A Rose By Any Other Name …

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by Maureen Lang

The more books an author writes, the greater the struggle to find the right character name-ones they haven’t used before.

Like everything else, names are subject to taste. Take Homer, for example. Not your unusual choice for a hero. Why? Does it strike the ear as too close to “homely?” Or does it have that old-fashioned, slightly unappealing tone that we can’t really put our finger on, like Hortense, for a heroine? My mother-in-law never liked her middle name. Myrtle rhymes with turtle and inspired an easy tease.

While doing research for my First World War books, I read about the Big Bertha guns-designed by Germans to strike Paris from a considerable distance. Has Bertha always seemed to go with “big” or did the guns of WWI start that cliche?

Then there are symbolic names, which may work better than the basketball player who chose to change his name to Metta World Peace only to be revealed as somewhat of a bully.

But as a writer, I’m here to state that any name can be redeemed. Consider Bubba Watson, the 2010 Master’s champion. His looks don’t match your everyday Bubba.

Popularity for some names ebb and flow (which could also be Eb and Flo . . . see unfortunate choices below). George, for example, was far more popular around the beginning of the 20th century than toward the end-yet it’s coming around again, perhaps in part due to the popularity of George Clooney. Sometimes a classic name just fits the bill. The hero in the book I’m currently revising is named Henry, which was my father’s middle name. There was a time I couldn’t imagine naming one of my heroes something so outdated-and yet here I am, convinced it absolutely fits my hero and his metamorphosis from stodgy banker to a man who is willing to rush into a burning building to save the woman he loves.

Here are a few tips I’ve used for choosing the perfect character name:

Go through the alphabet for your cast of characters; don’t choose two that start with the same letter. Try varying the length and rhythms as well.

Readers like knowing how to pronounce names the way they’re meant to be pronounced, though I always tell people however they pronounce it is right. The characters live in the reader’s mind, and become theirs.

Remember any name can live up to an appealing character, so don’t limit yourself to the tried and true. Think Bubba Watson here. Perhaps even Bertha can be redeemed in the hands of a gifted writer.

Look online for the meaning behind the names and choose one that fits your character’s journey.

Look online for the right ethnic heritage, popularity by decade or era, or for nickname derivatives.

Be aware of unfortunate usage or interpretation, unless you’re in control of that meaning. I once worked in a Personnel Department and often came across unfortunate names: Eternal Pitts and Getta Wallet, to name a couple. Then there are ones I’ve seen online: Paige Turner or Stan Still. Ken Follet used this kind of thing to his advantage when he named one of his Fall of Giants characters William Williams, called Billy Twice.

Consider how the full name sounds aloud. Does the last syllable of the first name disappear into the first syllable of the last name? Example: Pete Tate sounds like Peteate.

Consider googling the name you choose, just to make sure it hasn’t been lurking in your subconscious but is really someone you may have heard of in the media.

Roses may still smell as sweet called by anything else, but we must admit the flower certainly lives up to the name we know. Our characters can grow into the names we give them if we draw them well.

Suggested Links:

Names by ethnicity: http://www.top100-babynames.net/ethnic-names.html

By decades/states: http://www.ssa.gov/oact/babynames/

By meaning: http://www.behindthename.com/

Nicknames: http://www.cslib.org/nickname.htm (classic/historical)
http://www.squidoo.com/cuteandfunnynicknames (contemporary)

Maureen Lang writes stories inspired by a love of history and romance. Always an avid reader, at the age of ten she figured out a way to write the stories she feels like reading. Maureen lives in the Chicago area with her husband, children and Labrador retriever. Her newest book: Bees In The Butterfly Garden, releases in June from Tyndale.

Comments 0

  1. I worked in a doctor’s office and was astonished when Precious Butler was a 40 y/o black male who weighed about 300 pounds.

    Thanks for the name links as this is something I’m working on for myself.

  2. Oh, my, now that’s a name! Perhaps Precious’s parents were going for the lesson-learned-via-forced-toughness as in that old Johnny Cash song “A Boy Named Sue.”
    Glad you found the links helpful, Mary!

  3. Great post. Educational and entertaining.

    In real life I knew a Sandy Lane, and a Meadow Bloom.

    I also know a Wassilie Wassilie. The Russian version of Basil is Wassilie (or Wassie for a nickname, and it’s not uncommon for Native Alaskans to be named for Saint Basil. But Wassie Wassilie was a bit much, I thought.

    I have met two people who are going to have characters named after them in one of my books: Madigan McGillicuddy and Deacon Delkitty.

  4. I have a few friends who are NICU nurses, they met a nice little baby girl named Abcde. My sister had a robe wearing little boy in her pre-school class named Yoda. She and all the other teachers HAD to keep a straight face. Poor kid, he’d be 25 by now.

    In my MS, my Navajo hero loses his whole family and changes his name to ‘Ta-gaid’, which is Navajo for “without”. He goes by ‘Tag’, simple and catchy. But always check carefully when using names in other languages.

    I bet very few people bugged Precious, until Lord of the Ring came out.

  5. Oh, my, how many interesting names can there be out there? Wassie Wassilie does have a nice ring to it, though – like an Italian girl I once worked with, Giovanna Giovaninni – who inspired one of the minor characters in my WIP.

    And I wonder what they call Abcde for short? I think that’s the most unusual name I’ve heard of so far!

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