Friday, August 1, 2014


What’s in a name? Do you give careful thought to the names of your characters or do you draw them out of a hat?

By Paul D. Marks

As Art can attest, it’s hard to come on Fridays since people have sometimes stolen your thunder earlier in the week. My post was called The Name Game, but now it’s redux – great minds and all of that.

I do give careful thought to my characters' names. Neither the first nor last name is chosen at random. Sometimes characters are named after friends or enemies or in homage to someone or something. Sometimes I want a “plain Jane” type of name and sometimes I want something more symbolic or allegorical. Sometimes the name just comes to me. Other times I’ll look in baby naming books or other research sources to help me figure out an appropriate name.

Even when the characters have simple names like “Johnny Jones” from one of my current works-in-progress, the name was still given a fair amount of thought. On the one hand, it’s a common, clichéd name. But that’s how it’s meant, as we don’t know the character’s real name and this is simply how the narrator refers to him. It could just as easily have been John Doe, Joe Smith, Bill Johnson or any of a hundred other common names.

Naming characters is sort of like naming children or pets. You visualize the kid’s first day of school and how the teacher will call role and mispronounce the name or what cruel nicknames the other kids will twist it into. And then pick a name you hope the kid will live up to and won’t get teased about too much. Actually this is how I ended up naming my character Duke in White Heat. Duke’s relationship with his dad is not the greatest father-son relationship. His father cruelly named him “Marion,” after John Wayne’s real first name. Not a nice thing to do to a boy and maybe that’s one of the reasons they don’t get along and certainly why Duke chose that as a nickname.

Also, when naming pets, I like to pick names that are unique and mean something to me and my wife. Something that captures their personality, but that also won’t be too hard or too embarrassing to yell out when calling them to come. You don’t want to be yelling “Here Mr. Snuggles” when your neighbor walks by. So our Rottweiler was called Bogie. And our black cats Curley and Moe. Our mostly Rottweiler, but who looked nothing like one, was Audie, after Audie Murphy. and our German Shepherd is Pepper, full name Sgt. Pepper, after the Beatles album.

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There are several “rules” I try to follow when naming characters:

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.

clip_image006Names can be symbolic, foreshadow 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 the 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 and 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. 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 and 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 wasn’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.

And character names often change in later drafts. Sometimes I just use “placeholder” names until after I get to know the characters better. Then, if I think of the perfect name later on, I can use search and replace to change it later.

Names are important and can be fun. Like the old song, The Name Game (written by Shirley Ellis – and ):

The name game!
Shirley, Shirley bo Birley Bonana fanna fo Firley
Fee fy mo Mirley, Shirley!

Lincoln, Lincoln bo Bincoln Bonana fanna fo Fincoln
Fee fy mo Mincoln, Lincoln!

Come on everybody!
I say now let's play a game
I betcha I can make a rhyme out of anybody's name
The first letter of the name, I treat it like it wasn't there
But a B or an F or an M will appear
And then I say bo add a B then I say the name and Bonana fanna and a fo
And then I say the name again with an F very plain and a fee fy and a mo
And then I say the name again with an M this time
And there isn't any name that I can't rhyme.


Meredith Cole said...

Naming characters can be challenging (except for those rare instances when a name just pops in your head and is immediately perfect!). Great advice on pronouncing. When an author has tried far too hard to come up with something strange and unique, the name can end up being a distraction.

Catriona McPherson said...

That name song is one of the weirdest bits of US pop culture to me. I heard it in a film and thought it had been written by the scriptwriter, then heard it another film and thought it was plagiarism. Finally realized it was a thing!

GBPool said...

I follow your method and it has worked for me for years. We really do put thought into our carefully crafted work. Great post.

Art Taylor said...

Actually, I'm looking forward to your story about Chastity Chamberfield....

Max Everhart said...

It was cool to hear that Gloria in 51-50 was named after a film noir actress. I, too, like to pay homage to people (friends or foes) with character names. Good insights in this one.

Sally Carpenter said...

Great post and some nifty ideas I can use in naming my characters. In my first book, most of the female characters are named for women in Beatles/Monkees songs. My character Cinnamon is homage to Barbara Bain's role in "Mission: Impossible," a classy, smart, beautiful woman. For my hero Sandy Fairfax, "fairfax" means "fair haired" and he's blond.

RJ Harlick said...

Paul, it may be the last post of the week, but certainly not the least. It's full of all sorts of terrific ideas for generating names. Great post.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, everyone, for your comments.

It’s always interesting to see what responses the questions provoke in me/us. And then to see how people respond to what we say.

Meredith, don’t we wish the name would just pop in our heads immediately more often? Sometimes I’ll labor over a name for way too long.

Catriona, but you have to admit that if you heard it on the radio you’d sing along :)

Gayle, we do put a lot of thought into our work and I think that, often, people who aren’t writers don’t realize just how hard and time-consuming it is.

Art, maybe you’d like to collaborate on the Chastity Chamberfield story.... :)

Max, it’s a great way to get revenge, but you do have to be careful to disguise them.

Glad you enjoyed it, Sally. Is one of your characters Auntie Grizelda?

And thanks, RJ, sometimes it does feel like some of the thunder was stolen earlier in the week, so good to know there’s still something to add.

Anonymous said...

ENJOYED your Friday blog and it was this morning before I read it, Paul. Naming your characters, as you have, makes them unique to the story. Extending this caring method to naming your family animals is especially thoughtful!! I think you have reduced the stress for naming story heroes and others, for me. Thanks for your post: THE NAME GAME REDUX. You gave it a personal touch and added lots of humor with the video!! ~Charlotte

Paul D. Marks said...

Hi Sharliebel, Glad you enjoyed the post and thank you for your comment.