Monday, March 28, 2011

What's in a name?

By Pamela

Finding Grandpa Hamming's name on the wall at Ellis Island.
When the time came to decide on a baby name--actually three times for us--my husband and I put a lot of time and thought into the task at hand. Our firstborn was named Jacob after my great-grandfather, who was from Holland (although we stuck with the hard J pronunciation and not the Y plus the throaty ACH-sound the Dutch use for A). When his brother came along, a little more discussion ensued. I wanted to name him Wilson for my mother's family, but we weren't sure how he would like it, so my husband proposed Benjamin instead.  "It's a good golfing name ... Ben Hogan ... Ben Crenshaw," he argued. (Plus Tim Allen's show was popular then, and it was hard not to think about neighbor Wilson with his creepy over-the-fence voyeurism.) And so, second son was christened Benjamin Wilson.

Fast forward about nine years and along came our daughter. By then the boys were old enough to add in their two-cents, and so she was named Amelia Marie (after my sister Amy Marie and Amelia Earhart, both great role models), but called Mia much of time after Mia Hamm--at her brother's insistence. (He's still not over the fact that she doesn't seem to care for soccer.)

Naming the children took a lot of thought. Would Mia be too cutesy as an adult? Yes, I thought, and therefore insisted the name on her birth certificate be Amelia, so she had options later. Could I have named either of my sons Carl or Don or Mark? Not after a former boyfriend! And there are other names I have very strong emotions tied to, people I've known who have forever flavored the way a name tastes on my tongue.

Naming a character in a book should be a simple process, right? Hardly! Your characters will live on forever in your mind and hopefully forever on the pages of your book, so their names have to fit them to a T. It would be nice if you could give them names that almost become branded (think Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird or Skeeter in The Help); names that will conjure up images whenever anyone says them aloud.

But you also have to think about how a name is pronounced. Julie ran into this recently with a character she had named in her story. After handing out some drafts to first readers, she realized her main character's name was being pronounced three different ways. Not a problem, maybe, since it's a book, but what happens when she's at an event and mentions the name aloud--the way she meant for it to sound--and someone in the crowd realizes she's been hearing it differently in her mind. Or when the audio book is recorded and the name sounds different than a reader might have originally thought it did.

I told Julie about the time I picked up Lisey's Story, by Stephen King, and had it in my mind I was going to read about Lisey (Lye-see). Then on page one, King tells me her name rhymes with Cee-Cee. No, it doesn't, I thought. From then on, as I read the book, it tripped me up. I caught myself hearing "Lye-see" and then mentally correcting myself that it was really "Lee-Cee" and I ended up setting the book aside. Weird? Maybe, but for me it annoyed me too much.

Which might be good reason for me to not read fantasy. Authors make up names like Oorfene and Meriadoc Brandybuck and either don't care if we know how they're pronounced or assume we can hear them read as they do.

But a character's name is important and you, the author, get both the privilege of naming rights and the responsibility of making his or her name suit the character. I can't imagine Scout having been a Lacey or Skeeter having been a Wilma. Not that there's anything wrong with either--they just wouldn't have suited their characters' personalities.

If you want an American name that's suited to the era in which you are writing, a great source is the Social Security Administration's website. Type in the year the character might have been born, and then choose how many you want to see. If you want a common name, pick from the top ten. Looking for something a little more obscure, yet timely? Then you can set your search to include the top 1000 and choose a name from the bottom of the list.

Make sure you give some thought to your characters' names and avoid choosing something too similar to someone you know. We all base characters on people who have crossed our paths, but it's best to leave  them wondering than for someone to find his or her name (or a slight variation of) repeated in your novel.


  1. I made the mistake in my first book of naming my antagonist after an ex-boyfriend. That didn't last long.

    I've found a great way to name characters is sometimes by linage. If they're Irish - find an a strong Irish American name. So far it's worked out well for me. Main characters somehow get named after what they stand for in life, as if they're living up to their name. Strange I know. (Hugs)Indigo

  2. I always have trouble with naming characters. I get part of the way through writing and have to "file a name change." I did make the mistake of naming a character a name I would have one day used for a child... unfortunately, that name is no longer in the running for a future child.

    <>< Katie

  3. Wouldn't it be great if the social security office could break the names down according to region? I have a character who fought in World War II as a teenager and he's from Kentucky. I'm sure the names of babies in the 1920s in Kentucky were much different from the names of babies in New York City.

  4. Indigo, thanks for stopping in. Your idea for naming characters for what they stand for doesn't sound strange at all. I like it!

    And Katie, in my WIP, I have two characters with names I considered for my daughter.

    Paulita, I was curious if I could find a list of names specific to Kentucky and had luck via From there you can click on the list of census records by county. You're right, I think, to assume the names in Kentucky to be unique ... Earnest, Willard, Lester, Lucias, Welby... I'm going to have to write some of those down. And Zenis, Zoina and Rinir for women? Pretty unusual!


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