Thursday, March 3, 2011

What's in a Name?

First: The winner of HAUNTED autographed by Joy Preble is *drum roll* RACHAEL HARRIE!


Why are names so important? To illustrate I've invited a friend over. Everyone give a warm welcome to my buddy, Igor.

Igor: Thanks, Lisa. it's nice to get out of the dungeon for a change.

Me: Tell me, Igor, have you found yourself hindered at all by your name?

Igor: Why YES, actually. No one ever knows how to pronounce it properly. Is it with a long I? Or an E sound? I get that all the time.

Me: Okay, well that is one very good thing for writers to look out for when naming our characters. Is it a name that's easy for the reader, or does it trip you up whenever you see it? But, Igor, what I really mean is... you know...

Igor: OH you mean the name change! Or course. I mean Renfield was nice, but it sounds more like a last name, and really that happened a long time ago...

Me: Another valid point. Writers sometimes have to change a characters name. I've had to do this myself. Not easy if you're attached, but doable with the proper care. But what I really mean is the negative connotation that goes with the name Igor.

Igor: *blinks*

Me: I'm so sorry! I just - I didn't mean - I-

Igor: Naw, I'm just pulling your leg! I totally get it. It isn't the most classically handsome name is it? I'm forever typecast as the dumb assistant, and that's no small part of it. But I've made my peace. I understand. Really. The world needs evil assistants. Otherwise the main bad guys would flounder. Trust me, they are so incompetent.

Me: Oh. Right. Well thank you for stopping by, Igor.

So what do we know about names?
  • They should be easy to read/understand
  • We should be at least a little flexible
  • They can give the reader a clear image of the character, so you better think it through ahead of time!
How do we go about choosing the right ones?
  • By meaning - Either one that fits the character, or something misleading and/or ironic.
  • By time frame - when does your novel take place? When was the character born? Was the name Gertrude really used then?
  • By origin - Where is the character from? What is his/her ethnicity?
  • By sound - is the name abrupt and punchy? Slippery and seductive? Bold? Does that illustrate your character?
  • By familiarity - search your memory for names that bring up certain personality types and attributes.
TIP: One place I like to search for names is Baby Names World - you can filter by gender, meaning, origin, and popularity in specific years. Handy.


  1. Nice post... I've always loved the name Sheherezade but somehow don't think it would work in any of my novels!
    I have a friend who insisted on calling Hermione from Harry Potter 'Herimone' because she'd never come across the name before and hadn't a clue how to pronounce it!

  2. That's my favorite baby naming website too.

    Naming characters is just as tough (maybe more so) than naming your kids. ;)

  3. First, congrats Rachael!

    I do pay attention to popular names of when my characters were born. Today's names are so different from even twenty years ago!

  4. Great post about names! Have you ever seen the movie Igor? Also a great movie about the character trying to break free of his name :D I know names are important in shaping a reader's perception of a character, but I decided to have a white kid named Amun with red hair and adopted Japanese parents in my book. He's still one of my favorites.

  5. Love this post, Lisa. And how creatively you wrote it! :-)

    In my first book, I had to go back and change half my characters' names, because for some odd reason, my writing partner and I had started almost all of them with "B".

  6. Suzy - that is a cool name! But yeah, hard to find the situation for it. ;)

    Stina - Finding the right name is like magic, for both kids and characters! :D

    Jill - There are a million Lisa's in my generation, but hardly any born lately. I might be destined to an old woman's name like Birtha (no offense meant to any Bertha's out there)

    Lori - That's the perfect reason to name him Amun! Nice. :D

    Susan - Thanks! And GOOD POINT - I totally forgot to mention the whole they should sound different from each other thing. I'm running into that in my WIP actually. I keep using M names for some reason! Duh.

  7. Poor Igor, I think he needs a group hug.

    Well, you know that I had to switch a main character's name, but with good reason. This one works so much better. Oh, and when we switch a name, we'd better be sure our find and replace did it right!

