Naming Your Characters by Serena Tatti


We spend hours worrying about our hero's motivation, days fretting over our heroine's conflict. Is the emotional tension shown and not told? 

The psychology of creating characters is of primary concern. Will the setting complement the story? Was the emotional weight of the scene suitably changed so that the POV shift worked? Were the usual clichés avoided? Do the characters' names suit the characters/setting/plot? Perhaps the latter is not the most important point on your agenda, but naming your characters should not be taken lightly.

What does it matter whether you call your hero Bill or George or Rafe? Personally, Bill is low on my favourites list, George lower still, but Rafe is the lowest possible. It's a name that grates on me. Can't help it. If I pick up a book with Rafe as a character will I enjoy it? Off the top of my head I can think of one that I loved, but several others that I didn't even bother to finish. So if a name can affect me that  way, it will more than likely influence other readers as well.

So, how does one choose a name? Here are the secrets of the members of the Melbourne Romance Writers Guild.

Keri Arthur likes traditional names for her men, saving the more outlandish–and sometimes masculine sounding names–for her heroines. In Dancing with the Devil, the hero Michael is matched with a heroine named Nikki. In Spooks, she has Gabriel and Sam. In Circle of Death, there's Doyle and Kirby. A lot of her hero's are named after actors she likes, but she often uses the birth section of the Herald-Sun as well as a baby name book.

Sarma Burdeu doesn't have a magic formula for choosing names. Simply, she chooses names that  sound nice/suitable for the character. In her current novel she chose Dayna as her heroine, probably because she wanted something short but strong. The hero, Saxon, is also a strong name, and at the same time a bit different. She has already named the heroine in her next novel. Eden is the daughter of hippies, a free spirit, and appropriately a lot of the story centres around her garden. The hero is as yet unnamed. Hopefully it will come to her when she starts writing it. Sarma's very first idea for a story had a heroine named Melody. Her mother wanted a pretty name for her daughter because their life wasn't very good. The hero was going to be Saxon, but Sarma liked the name so used it in her work in progress instead.

Josie Caporetto usually keeps records of names that she has heard and liked. Often when she likes a name a character comes to mind that seems to fit. Then she searches for the right surname. Both heroine and hero must have names the compliment each other.

Zelma Falkiner began writing her heroine, Nikki, but the story wouldn't flow. She tried to work out why and it finally came to her–the name wasn't right for the character. Zelma said it was a very nebulous thing, more like a feeling, but when she changed the name to Kate the story took off. Zelma's current WIP is set in Scotland. In naming the heroine she imagined what a domestic would call her daughter, a girl who would now be in her middle thirties. Another consideration–what were the popular names of the time? It couldn't be a name that would be used in the "big" house such as Sarah. Jennifer seemed to suit, and her mother always called her Jenny. In the story, when the daughter married into the upper crust, she always called herself Jennifer, never Jenny.

Joan Hunt takes an original approach. Her first consideration is that all the heroines and heroes have opposite initials e.g. in her recently published book–Mystery at Bluff Cottage–the heroine is Penny Lawson, the hero Lance Patrick. The same pattern applies to her earlier books too. Joan tries to choose short 'classic' names e.g. Eve, Anna, Paula, Kate, Jane, Sam, Dan, Andrew. Twice she's chosen family surnames for her heroes because it fits the story e.g. Symon and Beau(mont). In Shadows Across the Water she used a name for her hero which sheÕd heard on the radio. It grabbed her–Nat Buchanan–and she knew she had to use it. According to Joan, he's turned out to be her 'nicest' hero. S.T's note: Most of us will now be rushing to check the names in Joan'sMy Weekly novellas.

Joan Kilby usually has a stronger feeling for one of the characters, either the hero or heroine. She chooses that name, then picks a name for the other character which will complement the first. She likes strong names for the hero but not too macho. Unusual names are okay, but nothing too
exotic. The characters should seem like "real" people, accessible to the reader. Sometimes she uses favourite names she has liked for a long time e.g. Karina in A Father's Place. Joan flips through a baby name book until something strikes her fancy and seems to fit the character as she envisages him/her, or the story. Often the names have a lot of meaning for her. In her January 2001 book The Second Promise she named the heroine Maeve because it's unusual (she's a little unusual in the way she works) and strong (there was an Irish queen named Maeve). It was also appropriate because the name Eve is incorporated into Maeve, a reference to the fact that she's a gardener and creates a garden of Paradise for the hero. Her last name is Arden, rhyming with garden, and conjures up the word "ardent". In The Cattleman's Bride Joan chose the names Sarah and Luke because they seem to her to be traditional and pioneer-like, almost biblical, which suited the feeling she wanted to convey in the story. In Spencer's Child she named the hero first because she's always liked the name Spencer (she had a crush on a guy named Spencer in her younger days). Then as the story grew, she found she could extend the name to his son and incorporated the names into the plot. Last names are often taken from the authors of whatever books happen to be on the shelf above her computer. At times, Joan has resorted to the telephone book. Of course whatever she chooses has to sound right with the first name. Joan always watches the credits of movies and take note of any interesting sounding names, being careful to mix and match, so as not to put someone real in her book. There are exceptions to this random picking, of course. She gave Luke the last name of Sampson to convey a feeling of strength, again that's biblical.

