What’s in a Name?

by Sheila Connolly

I have multiple names. I know, since this is a blog written by writers, you will immediately assume I mean pen names. Nope, it’s more complicated than that.

When I married, decades ago, I did not take my husband’s surname. I was making a feminist statement, see? Besides, Connolly was closer to the beginning of the alphabet than his surname, Williams. Also less common, although many people manage to misspell it. (There is no E in it, people!) I worked at Bryn Mawr College for a time, and since I had access to the alumnae database, I looked to see how many female graduates of my era had changed their names upon marriage. Eleven percent. That’s all? So much for that wave of feminism.

But I was reminded of this most recently when my husband and I refinanced a mortgage. The bank did a background credit check, as they should. My husband appears under only one name. I show up under four. Most are odd mash-ups of my surname and his. One of my doctors has me listed as Connollywilliams (yes, all one word).  Since our health insurance is in his name, most of my health care providers think my name is Williams. I do not have a single ID that lists me as Williams. If I am hit by a falling tree and found unconscious, I have no idea what the ER people will make of me. Yes, I carry an insurance ID card–with only my husband’s name on it. Not mine.  There is none with my name. We’ve tried to explain that to the provider, and they just don’t get it.

I wrote my first mystery series for Berkley under a pen name. Who was I to argue with a major publisher? I was insanely grateful to get a publishing deal at all. At least they let me choose the  name, and I picked one from a long-ago ancestor, with a surname that started with A, so the books would appear at eye-level on bookstore shelves. Didn’t save the series.

Connolly was a better strategic choice, since that put me right between Michael Connelly (one of those pesky E people) and John Connolly (no relation), so I knew people would at least see my books in passing. I guess it worked.

When we write our books, we have to make a lot of decisions about names. What’s the hero/heroine’s name? This is a person we hope we’ll have to live with for a long time. Do we chose a name we wish we’d been given? Do we honor a relative, living or dead? Do we pick something traditional and simple, or do we strain to invent something trendy, hoping that it will be more memorable? Do we use ethnic names or stick to neutral ones?

And what about the villains? We can’t waste a favorite name on a killer. Is there someone we want to slime, even though he or she may never know it? A hostile employer? An offensive neighbor? An annoying cousin?

There are even a few rules. Don’t use too many names that start with the same letter and are about the same length in a single book, because people will get confused. Don’t use names that are too weird or unpronounceable (I waver about using Siobhan, which I love as a spoken name, but the spelling is nothing like the way it sounds), because that takes a reader out of the story, which you don’t want. For a while it seemed like every writer had a main character named Kate (that trend seems to have cooled).

Names matter. It may be that they’re important only to the writer, like an inside joke, or the writer may be trying to convey something to the reader (naming a character Napoleon certainly sends a different message than naming him Joe). They are the first gift we receive when we’re born, and they follow us after death, engraved on our tombstone.

Writers, how do you choose your characters’ names? Readers, do you have favorite names? Names you hate? Names you think have been overused?

37 Thoughts

  1. As the owner of an unusual name I’m not a fan of them. Having your name constantly misspelled and mispronounced is a pain. Plus, I have never felt my name’s pronounciation or spelling has suited me. I don’t feel like an Amy (too sweet) or it’s more glamorous twin Aimee (ah, that pretentious acute accent mark which I have all but dropped because our ‘Murican system is not set up for it).

    When it came time to name my main character I had just as many issues as I do when I try to come up with a name I feel suits me better. She was unnamed for a good 60% of the book. Which was going to be a problem to maintain for one book let alone the three I had plotted out – DuMaurier, I am not.

    Then, one day, I heard her name just as clear as if someone had spoken it. Willa – evoking flexibility and tensile strength like Willow but not as soft just like the character. Different but not too different and easily pronounced. People tend to call her Will which suits her even more with its more masculine energy but not off-putting. She’s also rather willful so she lives up to it.

