What’s in a Name?

Hi SE’rs, Joan here. Happy first day of March. The Story Empire authors are expanding our blogging schedule to Mondays and Wednesdays along with a Friday share thread. I’m the first to post on Wednesday. Today, I want to talk about character names.

A couple of months ago, while outlining my current WIP, I said to my husband, “I need a name for my antagonist.”

He was quick to respond. “How about Damien?”

Immediately I thought of The Omen. “He’s a bad guy not a child of the devil.” Needless to say, I chose something else.

A few days later, after having thought about it, I decided to look up the meaning of Damien. Turns out, it is of Greek origin, derived from the word Damianos, which is from the word damazo and means “to tame.”

Saint Damian and his twin brother Cosmo were martyred in the early fourth century in Syria. They are the patron saints of physicians—a far cry from being the child of Satan. But many of us perceive Damian as being demonic because of the movie.

name-meaning

If you ask a dozen different writers how they name their characters, you might get a dozen different answers. I once heard of an author that does extensive background research, even matching the name meaning with the character’s personality.

But I tend to agree with Shakespeare when he said, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Or in the case of my antagonist, a skunk by any other name would smell as bad.

I don’t follow any hard and fast rules but I do attempt to match character names with their ages, ethnicity, and of course, gender.

Mildred or Velma makes me think of an older woman. Emily, Hannah, Madison, and Ashley were popular in the year 2000 and therefore good for a teenage character.

A person named Antonio would lead me to believe the character might be of Italian descent whereas the names Carlos or Juan indicate Hispanic origin.

Some names are unisex, although at times there are variations in the spelling. A few that come to mind are Lynn, Lee, Jordan, and Alex.

This may sound like stereotyping, but if I hear Joe Bob or Betty Sue, I envision characters living in the southern United States. Albert, Edward, Elizabeth, and Victoria sound more aristocratic, likely because they are associated with members of the British royal family.

Language use evolves over the years. What was once acceptable may no longer be. As last-of-the-mohicansan example, producers of the 1992 film The Last of The Mohicans changed the name of the main character to Nathaniel Poe (also known as Hawkeye) so as not to elicit giggles and sneers from the audience.

In James Fennimore Cooper’s 1826 novel, the character was Natty Bumppo. Suitable for the early nineteenth century, but not so for the late twentieth. Personally, I can’t see Daniel Day-Lewis portraying a character with such a silly name.

Now it’s your turn. How do you decide character names? Do you research the meanings? Keep a list of potential ideas? Please share in the comments.

Joan Hall

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44 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. Beside matching gender and nationality or origins, I usually go for the sound of it. If it feels right then that’s it! Sometimes they are related to the character personality or evoke something but it depends on the kind of story. I agree some names suggest a particular age more than others.
    Great post Joan!

    Liked by 1 person

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  3. For my WIP I researched baby names for the era and locale for the characters’ births. That was the starting point. Then I made lists of ones I liked and ‘tried’ them out. I’ve changed the main character’s name 5 or 6 times, but I am happy with the one I currently have.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nancy, I made several changes to character names in Unseen Motives. Debbie became Stephanie, Scott became Matt, Brad became Brian and so forth. However, I was pleased in the end with the choices I made. We are fortunate to have so many resources at our disposal these days.

      Like

  4. When I find it, I know it. 🙂 But to find it, I do a LOT of googling. Because one of my series is set in a small Florida town, and one in the North Carolina mountains, I google a lot of old southern surnames that ring true to families of these areas. I also google first name lists of all kinds, but again, frequently southern or Appalachian in origin. And I think about the character’s traits. When I wanted to name my huge Viking-ish hero in Swamp Ghosts, I looked at a lot of names of Scandinavian origin, and picked the one that sounded strong enough to suit my guy. He became Gunnar Wolfe, or Gunn, to his friends. Similarly, when I named my heroine, I wanted names of Irish origin, and ended up with something her parents would have loved. Mary Margaret Devlin, or Maggie.

    I believe, as most of you do, I imagine, that names give us a jump start on telling readers who our characters are. I wouldn’t name a business tycoon Lester Purvis, though there may be a few out there with that name, for all I know. However, Lester Purvis seemed exactly right for an eccentric country man, who lives alone with his collection of albino reptiles. (This doesn’t mean I believe that anyone named Lester or with a family name of Purvis is eccentric. Just that the name worked well for someone who was.)

    Great post, and I’m glad I had a few minutes this morning to check it out, finally! What’s in a name, indeed. So much fun finding the perfect one, eh? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Marcia – I do think it’s important to match Nationality and culture. Google is a great resource for so many things. And I’m like you, when I find that perfect character name, I know it. Thanks for stopping by.

      Liked by 1 person

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  6. Great post. I get my names from many place. Some of my best names came from overhearing conversations. I do often talk to my friends and co-workers and they offer great suggestions as well. I don’t always research my names, but when I am working on some pieces, I Google names based on meaning, for example, Mallory mean unfortunate; ill fated, and I was looking for a character with those particular traits.

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  7. I use baby name sites, online generators, first or last names of people I know (though sometimes with a change in spelling, and never their full name), sports rosters, and perhaps my favorite resource—film and television credits (particularly the people near the end, not the director or actors). I find, though, that last names are harder for me than first names, primarily because these days (contemporary US, anyway), first names come from anywhere but last names still often denote nationality. Don’t waste your time on the Scrivener name generator. Find one or more online.

    It’s funny you mention Damien, because I always associate it with The Omen, too. However, I also looked the meaning of the name up, and I found it perfect for a character in a novel I wrote. Now when I hear the name, I think of my guy just as often. A gargoyle by any other name, after all…

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  8. I just love naming characters, Joan! It has to be my favorite part of starting a novel. Whenever I hear a name I like I save it to my iPhone. I’ve got separate lists for male first names, female first names and last names. That’s generally the first place I look. After that I normally hop onto the baby naming sites or I try a name generator app (a few of those are really bad). Sometimes I’ll look up the meaning of a name but not always.

    If I’m writing something set in the past, I’ll look for names that were popular during the time period.

    In my Point Pleasant series, Avery Parrish became Eve Parrish for that reason. Just as Breanna Flynn became Maggie Flynn and Reed Layton became Roger Layton (keeping more in line with names of the early 1980s). Caden Flynn however–as I told my critique group–was non-negotiable 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

    • I also have a list of names on my iPhone. I changed the names of several characters in Unseen Motives. Stephanie was originally Debbie. Then I realized I had a thing for S names, so Scott became Matt (I think Matt fits my character much better), and Sophie became Helen. I can’t imagine your character being anything but Caden, but I do think Eve and Maggie are more suited to that time frame.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Oh, I like Stephanie much better. And how interesting that Scott became Matt. In Point Pleasant I wrote the entire first book using Avery and Breanna. It wasn’t until I was thinking about book two that I changed those names. And I’m so glad I did, LOL!

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Wow! On the same page here. Just two days ago, I wrote myself a note to create a blog post for a future site I am working on and the theme was how I choose character names. Thanks for the interesting post and all the comments above. I also research some, baby names for the years born matching my character, surnames for a particular area, and ethnicity. I tend to write mostly fantasy/paranormal/mystical themes, so I also have books and lists of creature names and types. I keep a running list in my files of names I would like to possibly use and even when out at a restaurant or shopping, I am constantly making note of the servers names and any new people I meet.