  8. Great insight here! I've switched names before as well--it's hard, but sometimes it needs to be done.

    Also, am I the only one who accidentally uses the same first letter for several characters' names and then realize it later and have to make changes? #moronmoments

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  9. Thanks for this! I actually just decided the other day to change the name of an important character and it is a bit daunting. Definitely going to check out Baby Name World :D

  10. Haha, Lisa--I JUST saw your comment! I'm not alone, WOOT!


  11. Julie - I'm so used to the new name, I'd forgotten! It works sooo much better now. But you're not allowed to change it again, because I really like it. And you know, my opinion counts. :P

    Angela - LOL Yes, I've had that moronic moment too! He he he. Going through it now. Debating on changing one of my MC's names because of it. So hard to do. Doh!

    Leah - Glad it was helpful! I've changed a name I loved before for an editor, but totally understood it was the right thing to do. And you know what? I'm used to the new one now, and can't imagine it any differently.

  12. I'm obsessed with the associations of a name. I kind of do what they did on the TV show Lost... name my characters after people in history. I also try and choose names that are not similar to other characters in the story (Sally, Susie, Sarah) and try to find ones that are easy to say and remember... which isn't easy to do.

    Nice post.

  13. Thanks, Austin! All good tips to consider when naming.

  14. Great thoughts on names. Naming characters is one of my favorite parts of getting ready to write something.

  15. Angie - It is one of the best parts! Creativity at its finest.

  16. Thanks for sharing the link. I'll have to check it out. My characters in my WIP have names that I happen to like. They're working out so far but once I finish my draft, I'll look back and make sure they are the right choices.

  17. Ghenet - that's really interesting! I don't know if I'd be strong enough to get to know characters by name and then go back and change them later! Good for you!

  18. fun. :) Picking just the right name for our characters is SO IMPORTANT!!

  19. Squeeeee!!! Thanks so much Lisa :)

    That's so true about names, isn't it! I had a name I loved for one of my bad guys, but it was one of those people didn't know how to pronounce, so I changed the spelling to make it easier :)



  20. Margo - often overlooked, but lots of fun!

    Rachael - :D A spelling change can be a really good way to go.

  21. Congratulations to Rachael! And thanks to Igor for helping us realize the importance of names. No hard feelings Igor. ;)

  22. I tend to make up my names. I have a huge list of names I've made up. I also work at a place that allows me access to thousands of names a day so that's helpful, too. I saw just today a set of twins: one named Bella, the other named Cullen.

    At least she didn't name him Edward. That'd be deeply disturbing.

  23. Heather - Igor has a good sense of self-esteem, no worries.

    Christi - OMG NO! Those poor children.

  24. One of the down sides of being a teacher is that certain names get "ruined" for you by negative experiences in the classroom or extreme repetition. Yikes. I remember the flood of Brittanys a few years back. Luckily, I never had a Brittany I didn't like. The upside is you hear some unique and exotic names as well.

  25. That's funny, Leslie because I've had a couple of jobs that basically managed databases filled with some pretty spectacular names. You wouldn't believe some of the things parents name their poor children. Or maybe you would.

  26. Igor. Love it. You should definitely bring him back for another interview.

  27. Margo - Igor's thrilled, at least I think that's what it means when he wiggles his eyebrows like that...

  28. I put a lot of thought into naming my characters. Often, I try to find names whose meanings correspond with their personalities in some way, but usually it's not very obvious. I think it's more for my own sake.

  29. Also, I forgot to mention, Igor is a great one to interview! He's a lot funnier than one might've expected!

  30. Carolina - so glad you stopped by! Yeah, that Igor surprises you. And if the name fits the personality, I'd say that's a good way to go. :D

  31. Great post. I find it hard to write a charcter till I get their name right. When reading I'm not a fan of names I don't know how to pronounce - I think high fantasy can be bad like that :)

    My other pet peeve is an author taking the whole of the first one or two pages to explain WHY their main character is called what they are. One or two lines is fine, but pages... drives me nuts. You'd think it's a cliche but I still see it all the time.

  32. Girl Friday - I agree with the high fantasy names. It slows me down and pulls me out of the story if I don't get it. I haven't seen the other example yet, but YES, stopping the story to explain the name would not be a good thing...

  33. What a clever post! I recently had to change my mc's name and it just about killed me. I'm used to it now, but boy was it a hard decision!

    Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse

  34. Becca - I feel your pain. ;D But it does get easier!