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Fun with Names

I love naming my characters. It’s fun to think through the millions of possibilities, picking each name for its perfect sound, its underlying meaning, the uncertainty of not knowing if someone will be insulted when I use it.

Think about Fitzwilliam Darcy, a name that fills the mind with a proud, handsome man who quietly longs for love.  If Jane Austen had named him Percival Stonestreet instead, that would have created an entirely different image. And what about the name Reyes? It just sounds hot. If Darynda had named her hero, say, Dudley instead, we wouldn’t have had the same reaction. (Not that men named Dudley can’t be sexy, too.)

popular baby names

When I’m ready to pick names, I seek lovely names for good characters. And unlovely names for bad characters. I visit the Social Security Administration’s Popular Baby Names site for names that were popular (or not) in a specific year. I use the Name Generator tool in Scrivener to make sure that my warrior’s name doesn’t actually mean donut.

I avoid names of acquaintances, especially people who might mistakenly believe I’m basing a character on them. That’s getting harder to manage, so sometimes I make up creative spellings. (Griffin–really, my character Gryphon-the-complete-and-utter-jerk is not named for you. Promise.)

The names I have most fun with are secondary characters–people who appear briefly on the page and play pivotal, positive roles. I often choose names to honor someone. Or sometimes to insert a secret that makes me smile but no one else will know.  Names like…

Eli and Peyton – I graduated from Ole Miss. The Manning family is Ole Miss royalty. One of the heroes in the I Wish series is Eli. In The Possibility of Somewhere, the hero and heroine are competing for a prestigious scholarship. The Peyton.

Cooper – I once called a minor character Mr. Cooper after an actor. I had just watched a film of Jane Eyre where Michael Fassbender played Rochester. In German, Fassbender roughly translates to Cooper. Sold.

Lacey – I named the heroine in I Wish after my grandmother, Lacey. My grandmother was a study in contrasts. She seemed so mild on the surface but underneath, she was a fiercely determined woman. In 1930, she married a man who turned out to be an abusive alcoholic. She divorced him a year later. I asked her once about the courage that must have taken. She responded: “He treated me badly, and I deserved better. It wasn’t about courage. It was about me.” Yeah. That.

Norah and Charlie – For every book/series that I write, there are always secondary characters named Norah and Charlie. The reason is bittersweet. I do this as a memorial for 2 adorable little kids the world lost too soon. Norah was a good friend’s daughter, who died at age 6. My nephew Charlie passed away at age 4. It’s a small way that I can remember them, to remind myself and their parents that we have not forgotten.

Fade to Us cover

How about you? Do you have rules for how you name characters? Know of any great websites or tools for finding names? Do you have an interesting story for how you chose a character’s name? Join us in the comments and share!

 

Elizabeth Langston is a YA romance author. Writing as Julia Day, her next book releases on February 6. Set in a summer musical theater camp, FADE TO US tells the story of a teen, her autistic stepsister, and the boy they both like–in different ways. 

 

 

 

18 responses to “Fun with Names”

  1. Michelle Parkins says:

    “…to make sure that my warrior’s name doesn’t actually mean donut.” I can’t tell you how much I laughed and I was eating M&M’s so now they’re all over my screen. Thanks! 🙂

    I have always believed in knowing the meanings of the names and I don’t choose them but just the way they sound. My warrior priestess is called Khanya, which means spear and the joke is that her mother wanted to give her a name that meant ‘spoon’so she’d grown up to be a good wife.
    In my current WIP, I’m struggling to find a decent name for my MC’s love interest so for now he’s Oliver until something hits me between the eyes

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    • Julia Day says:

      The meaning is important to me, too–even if the reader never knows.

      In a YA genie book, I mentally called the male genie “Grant” because he granted wishes. And by the time it came to release the book, he was so “Grant” in my head that the name stuck. So I made up a reason for it. He tells his master that “grant” means “great”–and that is what Grant aspires to be.

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  2. Jeanine Englert says:

    Elizabeth,

    Your post cracked me up as well…especially the hint that the despised character with the same name but different spelling isn’t really a person you dislike. I’ll have to remember that trick. 🙂

    Thanks again for the great post as I’m starting a new WIP and still trolling for some great secondary character names.

    Happy writing,

    Jeanine

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    • Julia Day says:

      I’m glad this trick could be helpful. And, seriously, Gryphon does create a different image in my mind–of a mythological creature with the head of an eagle–which worked for the book Gryphon, since he was a predator.

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  3. Jennifer Bray-Weber says:

    I’m quite meticulous about naming my characters. The name must convey their personality or have a specific meaning. The name must also move me. In my current WIP, my antihero’s name is Nix. Nix is associated with “night”, “water”, and demons and gods alike. Perfect, considering he is an immortal warrior whose elemental being is based on water and happens to be one of the Four Horsemen.
    I admit some of my secondary characters get named based on their archetypes.
    Naming can be so much fun…even if I do spend far too much time moniker researching.

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  4. I have to keep a database so I don’t reuse names all over the place. Anyone else? 🙂 I do love using names that feel inherently sexy, but at the same time I also love playing against type. In an upcoming book, I have a hero with a feminine name – and HE makes that name sexy.

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  5. Cynthia Huscroft says:

    Names can sometimes be a challenge but sometimes have used a name generator. I’ve also waited and have gone on writing until the character names themselves…:)

    Thanks for the post, Elizabeth!

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    • Julia Day says:

      Yes, that’s true too. I named a character Lydia once, but that just did not work for her personality. I changed it to Susanna–and that worked out perfectly.

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  6. God, I spent hours thinking about my names. I’ve changed names after the book is written, for something that better fits my character. It’s in the revisions that I think you really get to know them.

    Like you, I look for meaning too. I love the examples you gave. Great post!

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  7. Paula Huffman says:

    Excellent post! I,too, laughed out loud at the donut reference! And I love the idea of giving a nod to special people in your life through secondary characters or even events. In my current WIP, most of the main characters have two names–the one by which they know one another, and their real names. It’s been a challenge to find two names for each one and have both of them fit.

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    • Julia Day says:

      Wow, 2 names. It’s hard enough to settle on one!

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      • Paula Huffman says:

        Two names per character has definitely been a challenge. I still don’t have all of them settled, but for now, I don’t need them. Soon I will have to pick something, though. Better check the Social Security website!

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  8. Jo Jackson says:

    I always use http://www.behindthename.com to help me find names with meaning – if I don’t have one in mind already, of course. Great for finding names with specific cultural backgrounds and so on!

    Most of my characters are usually known by an abbreviation or nickname…think it might have something to do with the fact that I’ve always been ‘Jo’ and am only ‘Joanne’ when I’m in trouble! 😉

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  9. Rebekah Simmers says:

    Great post. I love the association between the names and things that are important to you. I find I do the same with some of my secondary characters, but I also have spelled the different. For my main WIP, which is set in medieval times, I did a lot of searching for names, or versions of ones that I liked, that were actually used at that time and in the area that it is loosely based on. I feel like it adds something to the story, just having the name “sound” right.

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    • Julia Day says:

      I have written a few historicals, and it can be interesting to make sure that you have good, authentic names without everyone in the book getting the same one.

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