What’s in a Name

This is Penny. We didn’t change her name when we adopted her because it fit her perfectly.  When you find that name that fits your characters… You just know you have a winning name.

Someone recently asked me how I come up with the names for my characters. This got me to thinking about exactly how I did come up with their names. I was surprised to discover I actually have a method that I didn’t realize I even used. I also realized how much I use the character’s name as a nuance of characterization. Not every character falls into these methods, but here’s how I came up with some of my heroes’/heroines’/villains’ names. And yes, I use a baby naming book that I used for my children, and also three great websites, which I listed below.

Does the character stand or symbolize for something? For instance, Grace, in A Hunter’s Angel, symbolizes forgiveness or grace. She’s the angel alluded to in the title.

What does the name mean? How can the meaning of a name show a bit of characterization? I probably use this method the most. For example, Ian in A Hunter’s Angel is a 438-year-old Irish vampire vampire hunter. Ian isn’t just a good Irish name. It’s Gaelic for John and it means “God is forgiving” which is exactly what Ian is looking for—God’s forgiveness.

I also did this when I was searching for the name of the heroine of Butterfly, a story of self discovery and letting go of the past. Charlotte means “freeman” which essentially is what Charli wants to be from her past. She also frees the hero from his.

How does the character see his/herself? For the heroine of The Hardest Words to Say, I chose to focus on an attribute to come up with her name. She has a low self-esteem about her looks, which caused her to make some bad decisions in the past. She’s tall and lanky with, what she considers generic looks. So, I wanted a generic name and came up with Tracy.

Where do the characters live and how old are they? I use this method most of my characters, I chose a name that I think will fit the character’s profession, his/her age and where they are from. For my Texans, Seth (The Long Road Home), Dylan (Butterfly) and Zack (The Hardest Words to Say), I chose their names because they seemed to fit them as people. Seth is a country singer, Dylan and Zack are soldiers-turned-cowboys. For the villains, I took in the above factors and then chose names that would make good villain names without sounding too villainy. Hence, Shane (A Hunter’s Angel), Tammy Jo (The Long Road Home), Leon (Butterfly) and Jake (The Hardest Words to Say).

I’ll admit, when it comes to last names, I usually pick whatever comes to mind. Although in The Long Road Home, I deliberately chose Kendall because there were country singers in the past with this name. It’s the same reason I chose the last name of Harris for Seth’s mother. I try to choose a name that fits the character’s ethnicity and background. The last method I use to pick a last name is in tribute of something. For example, Butterfly and The Hardest Words to Say are set in a fictional county roughly in the same place geographically as Bosque County, Texas. I chose surnames, which I felt were strong and would give the three families in the series weight. I gave tribute to the county’s history by choosing the name of Ferguson, in honor of the husband and wife governors of Texas in the late 1800s from the county. Blackwell is a tribute to the name of my plantation owning family in my very first novel. Lastly, I chose Cartwright simply because—can there be any more Western-sounding name than Cartwright?

So, how do you choose names for your characters? Do you have a method, no matter how convoluted, or do you just pick whatever seems to suit?

Some great websites I use to help come up with names:




Categories: Writing | Tags: , | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “What’s in a Name

  1. Most of the time I have a pretty darn specific idea of who my character is before they even have a name. Then I just go through name websites and pick what feels like it fits. I’ve even picked names because of their meanings too even if the name itself doesn’t really fit for me as much. There have been rare cases where I had a name first and it just happened to work well and that’s always nice. =) Of course there are names that I’ve always loved. I remember when I was younger (Jr. High and High School) and I had a list of names that I liked. I didn’t always pick from that list but it was kind of nice to have it there just in case.

  2. Have you seen the Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook? 🙂 I have to say, it’s probably one of the most valuable writing resources I’ve ever found, and this post makes me think you might just appreciate it too!

  3. D'Ann

    I did a similar post awhile back. I like names that sound western, since that’s what I write. I like authentic names to the time and place. i wouldn’t set a Thomas as a cowboy. Although I do know one, come to think of it. Hmmm…

  4. I keep a list of potential names that hook me. It’s not easy finding the right name sometimes though.

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