Iris Leach gets some of her names from the credits of movies. She also glances through the telephone book–last names come up good as first names i.e. Taylor, McKenzie, etc. That's where she came up with unusual names for some of the characters in her two e-books: Melisande, McKenzie, and Brecon. Iris admits that during the course of her book, she'll willingly change the name of her characters if suddenly they don't suit the character. She nearly changed Brecon when she read a line in No Good Without You that said, "What do you reckon, Brecon?" Loving the name Brecon, she compromised and changed 'reckon' to 'think'.

Gabrielle Luthy–I've been fascinated with names since I was a kid and my mom told me she and my father argued over what to call me. She wanted Gabrielle, he wanted Megan. We know who won, but the story isn't in that. It's this: a few years later, she met up with her first boyfriend, who now had 2 daughters–Megan and Gabrielle. It's very important for me to have the right names for my characters, but I'm past the stage where I won't write until I get the right name. If it doesn't come to me immediately (most times it does), then I'll start with the 'wrong' name and come back to it later. In my latest ms, my heroine was originally called Rachel, until I remembered her mother had been a San Francisco flower child, so it seemed right for her to be called Ruby (Ruby Tuesday Oliver) and for her to hate it. That highlighted to me how important your character's parents are in this equation. Not so much the surname, because that's inherited (although there could be a story in them changing it) but the names they chose for their children. In You And No Other, my hero has a French mother and Arab father, so they chose names of Arab origins that didn't sound overtly Arab–Jed, Xavier, etc. This was important for the plot, too, considering the heroine married the hero without knowing his background. That's why it took me sometime to decide his surname. Usually, a character's surname comes straight to me, or I go flipping through the phonebook until I find a good match. If you're writing foreign characters, I suggest looking beyond the first name you think of (not every Frenchman is called Pierre! There are much more gorgeous names (Laurent, Sylvain, etc) and to be aware of the diminutives. I've written 2 Russian heroes, and found their various nickname protocols a lot of fun. For instance, I had Mikhail–Misha to his friends, and Mishka to the heroine. Digging a little deeper into that helped me with the cultural differences, too. I usually find I have less trouble naming the hero than the heroine, which may be because I use real people (actors, etc, if they can be called real) and appropriate their names. I'm using Ben Affleck this time, so the hero's 'Ben'. But it so suits him and his namesake, because for some reason I think that name should only be used on men with dark hair and eyes. Names paint pictures for me, which is why I'll never use names like Rafe/Raphael, Ridge, Thorn, etc. To me, any name overtly masculine or feminine belongs to a soap character. I did use Beau once. What can I say? I was 13, so I think I should be forgiven for that one. (Mind you, I won't be using Cyril any time soon, and I can't see me using a male-sounding name for a female character. It doesn't appeal to me–yet.) And it says something that I still remember Joan Collins' character's name years after Dynasty was cancelled: Alexis Morrell Carrington Colby Dexter. It has rhythm and–like the character–attitude. Other sources: baby naming books. I'm not looking for anything different or special or strange–just something that fits. And sometimes I've had whole book ideas based on a character's name popping into my head. Coming one day to a bookstore near you (hopefully): The Adventures of Honey Beaudine. With a name like that, you know she's trouble! (By the way, my name means 'strong woman of God', and I believe I live up to that on a daily basis.)

Ria McMahon's characters' names emerge from her character concept i.e. a professional person from a wealthy background would have a family name, or a traditional type of name, and if one doesn't come to mind, she looks through her book of baby names until something resonates. Having begun with a name however, she has been known to discover one that she felt suited the character better, and changed it. Once, after reading part of the manuscript aloud, she decided that although she liked the name on the page, she didn't like the sound of it.

Elvina Payet uses a baby name book and a list of preferred first names. When it comes time to name characters, she tries to mentally picture them and picks from the list. For surnames Elvina chooses words/nouns and "throws" them together. "A haphazard method," she says, "but it works for me."

