Authors, how do you name your characters?
The average person only has to come up with names when they are naming their children. As anyone who has enjoyed the privilege of naming children knows, this task can be fraught with difficulties. Everyone has different criteria for what they consider important: family connections, name meaning, how well it fits with other family names, how well it sounds when yelled, how common or uncommon the first name is, how many other people have the exact same first and last name combination. Some names come easily months before they are needed and others aren’t finalized until someone threatens not to let a parent leave the hospital until a form is filled out.
Naming a character can be like naming a child. While my characters don’t have a flesh and blood life to ruin if I name them poorly, I do have readers’ responses to worry about. Will the name fit the character in a way that enhances the story? Will readers hate it? Will an unknown person somewhere in the world sue if the character has their name?
Some authors have a gift for inventive naming. J. K. Rowling, for instance, takes the prize for the most-creative names, as far as I’m concerned, with Ian Fleming as a close second. For a great review of some fabulous character names, see this blog post by John Floyd, who provides lists of character names placed in categories such as light-hearted, strong, mysterious, and evil.
Lacking a flair for naming, I resort to a baby name book and Google.
In my first book, a suspense novel called All in Her Head, the main character is named Martha because of the biblical story of Martha and her sister Mary. In that story, Martha is the worrier who doesn’t sit down and relax, the one trying to get everything done for her guests. My character in the book suffers from crippling anxiety. She’s the queen of worriers facing anxiety-inducing life changes: she recently relocated to a new city to start a new job and hasn’t made any friends yet. On top of that, I made her a witness to attempted murder. The poor girl has a lot to handle, but, in spite of her mental health issues, she fights to keep her focus in the face of murderous assaults, explosions, attacks, and car accidents.
In my second novel, a medical mystery entitled For the Children’s Sake, the victim and the main protagonist are twin brothers name Ingall and Ignatius. I chose the names by their meanings. The character of Ingall is a murdered, saintly Catholic priest, while his twin Ignatius is a red-headed Chemist with a temper, who fights to solve his brother’s murder. Ignatius means fiery, ardent, which fit the character. The name Ingall I chose for alliteration with Ignatius and because it was a variant spelling of Angell, meaning angel or messenger of God, which felt appropriate for a saintly clergyman.
Sometimes, I can’t come up with a first and last name combination that I like so I delay by only calling the character by one name. In my Bad Vibes Removal Services paranormal mystery series, the main character is a history graduate student who sees ghosts and likes to try out clothing and hairdo’s from ancient civilizations. Her first name, Lea, came to me easily. However, she didn’t have a last name through multiple short stories until I finally tagged her with Saroyan.
Lea’s detective/ inventor boss was named only as Mr. Montgomery in several short stories and through the novels. I finally gave him a first name in a bonus short story at the end of the second novel, Degrees of Deceit. Since Montgomery is described as six feet tall, pushing 300 pounds, and is a force to be reckoned with who seeks justice for others, I named him Orestes. Orestes means “mountain man,” which fit my mountain of a character, and the original Greek Orestes sought justice for his father’s murder. This delaying in naming a character may be the equivalent of not officially naming your kid until he’s four years old, but at least I got there in the end.
N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a paranormal mystery series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. The second novel in the series, entitled Degrees of Deceit, came out in August 2019. Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter.