What’s in a name? Well, for me, sometimes naming characters is a bit like trying on clothes. I gather as many names as I can carry, haul them into the dressing room, try them on, angle this way and that way in front of the mirror, ask a trusted buddy for her opinion, discard ones that don’t fit, and whittle down the possibilities until one has been selected. It’s important to get a character’s name right. A reader has to travel with that character for hundreds of pages. An improperly named character can mean the difference between an enjoyable read and an I’m-not-going-to-finish-this-book read.
I often call potential names out loud in voices portraying the varying moods found in my stories. I need to know a name is going to sound great even if another character is screaming it in rage. I try out the names while I’m talking to my characters. You might hear me say, “Well, you know, Patrick…” just to see if his name flows nicely in the context of a conversation. If it doesn’t, I’ll try another until I get the right vibe. Meanwhile, The Husband wonders who all these men are.
And what about a shortened form of a name? David to Dave, Michael to Mike, Steven to Steve. Who will use the shortened forms? Parents, friends, lovers? Are there shortened forms you as the author just won’t tolerate? Richard to Dick? Is it going to completely emasculate your Alpha hero, Ralph, if someone calls him Ralphie? These are all considerations to keep in mind when naming a character.
Once a first name is selected, the hunt for last names can be challenging. I’m Italian and live in a predominantly Italian neighborhood. Most of the people I know are Italian. The urge to make every last name sound like something out of The Godfather or Goodfellas or have it end in a vowel is always there. To help vary it up, I began collecting possible last names in my writer’s notebook. One fun source has been the names of towns along I-91 as I travel from Rhode Island to Vermont on the weekends. In Kisses to Remember, the hero, Holden Lancaster, has a first and last name that are towns on that route. His heroine, Johanna Ware, sports a last name that came from a highway sign. In Firefly Mountain, the last names of Claremont, Barre, and Thetford all came from this town method as well. This name collection system has really helped me branch out of the parmesan-encrusted bowl of gravy I had been stuck in with names. The whole world isn’t Italian or Irish or whatever ethnicity in which you’ve been held hostage.
Sometimes names have just come to me when characters are introducing themselves in my mind. I’ll be walking my dog, and out of nowhere, a voice will say in my head, “Hi, I’m Detective Daxton Wilder, and you should write my story.” Umm, okay, Dax. I’ll get right on that. And suddenly, no other name is right for him. He. Is. Daxton Wilder. Down to the core. I can try calling him something else, but he won’t listen. If he doesn’t listen, his story doesn’t get written, and that makes us both cranky.
Names are sometimes derived from something that describes the character. For example, in my young adult book, Run With Me, about a tree spirit, I chose the last name Everleaf for the hero, Jobah. It has a tribal, earthy feel that is perfect for his story and who he is. The heroine, Olivia Bradford, received what I’d call an upper middle class name. She lives in a respectable suburb, attends a nice school, is on the track team, has two brainiac parents. The last name Bradford was found with my town method mentioned earlier, and it sounded professional with the word doctor in front of it for her parents.
I’ve also heard names of real people that I’ve simply fallen in love with like Salem Grimm. Fantastic! I’m going to use that someday. Everywhere I go, I check out employee nametags. I’ve come across some great names like Avaline, Gretah, and Doone. Unusual spellings of names can be fun too. Carissa can be Kharissa. Or Kevin can be Kevyn. Play around with names.
Naming characters is a blast, and I do think that those names can help determine who that character is going to be in a story. Treat your readers to some solid, creative names that will enhance their reading experience and have them remembering your characters long after the last page has been read.