What’s in a Name?

Jessie: On the coast of Maine, happily soaking up every last drop of summertime

I’m working on a new project and new projects involve large amounts of one of my favorite parts of writing, naming the characters. I have no idea why it would be the case but I absolutely love naming things. If I weren’t a writer I think I’d love to be someone who dreams up the names for lipsticks, nail polishes and house paint.

Sometimes names magically rush fully formed into my head along with the characters who own them. Often those names and characters show up even before the story does. For the Sugar Grove mystery I completed in June the entire direction of the book grew from the name of the victim.

Other times I have a type of character in mind because of the story I have planned and I  set out to deliberately craft the name for that character. I start with the time period in which the story is set and the age of the character. Then I head straight over to the Social Security Administration website to consult their database of names. Usually, I start by checking names by decade and then may move on to checking by region.

The database also lists given names by popularity. You can look at the top 1000 names and one of the questions I ask myself about the character is what sort of parents would he or she have had? Would they have chosen a popular or a more unique name of their child? As I decide on an answer this gives me some insight into the character’s background.

I like to use New Hampshire and Maine phone books for surnames. I think names commonly found in a locale in real life lend a sense of authenticity to the fictional world.

I use Scrivener for my writing and it has a handy character list that I can leave open in front of me. The list helps me to be sure I don’t choose the same initials for too many characters. Donald, Desmond and Douglas cause a lot of trouble if they are in the same story. So can too many surnames that begin with “Mc” or end with “son”.

I think about the way the name sounds when I say it aloud. I think about my personal preferences and how I react to the name. I look up the meaning and explore possible nicknames. I think about whether or not someone would like to be gifted with the name I am planning for them.

After I’ve got a name I am pleased with I google it to be sure I haven’t dreamed up an already famous name because I am ignorant of something historically or in pop culture. In the best case scenario there is no one with the name that turns up in my searching. The next best thing is for it to turn up frequently for many different people. Once the name has passed that hurdle it gets added to the list and the character begins to become real to me.  I can start to see her in my mind’s eye or hear his voice.

So what’s in a name? For me, the start of something wonderful.

Readers, do you like naming things? Children, pets, characters of you own? Do you love discovering the names leafing out your family tree? I’d love to hear some of your favorite names too.



38 Thoughts

  1. I love naming, too. It’s been particularly fun finding names for my 1888 mystery. Orpha popped up for the old midwife who trained my protagonist. And Jotham is a male character. I recently read about a real Quaker from that time with a surname of Scattergood!

  2. Naming is a favorite of mine too! My house plants, my car, and anything else that has enough personality to earn a name is fair game.

      1. Hmm, good idea. Gladys was wonderfully named by Flavia, but if your name is Flavia you certainly have a head start on the naming thing.

  3. I use family trees for many of the names I select, both from my own family and from those of the sixteenth century people I come across in my research. Two of my favorite real names are Euphemia Elphinstone and Dowsabella Tempest.


  4. Names are a big deal. And interesting. Last week on Facebook, I asked people’s off the cuff reactions to the name Greg. The responses went from “good guy” to “slime bucket” with no consensus. I agree about too many character names starting with the same letter–drives me crazy. But, somehow, whenever I have a bad guy, his name starts out as David. I have never met a bad guy David IRL, but it’s my go-to BG name.

    1. I think personal experiences have so much to do with reactions to names. Do you remember a baby names book from back in the nineties that not only gave the meanings of names but also of people’s assumptions about a person based on the name? It was fascinating. I’d be curious as to what it had to say about Greg and David!

  5. I love naming characters and I use my family tree too. One of my short stories had a character named Delphis Dupre who was my great-grandfather. I sometimes use obituaries. I recently read one about a 92 year-old woman named Annie MacDougal. I’m going to use her name real soon.

  6. I hate naming things. Heck, I have a really hard time coming up with a title for my reviews. That’s always the hardest part for me. And coming up with character names? Forget it. The few times I’ve written a story, I’ve gone with the first thing that popped into my head and moved on.

    1. Mark, I think titles are harder than names. I have trouble coming up with blog post titles but the names for characters strike me as easier to create and a lot more fun. Sometimes those names that pop into the head are the very best ones anyway.

  7. Great blog, Jessie! I had a struggle with two character names for my WIP. Until recently one was named Blank and the other Place. I finally figured their names out.

  8. One of my great-grandmothers named her summer house and had a beautiful hand-painted sign made to go beside the front door. No one ever referred to the house by its name, but when I could read I knew what it meant, and I began to think of it differently—like a conscience being.

      1. 🙂 Hi, Sherry. She called it Breezy, and the land was Breezy Meadows. It was at the top of a hill surrounded by white pines that made the beautiful whooshing sound as the breeze moves through. Although the house is long gone, the meadow is at the bottom of the hill where the brook moves through. It’s very peaceful there.

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