Marylou Phillips quoted several authors including Kathryn Falk who suggests that names which start with harsh consonants hint at strength and perseverance, while softer names suggest a more gentle personality. The way one character addresses another can quickly establish the relationship between the two so nicknames may be useful. Several characters sporting names beginning or ending with the same letter can be confusing. From Jennifer Bacia, Marylou quotes, "A first name capable of abbreviation should still sit well with the chosen surname. Otherwise Gerald Perry will end up as Gerry Perry!" Avoid names ending in 's' as this can cause problems with the possessive e.g. Marcus's kiss. Be aware of age and class i.e. 60-year-old woman would more likely be an Edna or Joan than a Sharon or Tracey, while her upper-middle-class counterpart might be a Julia or Elizabeth. If using an ethnic name, choose one that's easy to pronounce i.e. Klaus Bergmann is a better choice than Gunther Schonenberger. Check dictionary in case you've chosen a surname that in translation means Widebottom! Avoid names with unpleasant connotations e.g. Valdez. If one idiosyncrasy can identify a particular character and no other, make this a part of your intro of the man or woman at first sight. Marylou follows most of the above and has often changed names because they didnÕt fit the character after she started the writing.

Patricia Prendergast says her characters' names just spring into her head, usually before she knows what they are going to be like or going to do. Sometimes the names just appear because they suit the character so well. In Blue Haze, Tiger was named from the very first few lines. The same with Bella, the heroine. She knew instantly the names were right for the characters. Patricia rarely change names once she's set them, though she did change her hero's name in White Cloverfrom Jamie to Andrew on the advice of her editor. She reminded Patricia that Jamie was Gabaldon's hero in her Time Travel epics and wanted to avoid similarities.

Melissa Robbie uses names of people she either knows or has looked up in her book of names. (The Guiness Book of Names by Leslie Dunkling, 1995, 7th edition Guiness Publishing) The book lists popular names by era as well as discussing historical and cross-cultural trends in naming, such as Flower names for girls in Victorian times, or the Doomsday Book. It includes derivations for a large number of names, origin, original meaning, and famous owner of the name. Picking names for Regencies is hard because it must appeal to a modern ear, yet be of the time and also be correct for the social class of the person. The latter is especially tricky! It's very important to Melissa to have a name, the right name, to help visualize the character in her mind. Uncertainty about the name of course may reflect her uncertainty about who she wants the character to be!

Laura Thomson chooses names that sound right for the character. Scientific, huh? (Laura's comment) She doesn't use naming books mostly because she hates unrealistic character names. Give her Tom, Dick, and Harry any day. The exception would be if she were trying to write about a character from another culture. She can't name major characters with the same names as anyone she's disliked. This does not apply to minor characters, particularly if a piano is going to fall on them at some stage. So watch out for characters that get killed off. I'll be particularly wary if her name is Serena.

Barbara Warren's characters seem to name themselves. Once she gets an idea for a short story, novel, or whatever, she finds that without even thinking she has typed a name. In her current WIP her heroine Marnie just appeared and soon after Kieron arrived to complement her. Invariably Barbaragives a male character she doesn't like the name of Roger. She knew a Roger years ago and couldn't stand him! So we'll keep an eye out for Roger, and we'll know she dislikes that character. No secrets around here.

Naomi Walton tries to match up the sound of the name to the type of character. Villains are given names that sound evil, while a hero might be given the name of someone she knows or has met and she thinks is nice. She suggests that if you use foreign names, make sure they are spelt correctly, and if writing a historical or Regency the names must be suitable for the time period. Sometimes Naomi will pick a name by its meaning.


Lastly, I (Serena Tatti) mostly pick heroine's names that sound feminine and pretty, names that I would have named my own daughter if I'd had one (Alida, Julie, Veronica, Loredana, Belinda, Isabella, Jordana, and Chiara.) Hero's names have to sound masculine, but I don't like anything too unusual. I very much stick to the traditional or strong, whether in English (Rick, Roman, Damon), Italian (Paolo, Roberto, Michele, Stefano) or French (Jean-Luc). One thing I avoid is using the names of people I know because I have several friends who want to guess who I model my characters after–and won't believe all my characters are fictitious. The exception to this was writing a book with each of my sons as the heroes.

So, we're a wide and varied group, and each of us has her own way of naming characters. Our techniques vary, some unique, others straightforward. If the number of members selling stories is anything to go by, we're on the right track! (And we hope some of it rubs off on all the others.)
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