father-in-law was often called Sid because he looked like Sid Caesar. 
  • Names of people you know well should be used with caution.

For an author, after all that it really does come down to “feels like.”

What’s in a name? The recognition that this person and this word have merged and forever after we will not think of either without the other.

By the way? What names from my Facebook Page made the cut? Why not weigh in if you have a favorite. I’ll let you know what I decide:

Chester, Walter, Wallace, Ken, Vincent, Vance, Herb, Hank, Van, Wyatt, Archie, Forrest, Chet, Mitch, Ozzie, Brad, Howard, Vaughn, Harold, Reggie, Preston, Herman, Dennis, Malcolm, Roger, Boyd, Bernard, Vance.

17 Comments

  1. Clara Watt on March 23, 2016 at 6:42 am

    I like Wallace, just sounds like a person who would be a country clubber.

  2. Rosemarie Andreano on March 23, 2016 at 7:03 am

    I like Howard. Thanks for this post, very interesting.

  3. Carol McIntosh on March 23, 2016 at 11:07 am

    Oh, I really like Howard!

  4. Marianne on March 23, 2016 at 2:25 pm

    I still like Vincent.

  5. Marilyn on March 23, 2016 at 2:44 pm

    Vincent

  6. Janet Warren on March 23, 2016 at 3:23 pm

    I never realized naming characters was so complicated. I am glad you don’t name characters with the same first initial. It is confusing to me. I have synesthesia and all names are in color.

    • Emilie Richards on March 24, 2016 at 9:41 am

      That must give you some very interesting reading experiences, Janet.

      • Janet Warren on March 26, 2016 at 10:19 am

        It is confusing at times. I just focus on the plot and how I imagine the people.

  7. Marsha Markham on March 23, 2016 at 3:41 pm

    Interesting things an author must consider. While I love the name Forrest (my favorite uncle was named that), I’m afraid the Forest Gump character would pop into people’s minds.

    You are so right about not using similar names such as Bob and Bill…just too hard for the reader to keep things straight.

    English novels often have too many characters so, when I see that when browsing, I just don’t get into the book.

  8. Marcia De on March 23, 2016 at 4:36 pm

    I have 2 top picks for you – Chester (my dad’s name) or Archie, I can see both as demanding, wealthy, a country clubber, conservative politically speaking, and in their late 60’s. It’s funny, to me, that Vincent didn’t make my list as that’s my hubby’s name and he is almost 70 yrs of age…..lol!

    • Emilie Richards on March 24, 2016 at 9:42 am

      Archie was among the top candidates. I chose something else. I’m giving myself a day to make sure it stays. I’ve changed it four times so far, sometimes after only a minute or two.

  9. Donalene Poduska on March 23, 2016 at 4:37 pm

    I like Harold. I had a childhood friend with that name. Think of him every now and then and the fun times with his family.

    • Emilie Richards on March 24, 2016 at 9:42 am

      Thought seriously about Hal, short for Harold.

  10. Pat Wallace on March 23, 2016 at 11:18 pm

    I see Wallace as an uptight, go by the book type of man who judges first and then has to apologize when he finds he is completely wrong about the other character.

    • Emilie Richards on March 24, 2016 at 9:43 am

      Now coming from you, this is interesting. Clearly not when it’s a last name, right? Right!

  11. MerryBeth on March 24, 2016 at 2:55 am

    I really like Forrest. And fespectfully disagree with it making people think of Forest Gump. It is a strong, cool name and could deffinately be a country clubber.

    • Emilie Richards on March 24, 2016 at 9:44 am

      Had a good friend named Forrest but he was called Frosty. I’m afraid that like Linus or Atticus, Forrest these days would have associations. But not enough to keep me from using it someday.

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