    Liked by 4 people

  10. Hi Joan, thanks for an entertaining and informative post. I swing both ways when it comes to naming; sometimes, I do extensive research while at others, I go with a gut feeling on what fits. For my first novel, being set partly in England and partly in Holland, I had to research the Dutch names extensively. And, for many of the characters (no matter the nationality) the meaning of the names had importance. However, for my second book, The Glade, I went much more on intuition and what felt right; although, I did research one or two of the character names. For Katie in Finding Katie, there never was any possibility of calling her anything else. She got into my head one night and wouldn’t leave until I’d written her story, lols. I agree wholly with matching names to nationalities unless the plot has a good explanation for having a totally mismatching moniker. 🙂

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  11. I’ve been on names too lately. I feel like I’m hit and miss on this. I’ve used name generators, baby name by era sites, research into meaning, my daughter’s graduation program, and the Major League Baseball rosters. I always consider Marvel Comics’ method of having heroes with the first and last initials matching. I’ve used and not used this. The graduation program and the MLB rosters have been the most helpful. You can’t use them exactly, but they are great inspiration. Baseball has great names, Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner are great names.

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    • I’ve used several of your methods. Being a baseball fan, I hadn’t thought of that, although I do like the name, Madison Bumgarner. One source I don’t use is Scrivener’s name generator. I’m not sure what the developers were thinking, but unless I want a laughable name, I’ll stick with something else.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Not a Scrivener guy, so I haven’t tried that one. MLB has some great names, and they add some regional twang too. Nolan Ryan, Kenta Maeda, Yoanes Cespedes, all come with an idea of where they might be from.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I grew up with my first and last initial being the same. In fact, there are two S sounds in two syllables in my first name (although one is achieved with a C). Combine that with my last name then (Smith), and that was three S sounds in three syllables. I HATED it. Of course, it didn’t help that my friends thought it was funny to just hiss during study hall to get my attention.

      Long story short, don’t go the Marvel route. (Dum Dum Dugan… really?)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Reed Richards, Sue Storm, those are good. Deceased family member: Rose Sympharose Montrose. Enough roses for you? Some of your name issues would make a great bit of character… for a character.

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      • Staci, I had the same issue. My maiden name is James, so I had two one syllable names. Still do, but at least my last name is a different initial. My niece is JJJ (Jessica Joy James). I think it flows nicely, however.

        Like

    • Oh yes, the great Nolan Ryan. I named one of my cats Cruz after Nelson Cruz, a former Texas Ranger player. I actually liked the name and I told my husband if Nellie tied the home run record for MLB playoffs, I was naming our new kitten Cruz. Next time up at bat, he hit another homer and the rest is history. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Pingback: What’s in a Name? | Story Empire – Joan Hall

  13. I do research for character names, but how much research is dependent upon the book. I’m a bit (okay a lot) anal and very detail-orientated. Thank Military Police training! My historical fiction novel was researched extensively (obsessive is probably the correct word here). For my ‘fun’ books, I do some google research to see what other people think is a hot name for a detective or whoever the character is. Of course, if I’m procrastinating, there is a chance I’ll do more research than strictly necessary 😉

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  14. It’s true what Shakespeare says.
    And yet, sometimes, we can’t simply call a Roman Emperor Ekene- which is an African name, or a Chinese character Hedviga – that is a Czech one!
    I use names of family members, either alive or in the stars’ world, for my characters. These characters even have traits of those people. Not always.
    For authenticity, I try to find names that are used in the epoch and country described in my book.
    I sometimes also use allegorical names for some of the characters.
    One thing my editor taught me – to avoid having main characters with the same starting letter in the story ( Angela, April, Alicia). She says it may confuse the reader. I do my best to follow her advice.
    I found a couple of useful places with names generators. If interested, you can find them on my blog at Useful author resources – entry 82 and 83.
    https://shadowspastmystery.blogspot.ro/p/goodies-for-writers.html
    Carmen

    Liked by 4 people

    • Hi Carmen, thanks for stopping by and for sharing the link. I use some character name sites as well as keep a list of potential names on my iPhone. I agree with matching the character name/nationality. And as for names beginning with the same letter, I had four names beginning with “S” in my last novel. Two of them were main characters. Needless to say, I changed some of the names when writing the first draft. 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

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