    1. I hear you! Who is this “Shiela Connelly” person? But you’re right–the name has to fit the person you see in your mind.

      Re your unnamed protagonist–did you write this character in first or third person?

  2. Sheila, I think that many NE football fans would love to see the name BRADY in one of your books, what do you think? Perhaps Brady Thomas?? ☺

  3. I took a long time to name Sarah Wintson. But other names like Scott Pellner just pop in my head. I have no idea where his name or the spelling came from. And often my characters go through almost the entire manuscript with names like “place” for place holder or Blank.

      1. And it’s upsetting on the page. “But I love you!” XXX gasped. “Ditto,” YYY growled, then kissed her. Doesn’t seem very intimate, does it?

    1. The Irish spelling is Niamh. Which shares the same problem with Siobhan–it doesn’t sound like it looks. It’s pronounced neev. How do you “hear” Neve?

      The Irish for Sheila is Sile–that really looks wrong! Oddly, it’s also the Irish for Julia, which is what we named our daughter (because my great-aunt Julia was the only member of my father’s family that my mother liked) before I knew that.

  4. I follow the rules you mentioned about naming characters plus one more rule – I don’t like long first names, especially for returning characters – because I don’t want to type the long name over and over and over again. I had one character named Carol Ann. Loved it for her but I didn’t want to type it over and over again. Sometimes the character name comes first, sometimes the character comes first and then I name him/her.

  5. My main character’s name (Maxine (Max) O’Hara popped into my head as soon as I came up with the idea for the series. I put some thought into Candy’s last name (Sczypinski) because I knew I wanted her to be Polish. And my flower shop owner, Daisy, had originally been a Roxanne until I decided she wasn’t. The funny thing is I didn’t realize until after the first book was published that the bakery owner was a Candy and the flower shop owner was a Daisy. It never occurred to me that their names fit their occupations! I come up with other names by using an online random name generator. I just keep clicking until a name that fits comes up. Elmer Fairbanks is a product of the random name generator.

    1. Love the Candy and Daisy! The mind works in mysterious ways.

      If you’ve exhausted the core group of favorite names, I’ve heard that some people use a phone book open to a random page, or an old high school or college directory–basically anything that has a lot of names. When I started I assumed genealogy would be a goldmine, but when I looked at my own family tree, most of the women turned out to be named Sarah or Hannah, and the men’s side wasn’t much better. John? Samuel? I’m still trying to figure out if I can do anything with Waitstill (which BTW is a man’s name). It was apparently very popular in 1640.

  6. In surnames, I went from a relatively easy German name, to a Anglo-Saxon name with many different potential spellings, to an Eastern European name no one gets right, either in pronunciation or spelling. (Hint: the middle syllable is stressed, and pronounced “LOVE”). All of my non-fiction was published under my current last name, but if I were to write fiction I struggle with which name I should use.

    An overused fictional name for women is Kate; the oh-so-masculine men always seem to be named Jake. My opinion.

    1. To add: when I’m reading a novel and the name is ambiguously pronounced it stops me cold and takes me out of the flow of the book. Kinsey Millhone’s name is a perfect example. I still, after 24 books, stumble mentally over it.

    2. I’m still trying to figure out why Kate is so popular (I confess, one of my first (unpublished) protagonists was named Kate, and I did terrible things to her but she prevailed in the end). It’s short, it’s easy to pronounce, and it doesn’t give a lot away. Kind of universal, or neutral?

  7. For my story in the Malice anthology, I used my grandmother’s name – Betty – since she inspired the story. For other stories, the main character’s name usually comes pretty easy. It’s the minor characters that often trip me up (especially that “don’t use too many names with the same letter” thing).

    My pen name came from that grandmother – kind of an homage.

  8. There are myriad ways to spell Shari/Sherry/Sheri – as Sherry Harris can attest. I just roll with it. It’s a nice surprise if someone does spell my name correctly.
    For character names, I’ve taken strolls in local cemeteries, a good source for surnames.
    Kate was a thing for a long time, wasn’t it? Same with Jake (I’m with Karen). Maybe all those alpha males will now be Brady?

