Friday, February 23, 2018

The Name Game

How do you come up with titles and character names? Do they change during the writing process?

by Paul D. Marks

For names I simply call up Ye Olde Name Generator (see pic). A complicated machine of many parts. I feed in the alphabet and it spits out glorious and diverse names, usually something like “Joe”.
Or I might play the name game, you know, “Shirley! Shirley, Shirley, Bo-ber-ley, bo-na-na fanna, Fo-fer-ley. fee fi mo-mer-ley, Shirley!” – Is anyone even named Shirley anymore? If I was setting something in the 1950s it might be the perfect name.

But seriously, he said in the deepest old-fashioned DJ voice he could muster, in the olden days I would look through baby naming books, at least for first names of both boys and girls. Today I look on the internet. There’s all kinds of resources there for names of various ethnicities, what names were popular in a certain year, etc., so if you have a story with a character of a certain age you can see what names were popular for boys and girls the year that character was born. Sometimes I’ll look at movie credits of different eras to get an idea as to names for various time frames.

And yes, names can sometimes change multiple times before a story is done, which is what makes the computer global change function so wonderful. Often a name will change at least once. Frequently, I don’t even have a name for a character when I start so use placeholder names. Often movie stars’ names. In a story I’m working on I used the name Joan Crawford for a character until I could come up with an appropriate name for that character. I don’t want to be slowed down by trying to think of names too early in the process.

Also, sometimes I might like a name so much I decide to hold it back for another work where I can give the character with that name more “screen time.” That also happened in the story I’m working on. I have a character and gave him a name I like a lot. It’s also a name that says a lot. Then I decided I liked the name so much I didn’t want this character to have it because he’s such a minor character who gets killed off before we really even get to know him. But because I like the name so much I’m going to change it in this story and save it for something else, where he’ll have more scenery to chew on.

I also have a character named after a real person in a real case in this same story. That name will also change before the story sees the light of day.

Some naming rules:

They shouldn’t be too hard to pronounce – you don’t want readers stumbling over them.

Don’t try too hard to be unique  – like soap opera characters that always have names like Raven Snow or Chastity Chamberfield, unless going for humor or irony.

Names can be symbolic, foreshadow things or can be ironic. In my story 51-50, the cop character, Cleaver, is purposely named after Ward Cleaver, the all-American father on Leave it to Beaver. I wanted to play against that all-American image of Ward Cleaver with a tough cop about to lose his sanity.

Names can be revenge for someone you don’t like – but be careful when doing this and disguise it well.

Names can be an homage.  In my short story Free Fall, the femme fatale is named Gloria, after film noir icon and femme fatale Gloria Grahame. In Broken Windows, the sequel to White Heat (not yet published), there is a character named Chandler – a woman cop – but we all know who that name pays homage to.  And in my story L.A. Late @ Night and my noir story Born Under a Bad Sign, there is a cop named Larry Darrell – which pays homage to Somerset Maugham’s character in The Razor’s Edge (my favorite book of all).  Not that he’s much like Maugham’s Larry Darrell, but still.

Names can give insight into the character – who they are and where they’re from – sometimes the story behind the name can give you a little extra info about the character – for example Michael Connelly’s Harry “Hieronymus” Bosch – a unique name with an interesting story behind it.

Sometimes names should break stereo types: In White Heat there is an African-American character named Warren. Someone who read the book said Warren isn’t a black name. But I named the character after a black Marine friend I’d had. Just because a character is black or Hispanic, or any other ethnicity, doesn’t mean they have to have an ethnic-sounding name.

Titles are pretty much the same. Sometimes an appropriate title just pops into my head out of the air. Sometimes it’s an overheard snatch of conversation, a well-known phrase or song title. Sometimes I just have to think about it. But again I don’t halt progress to worry about it. If I come up with titles that I think will be good for a specific project I’ll list them at the head of the story’s file. And keep adding to that list till the right one sticks. I have a file of story titles that’s something like 30 pages long. Sometimes I look at it, often I don’t have to.

I don’t have a file of character names, though I do have a handful of those jotted down in a file or two somewhere, but not as methodically organized as my title file. I tend to wing it more with character names.

Whether titles or names, as Shakespeare said, Joe Shakespeare from Queens, “Rosie Tamborello by any other name would smell just as sweet as baked ziti.”


And now for the usual BSP:

There’s a fun and interesting article on Alfred Hitchcock in the Washington Post (and other places) from Associated Press writer Hillel Italie: Alfred Hitchcock Remains an Influence on Crime Writers. It includes quotes from Linda Landrigan of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Mike Mallory, SJ Rozan, A.J. Finn, Otto Penzler.......and even me! Enjoy!

Also, my Shamus-winning novel, White Heat, is being reissued in May by Down and Out Books. It’s available for pre-order on Amazon. Here is the new cover reveal:

Check out my website:



Jacqueline Seewald said...

Since I recently did a blog entitled "The Name Game" myself, I am very interested in your blog. As always, excellent observations. When I tentatively choose a name for a novel, I put it through an Amazon search as well as a World Cataloging search. I don't want to select a title that's too common. However, it can't be so unique that readers have no clue as to the type or genre. Literary readers are snobby about mysteries generally speaking, whereas mystery readers want an indication that they are going to read a mystery. My latest title is Death Promise which is a sequel to Death Legacy, a novel that had very good reviews. I hope readers connect the two.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Jacqueline. I’m not familiar with World Cataloging. I’ll have to check that out. But I do remember when I was working on White Heat running that name through the Web and Amazon and finding, I think, only one other book with that title. And, of course, the famous Cagney movies. But now there’s something like 10, maybe more, books named White Heat. It’s crazy. And I think if readers know you and your work they’ll definitely make the connection between Death Promise and Death Legacy. I’ll also have to check out your blog of the same name. I suppose we’re not the only ones who’ve used this name :-) .

RM Greenaway said...

I guess I should know by now that we all go through the same or similar processes in writing, but it's still a pleasure to find out what we do differently and what we have in common.

I've done the same with names that are too good to waste on a character. I named a bad guy once, then ended up liking it so much I gave it to one of my protagonists instead.

The new White Heat cover looks great!

Susan C Shea said...

Oh, I love all the reasoning behind your work naming characters, Paul. I thought I was being at least reasonably attentive to the process, but you do it right. and that thing about hanging on to a great name for the perfect placement? I did do that once, myself. The villain who eventually was christened was much more deserving of a name that (at least to me) said, "dirty slime ball."

Maggie King said...

I like to use names to mislead and confuse---alternative spellings, nicknames, common names like Smith and Jones. I save the more unusual names for my recurring characters. Some of the surnames in my Hazel Rose Book group series came from the silver screen: Sarah Rubottom is named for Wade Rubottom, an art director in the 50s; Edward Dmytryk was a 40s noir director who inspired another name. Kat Berenger? Tom Berenger, of course.

As for your black Warren---if he was born before 1968, he likely would have been a Warren.

jrlindermuth said...

I keep an eye out for possible/unusual names while reading old newspapers for genealogy clients or researching for my weekly newspaper column. These are usually noted for my historical or period stories. For more contemporary names I favor baby books, the old reliable phone book and today's newspapers. In any case, the name has got to fit the character and that means sometimes there are changes during the writing stage.

Paul D. Marks said...

RM, it is interesting to see how others work. A lot of crossover, but then we also all do things our own way. And I love that you took the bad guy’s name and gave it to your protagonist. Glad you like the new White Heat cover, too.

Paul D. Marks said...

Susan, some names just scream out, “dirty slime ball,” don’t they? The amazing thing to me is that all this mess comes together and actually seems to work in the end.

Paul D. Marks said...

Maggie, I think it’s great to confuse and mislead with names. Someone with a “nice” name turns out to be a horrible person, etc. And yeah, I do the movie thing too. By the way, I knew Edward Dmytryk…a little.

As for my friend Warren, he wouldn’t have been born in 1968. No, in 1968 he was sloshing around rice paddies in Viet Nam.

Paul D. Marks said...

JR, I agree completely that the name has to fit the character and that often means it changes. That’s one of the things I love so much about the computer. It makes things like that so easy.

Kaye George said...

I DO have a file of names. I collect them from TV, newspapers, real people, magazines, and my spam file sometimes. Naming characters is one of my favorite parts of writing. Recently I had an editor make me change so many things that I told her I had to change the names of the characters because they weren't the same people I'd started out with. Sometimes, when the character is lying dead on the page, a name change will revive him. Also, I often am going for humor, so those names are very fun. Great topic!

Jackie Houchin said...

Well, I've been writing for upper elementary kids, so I can have fun with names.

My large Matthews' family has seven kids, each named in conjunction with the month they were born in. Marshall (March) Julie (July) Melody May (May) Charity June (June) April (April) Gus, short for August (August) and Deek, short for Deacon (December). I'm considering another set of twin girls born in August - Aubrey and Audrey. (One premature baby was going to be Mason (May) but arrived in a leap year February and was named Freddie for his short 6-day life.)
It's VERY fun!

Jerry Kennealy said...

For names, I often pick an actor that fits the part of the character, then look thru his acting credits, and use one of his film role names.
Jerry Kennealy

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Kaye. And I think it’s funny that a name change will help revive a character. I never thought of that way but I think you’re right.

Paul D. Marks said...

Jackie, that does sound like fun. Sometimes I come up with some funny or clever names for characters. But I end up changing them. I think it might work better for elementary kids. But it’s definitely fun trying.

Paul D. Marks said...

I like your method, Jerry. I sort of do that, too. I’ll mix and match character names from film roles or sometimes I’ll have the first/last name of a film character with the real first/last name of the actor or another actor in a film. It’s fun doing this. But in early drafts I often just use movie stars’ names as placeholders.