A Mary by Any Other Name Can Also be a Rose

Naming characters is an important part of the writing process. You always want to give your character just the right name, not too outlandish and not too plain. It can't be that far off from naming a new baby.

This is something I thought about long before I was published, when my writing was still in the note-taking stage. (I always knew that one day there'd be a book with my name on it.) When I heard a name I really liked a made a note of it for future use. I wasn't worried about using the name of a real person. Names aren't copyrighted. There are plenty of people out there who have identical names, including famous people. Does anyone really think that there's only one Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, or Michael Douglas? What about names of politicians, like John Kennedy (although not always with the "F") and George Bush? Of course not.

I heard the name Spencer Barnes in a minor Charles Grodin/Jim Belushi movie about stolen identity and gave that name to my very first hero in At Long Last Love. Other names from my list followed, like Austin Hughes (hero of Love Affair) and Schuyler "Skye" Audsley (From This Day Forward). I'm not even sure where I encountered these people, but their names lingered. I'm using another of the names I've compiled, Tanis Montgomery, for a character in my WIP. I heard that name being paged while shopping at a department store years ago and said, Hmmmmmmm, gotta write that one down.

But another character in this same book is called Beverline Wilson, the maiden name of one of my paternal great-aunts. This brings me to another source for names: my circle of family and friends. Hilton White, the hero of my novel A Love of Her Own, was named after the deceased father of my best friend from childhood (to whom I am still close after 40+ years.) I thought it was a nice tribute to a man who constantly included me in their family outings like I was his fourth child, and his family (from whom I'd received permission) was tickled.

In that same book I named grandparents Eva Mae and Wilburn, the names of my own maternal grandparents. I was trying to come up with a name for a drug-abusing neglectful mother when my friend Glenda called me. Guess what I called the character? I did redeem myself by assigning that same name to a more respectul character in my fourth novel, the romantic comedy Prelude to a Kiss. Speaking of Prelude, the plot of that story involved my heroine going on a series of disastrous dates that usually ended up with a trip to the ER, where the hero worked. I named the unfortunate gentlemen Gary, Gordon, Bernard, and Thomas, after two of my brothers, my husband, and my brother-in-law. Tee-hee.

I've used the names of people I know who are living for more prominent characters as well. The name Cornelia Hatchet, heroine of From This Day Forward, was borrowed from the maiden name of my husband's former mother-in-law, who is one of my biggest cheerleaders. I even applied her nickname, "Hatch," to my heroine. (Of course, I call her Mrs. [Married Name], not Hatch.)

Writers and aspiring writers, how do you choose names for your characters?


Patricia W. said...

I pause and let the name come to me. I roll each name that pops into my head around to see if it sticks. If it does, that's the name.

JC Martin said...

The names I come up with come from the names I came up with when I was pregnant with my kids. I even have a character who has my middle name as her first name and the country I was born in as her last name. I also use names of people I went to school with. If they stood out in my mind for any reason at all, I jot their names down and wait until I have the perfect story for them.

I often wondered what would a family member think if I named a character after one of them. Granted I'm not published as yet, and don't know when I'll be, but still I don't want them to be angry.

shelia said...

When I hear a name that stands out to me, I write it down in my journal for future use. I've been introduced to people with names that demand their own story and depending on the person, I may tell them I like their name and I might use it in a story one day. My cousin's name is Nicolette and I used her name for my lead character in My Invisible Husband. In a book that I'm working on now, my little cousin's name is Jasmine and one of the main character's name is Jasmin. I've even used ex-boyfriends names as character names (some flattering and some not so flattering roles...shh but don't tell them).

shelia said...

jc martin, I've found family members and friends are thrilled to have their names in print..one of my friends asked me to use her name and she didn't mind if she was the bad girl...lol (note: she's a very nice person in real life). I've used her name as the sister to one of my main characters and she was thrilled.

bettye griffin said...

Patricia, JC, Shelia, thanks for posting! JC, I'd add to Shelia's comment that if you're using the full name of someone (even if the character has the disposition of an angel), to get their permission, preferably in writing. Using first names only is not a big deal - nobody owns a patent on a name.