  9. Where do I start with my own? “Tonette” seems to be the most forgettable and hardest name to spell in the universe! (My mother named me after my grandmothers,They called hers “Antonietta” and my father’s mother was Martha. Mom got ‘cute’. My middle name is “Marta”. With “Joyce” as a last name. I often get my names turned around.
    Although I took my husband’s last name when we married; our last name is “Skube”, with the last “e” pronounced…you can only imagine that we have heard every possible joke. I use my maiden name when I write.I already had copyrights in my name before we married and,let’s face it:If you hear “Joyce”, you may just think “writer”, but i when you hear “Skube”, you will think “Cartoon dog”.
    I named the many of the characters in my first attempt at a novel with the names of my fellow bloggers and the few that were in the writing competition with me. In a piece I have written based on a true adventure, I used named that started with the same letter as the names of the real people involved.
    Overdone names? Yes, the same that are everywhere:Josh, Candice, etc. I believe those will be the Gertrude and Clarence of the future!
    [fyi: I think the only time my sister did not get her way with my parents was when she thought I should be named “Sheila”. My life would have been much simpler.]

    1. How do we keep all this straight in our heads? My sister married a Payne, and the name . . . well, she might read this.

      What about using a real, historical character? Do we use the actual name, the one that people recognize? Do we write a thinly disguised version (this is fiction, after all, and we may be putting words in their mouths that they never would have said), or just put a disclaimer up front? Would you call Albert Einstein, Alfred Dreistein in a novel? (Let’s assume there are no copyright issues and all these people are long dead.)

  10. Mark Baker. You’d think that would be an easy name, but I’ve gotten junk mail addressed to a misspelled version, and I’ve gotten phone solicitors call and ask for Mark Barker. Fortunately, Mr. Barker is never home, so I can take of them quickly.

  11. I, too, kept my maiden name, but then, Sheila, you and I are of the same era. Both my daughter and my daughter-in-law took their husband’s surname.

    It is so frustrating how your mind can get stuck in name grooves. In the Maine Clambake series I have a Julia, Jacqueline and a Jack. I can justify keeping all of them if you ask me, but of course, readers don’t.

    The funniest thing is my police detective team. It was three books in before I presented them in an informal enough setting that they were addressed by first names only. It was only then that I realized they were “Tom” and “Jerry.”

    1. That is so funny!

      I should add that writing about people in Ireland is a constant challenge–it seems like half the men you meet are named Michael and Patrick (and don’t get me started on traditional naming patterns), although that’s fallen off quite a bit in recent years. Jack now seems to be leading the pack among boys, and Emily among girls.

      But among the top 50 you have (boys) Oisin #12, Cian #14, Darrah #12, Cillian #22, Tagdh #33 (my Irish postman is named Tagdh), and Rian #36; and (girls) Aoife #13, Saoirse #18, Caoimhe #20, Fiadh #35, and Clodagh #50. I think it makes more sense when you hear them spoken, but on the page?

  12. When I was younger (a teen) I would choose cringe-worthy names like Althea Dupres or Jeremiah Finn, just because I thought they sounded worldly. Then I grew up (a bit!) and realized they took away from the story. Now I just choose names that either pop into my head or that I happen to spy in a magazine article or somewhere mundane and believable. Now I know some people with groovy names in real life that might not sound believable in fiction but they’re inspiring me to think outside the box. If a movie star can name her kid Apple why can’t my character? 😍😬😛

    1. Your character? You get to name him or her.

      I had a landlady at a bed and breakfast in England once whose name was Philomena Heffernan. I’ve always wanted to use that somewhere.

  13. I don’t really have any favorite names. I had a hard time picking names for my two new kittens. I finally settled on Hamilton and Jefferson and the names really seem to fit them. I have no idea how authors settle on names for their characters or for that matter write a book. You are very creative and talented people.

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