What’s in a Name?

ACFWAdvice, Authors and writing, Characters, Encouragement, writing 3 Comments

by Janice Cantore

This might be a rambling blog post. I’m not sure if every writer struggles with this subject like I do. I’ve written 14 books and I think I’ve struggled with this at some level with every single one. How do you pick names for your characters?

I write suspense fiction, plot driven, not character driven, still, in my mind a name says a lot about the character, and in some ways, sets the tone for the character, adding or subtracting from their likability. The name should just fit and sound right. If the person is strong or weak, something in the name should indicate personality. Main character names are the easiest to choose. I begin with them and the story world setting. I need to have a good feeling for the names I’ve picked by the time I have a couple of chapters down. The supporting cast is more difficult. The antagonist is especially challenging for me. A villainous tag could give away the ending if I’m not careful. Good names are a part of the total package that makes a book a satisfying read.

I divide names into three categories. First, names of people I know, second, generational names, or names common when my character was born, and last, cryptic, unique names.

Using names of people I know is problematic because if the person reads the book they’ll think it’s them – quite a problem if the character is a serial killer or a homicidal maniac. And some people I’m acquainted with I wouldn’t want to think about if I had to write their name over and over. I have used names of friends and or co-workers, one friend entered a contest and won the prize which was to be named in one of my novels. I wrote the character to be her, and it was fun for both of us. And in one book I named a 911 dispatcher after a friend who was a 911 dispatcher, and that too was great fun for both of us. But I don’t often use names of people I know.

The second category, generational names works the best for me. It’s easy to look up what names were most popular for any given year. Most of this has to do with how the name sounds to my ear when I’m writing and picturing the character in my mind’s eye. And it’s all totally subjective, I have to hope the name affects my reader the same way. To me, a Drucilla would look different then a Hayley, in age and type. Choosing a name for the best friend, I’d want a pleasant name, the co-worker who is a pest would be a different sounding name. (Does anyone else stress about stuff like this?)

Category three is the place I go to the least. Cryptic and unique names often do not work at all. Readers have told me that it’s a turn off if a name is difficult to pronounce or has odd spelling. I somewhat agree. I don’t like reading and getting hung up on how a name would be pronounced. Of course, sometimes a unique name would work perfectly, so I never cross this off my list.

Is this much ado about nothing? I could also go on about naming too many characters, but that would be for another post. Bottom line, for me, naming characters correctly helps make the story better, more solid, and easier for the reader to picture, facilitating the slide into the fictional world. Hopefully they close the book saying, ‘that was a satisfying read’.

A former Long Beach, California, police officer of twenty-two years, Janice Cantore now writes suspense novels designed to keep readers engrossed and leave them inspired. She lives near the Gulf Coast in Florida. She loves swimming, bike riding, golf, and walking her dogs, Abbie and Tilly.

Comments 3

  1. Hi Janice–
    I struggle with this. First, I like naming characters after family members (the good guys). My son, Tony’s name, became Tonio for a twist. Then, I check historical records, especially for surnames and their ancestral meanings. When I can’t make decisions on those, I’ve even drawn lots. p.s. Thank you for all those amazing stories–can’t wait to get “One Final Target”!

  2. This!
    I struggle so much with names – especially for supporting characters. The other day I wrote an entire scene and had blanks for the names. I just had to get the scene down and still hadn’t figured what names would work for these people.
    So now that scene looks like a redacted legal document….

  3. This is so true—names make such a difference. A character in my eighteenth-century historical novel completely changed when I switched his name from Asa to Caleb. I’ve found interesting names on lists of petition signatures or other public records. (Not every guy in the 1700s was named William, John, or James, apparently—I have an Ayen and a Rane based on historical documentation.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *